Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Attaining Justice in the Arab World, Part II: Democracy and Human Rights

The news out of the Arab world is both encouraging and discouraging. Even as we write, Moammar Gadhafi is sounding increasingly delusional as he goes down with a ship that he insists isn't sinking at all. Western experts and commentators are trying to sound encouraged about the advance of democracy. The problem is that, especially in politics, "money talks" . . . and you know what walks. The stock market has dropped significantly, the price of oil is up, and, whatever the rhetoric, it's becoming increasingly clear that many of the demonstrators, however great their sincerity, aren't completely solid on democracy. They know it's something good, but . . . .

Understanding this requires that we get back to some basics about the role of the State, and man's place in the State — and what true democracy means. According to classic liberal political philosophy, virtually the sole justification for men coming together to form States is to gain protection of property. (Locke construed "protection of property" as including life, because each of us owns his own life, and liberty, because exercising our freedoms comes under exercising our property in ourselves.) According to classic Aristotelian political philosophy, man being "political by nature," we come together to form a particular State in conformity with our own nature in order to have the proper environment within which we acquire and develop virtue, thereby becoming more fully human.

The chief means by which we acquire and develop virtue is by exercising our natural right to be an owner (the right to property), thereby securing our lives and liberty. Thus, for different reasons, liberal political philosophy and Aristotelian political philosophy agree that private property, the "natural" means by which we secure our material and political wellbeing, is essential to a just social order. When the social order is perceived as unjust, the proper response is to organize and correct the institutions that cause the injustice.


It is a truism — though none the less true for being one — that political democracy cannot survive unless built on a solid foundation of economic democracy.  Leave out the economic democracy, and you run the risk that what follows the tyranny you have just overthrown will be a worse fire than the frying out of which you just leaped.

This, in part, is what appears to have been happening in Tunisia and Egypt, with rumblings of discontent echoing everywhere on the face of the globe. With the example of an apparently successful revolution before them, oppressed people throughout the world might be tempted to have a go at rebellion themselves. It is, after all, highly unlikely that the French Revolution of 1789 would have happened if there had not been the example of the American Revolution of 1776 — itself modeled in part on the "Glorious Revolution" of 1688 — to guide and inspire the revolutionaries.

This is where the danger lies. At present, the people of Egypt believe themselves to be successful, and standing at the dawn of a new era. That is absolutely correct. The only question is whether the new era will be better, or much worse than what preceded it. The French Revolution, while ushered in to cries of "Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité," quickly became far more tyrannical and oppressive than the Bourbon kings could have imagined, much less survived for as long as they did.

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