Monday, February 28, 2011

Attaining Justice in the Arab World, Part IV: Food and Politics

Events in Libya are starting to bear a strong resemblance to those surrounding the French Revolution. There is, however, one very significant difference. The French Revolution did not result from any great sense on the part of most of the French people that they were being oppressed by the French monarchy. That came later, to justify both the revolution and the execution of Louis XVI, who (unlike Gadhafi) at least had good intentions.

Some authorities trace the root causes of the French Revolution to national financial disorder, the consequent erosion of the tax base, and a series of crop failures. People lacked jobs and were starving, and nothing the government did, for all the concern and sympathy expressed by the king and queen, seemed to have any effect.

A relatively small segment of the people rebelled, seized power, and tried to legislate prosperity. Fiat paper money replaced gold and silver, commercial banks were abolished, and inflation was rampant as the new government tried to cover its deficits by printing "assignats" and their later replacement, the "mandats," both with values that quickly inflated to nothing. Anyone seen as better off than his neighbor (i.e., industrious and productive) ran the risk of being arrested for counterrevolutionary activities, and guillotined. Order was only restored when Napoleon seized power and imposed an effective dictatorship, instituting a program of conquest, first to "extend the revolution," and then to realize his personal destiny. These events in broad outline would be repeated in Germany from 1918 to 1946.

The people in the areas affected by the spreading unrest, especially Libya, now face similar choices: 1) a religious State dictated by the Muslim Brotherhood, 2) a secular State wherein rights are nominally secured and all the outward trappings of political democracy implemented but without any provision for economic democracy, or 3) a State based on fundamental precepts of the natural moral law common to all religions, especially the natural rights to life, liberty, pursuit of happiness, and the right almost always omitted, private property. (Yes, the "Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen" mentioned property as a natural right, but significantly did not define property or offer protection in the form of a specific bill of rights. Consequently, property, like life and liberty, was continually redefined by the legislature, to the point where all three became effective nullities.)

Commentators have not been blind to the fact that what seems to have inspired the current wave of unrest isn't political oppression, per se. The Egyptian people suffered under Mubarek for three decades, and the Libyan people under Gadhafi even longer. Nor was it the outstanding injustice to a particular individual, although that certainly provided a trigger. No, taking into account the spreading financial distress, disappearance of jobs, and crop failures, the situation begins to look very much like France in the late 1780s, except now on a global scale. People are baffled, angry, and — above all — hungry and scared.

People can put up with a lot as long as they can secure the necessities of life and even a few extras. Hitler was extremely popular as a result of his securing his power base by ensuring that the average German had a job, and a modicum of luxuries. He even had a plan that would enable ordinary people to purchase automobiles. This was in sharp — and welcome — contrast to the post-World War I chaos, both economic and political, that almost destroyed Germany. The average German under Hitler had, relatively speaking, a very good material life until the very end of the war. If a few Jews, Slavs, Gypsies, Balts, and a few score other non-Aryan races had to suffer, well, that was the price that had to be paid to keep society running, just as today many people seem convinced that tax-funded abortion on demand is the price we pay for a social safety net.

Thus the Arab world — and the rest of us — faces a critical choice at this "turning point in history." Will they settle for the outward trappings of democracy in the vain hope that political freedom will be able to deliver prosperity out of the wreckage of a failed economic system? That would only ensure that the first demagogue to come along who promises to deliver change will seize power . . . and soon find himself in a worse position than whoever he replaces.

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