What Democracy Means
I was listening to the BBC in the car today, and there was a segment about the release of Abdul Rahman, the Afghan who was charged with conversion away from Islam. What was striking about this particular news segment was the report on the Afghan reaction. This is not a matter of a small number of fundamentalists calling for his death; in fact, the vast majority of the country believe that he should be executed per Sharia law. One man who was interviewed was quite passionate in his defense of the Afghan constitution, which holds this Islamic law as the basic law of the land. Like many Afghans, he was displeased with what is seen as Western meddling in their government, their own affairs, their constitution, and the sovereignty of the will of their majority.
At first, I was conflicted when those sentiments streamed through the radio. After all, I support popular democracy and the rule of law, and it is clear that in this particular case, intervention on his behalf and making an exception for him was in violation of all that. But I also know that the very notion that this man was being charged with what essentially amounted to a thoughtcrime is perverse and fundamentally wrong.
That state of internal conflict lasted for only a few seconds, as this entire controversy brought into perfectly clear relief the problems of majoritarianism, or as Alexis de Tocqueville famously put it, tyranny of the majority. There are a number of historical examples of this, the most famous being the (brainwashed) majority in Germany during the Nazi era. In American history, the South's treatment of blacks and the treatment of Native Americans are all fine examples of policies that were supported by the popular majority that we know today to be wrong. This particular incident is noteworthy because it is one of the few cases of very clear-cut majoritarian abuse outside the confines of history books.
This distrust of the goodness of democracy's majority rule is also one of the reasons why I am a libertarian: the less power the majority can wield, the less damage a misguided majority can inflict. So what exactly is the purpose of a democracy, then? Last month, The Economist ran an op-ed arguing that although the Bush Administration has blundered just about every aspect of Iraq, its promotion of democracy is one thing that it does deserve praise for (even if it is the result of an Administration war justification "flip-flop"). I believe that democracy is not an end; it is only a means to an end. But is it a necessary means? I think so, but I am not entirely sure, and I certainly do not wish to dogmatically answer yes. Thus, to the extent that I think that democracy is a necessary means, I agree with the editors of The Economist. But what exactly are these ends that we are trying to accomplish with democracy? Beyond sweeping generalities such as stability, rule of law, justice, freedom, etc., I do not have a specific answer, nor do I think that anyone does. What is certain, however, is that despite the introduction of democracy, movement towards these ends--whatever they may be--is slow, if not stagnant. Democracy is not perfect and it is not a silver bullet, and our foreign policy's naïveté about this nature of democracy is a cause for concern.
This entry was edited on 2006/03/27 at 09:32:19 GMT -0500.