Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Attaining Justice in the Arab World, Part I: Enough is Enough

The long-overdue ouster of President Mubarek of Egypt is, at one and the same time, one of the most encouraging and potentially dangerous outcomes to the unrest spreading throughout the globe. As of this writing, the unrest that started in Tunisia, then spread to Egypt and the rest of the heart of the Arab world, is threatening the stability of the entire region. Even "strong man" Moammar Gadhafi's regime looks to be crumbling rapidly, and a number of others are on very shaky ground.

Trying to analyze the situation from a Just Third Way perspective, it appears that the causes of the unrest and the reason for its rapid spread fall into four broad categories. First and foremost, there is the moral outrage that people feel at decades of corruption and greed. Second, there is the demand for democracy and respect for human rights. Third, there is a growing demand that the government do something about jobs. Fourth, there is the recent rise in the cost of food as such staples as wheat and corn double and treble in price.

None of these are unimportant. It seems odd, however, that less emphasis seems to be placed on those that are most immediate, i.e., food, followed by the means by which most people obtain food: a wage system job. Respect for your fundamental rights is important, but it doesn't really mean anything unless you're alive. Cleaning up government corruption and overcoming others' greed is important, too, but — face it — if I'm reasonably well-fed, I probably don't care all that much if the king, president, prime minister, or local commissar is whooping it up at a party funded by skimming taxes that somebody else paid. I might even put up with torture and death — as long as it happens to somebody else, I have enough to eat today, and the reasonable expectation that I and my dependents will eat tomorrow. Oppressive regimes can last a long time as long as people don't get too scared or too hungry, and the system seems to be working . . . for them.

That having been said, however, the moral outrage expressed by the people is well-justified — more than justified, really. The corruption and greed shown by those in power is, frankly, sickening in a way that people in the United States cannot truly appreciate. People have put up with far too much for far too long, and enough is enough.

Therein lies the danger, however. People can only take chaos and disorder for so long before they will accept any remedy, reasonable or insane. Hitler came to power when Germany was threatened with collapse for the second time in a little over a decade. He kept power by promising a good life for the average German — and he delivered. The horrors he perpetrated were not on his own people, a lesson today's crop of dictators don't seem to appreciate.

It is essential that the people in the disrupted areas eliminate greed and corruption from the system as far as humanly possible. They must be made aware, however, that simply doing away with the greedy and the corrupt is rarely a satisfactory answer. A new system must be designed and carefully implemented to ensure what accountants call "internal controls" are in place that, while they cannot eliminate greed and corruption, make greed and corruption more obvious (transparent) when they occur, render those responsible directly accountable for their actions, and make such activities less than optimal and reward socially beneficial actions by the structuring of the institutions themselves, not externally imposed regulations or controls.

Such systems do not spring spontaneously into being on the ruins of the old, however much satisfaction we might get from hauling down the once-feared and mighty from their formerly lofty positions and destroying everything in sight that reminds us of them after we've eliminated them. Instead, the situation calls for "acts of social justice," directed at establishing a just political order founded firmly on a just economic order. Briefly summarized, the basics that must be incorporated into any new system from the start if there is to be "a decent respect for the opinions of all mankind" are:

1. A limited economic role for the State,

2. Free and open markets within a clear and understandable legal framework as the best means of determining just wages, just prices, and just profits,

3. Restoration of the rights of private property, especially in corporate equity, and

4. Widespread direct ownership of the means of production.

This last, the "fatal omission" from the system of virtually every nation on the globe, is the chief means by which people secure all other rights, including life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Without direct private ownership of capital in fact, individually or in free association with others, a person is a non-entity with no effective rights, a "masterless slave," as Aristotle put it. As William Cobbett emphasized, "Freedom is not an empty sound; it is not an abstract idea; it is not a thing that nobody can feel. It means, — and it means nothing else, — the full and quiet enjoyment of your own property. If you have not this, if this be not well secured to you, you may call yourself what you will, but you are a slave."

Own or be owned. That is the choice facing the people of the Islamic world in the days and weeks ahead.

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