Democracy on the brain can be a dangerous condition. George W. Bush pursued his unwise “nation-building” policies under the assumption that, as he put it, “democracies don’t go to war with each other.” (Note: technically we’re speaking of “republics,” not democracies.) So WWI was the “war to end all wars,” and now there’s the political system to end all wars; hey, if a military solution didn’t change man’s nature, maybe a political solution will?
But it was more correct to say that democracies hadn’t yet gone to war with one another. Since Bush’s days, the representative government in Russia chose to invade Georgia and Ukraine, both of which also have representative governments. Remember, too, that we, the standard bearer for “democracy,” have launched our share of military campaigns (this isn’t to imply some weren’t justified, but it’s worth noting).
Then there was Barack Obama’s demo-folly, the so-called “Arab Spring,” which quickly devolved into the Jihadist Winter. Is Libya better off now than under Muammar Gaddafi? Was “democracy” going to give Egypt a better leader than Hosni Mubarak? Has it done so? For that matter, is Iran better off today than under the Shah?
Going back further, Woodrow Wilson asked for a declaration of war against Germany in 1917, saying the world must “be made safe for democracy.” Germany got an unstable democracy with the Weimar Republic and then descended into tyranny (as is so often the case with nations) with Hitler.
Of course, the lure of democracy is understandable; after all, having balancing powers within a nation can temper the capricious ambitions of a man. Nonetheless, democracy is sometimes just millions of people making the bad decisions slowly and inefficiently that a dictator could make with the stroke of a pen. Sometimes you’re just making the world safe for collective stupidity.
This brings us to Venezuela. It has more proven oil reserves than any other nation, eight times those of the United States. With a wiser populace — which would beget a better government — it could be as rich as Norway, which reaps the benefits of its vast natural resources. Instead, it has descended into chaos. Power has been cut and there is little food, with a hamburger “officially” selling for $170 and a hotel room for $6,900 a night. Not surprisingly, a Caracas mayor is reporting that people “are hunting dogs and cats in the streets, and pigeons in the plazas to eat.” The capital also has the world’s highest crime rate, with a resident victimized every 28 seconds.
The reason for this is no mystery. Venezuelans have stubbornly empowered vile, economy-rending socialist demagogues; the buffoonish Hugo Chavez was elected and then re-elected three times, which is akin to the Titanic backing up to hit the iceberg again. When Chavez was finally taken by cancer, Venezuelans decided to help their national cancer further metastasize and elected his ally, Nicolás Maduro. It just seems that some people hate the rich more than they love themselves.
Considering this brings to mind the rhetorical question asked by former Pakistani leader Pervez Musharraf (I’m paraphrasing): “What good is so-called democracy if Pakistan becomes a failed state?” Venezuelans’ childish electoral decisions have led to their current plight — and they need a military coup. And, hopefully, they’d get a military leader such as Musharraf.
A coup wouldn’t be a panacea. But given the phenomenon of regression to the mean (in other words, it’s hard for Venezuela to go anywhere but up right now), there’s a decent chance they’d end up with a leader who might at least have some semblance of economic literacy. As for human rights, which ostensibly also concerns U.S. officials, it’s not as if Chavez and Maduro have respected them.
And there have been relatively good military governments. After Chilean strongman General Augusto Pinochet steered his nation toward domestic tranquility and prosperity, he agreed to a restoration of representative government and peacefully stepped down in 1990. Of course, Pinochet was not a saint, and the Left despises him because he emerged from a coup that vanquished a devout socialist, Salvador Allende. But he was wise enough to consult with famed economist Milton Friedman when devising policy, and Milton beats Marx every time.
Admittedly, one big difference between Pinochet’s ascendancy (1973) and today is that the U.S. would aid such men decades ago; we understood that a pro-American, anti-communist dictator was preferable to a democratically elected Marxist or jihadist, that a decent zookeeper is better than a democracy of two lions and one sheep voting on what to have for dinner. Now Western leaders are content to create democratically made sheep as long as they’re fleeced by socialist shears.
Now, advocating autocracy here can seem remarkably un-American, especially to those who see being socialist as thoroughly American. Of course, these same people cheered when our courts repeatedly violated the Constitution and trumped popular will in striking down marriage-preservation laws. The point is that most all of us reject democratic determinations we consider grossly immoral or untenable; it’s just that not all of us know what morality is. But a larger point is that autocracy is not a moral or immoral choice, but the inevitable fate of an immoral people.
Our second president, John Adams, once observed, “The only foundation of a free constitution is pure virtue; and if this cannot be inspired into our people in a greater measure than they have it now, they may change their rulers and the forms of government, but they will not obtain a lasting liberty.”
This applies in all times and places. Now, question: how much virtue do you see in the world today? Do the populations of Afghanistan, Iraq, Venezuela, Libya and Syria — all places that many insist must have “democracy” — strike you as particularly virtuous? We so often speak of “liberty” as if it emerges in a vacuum or has no prerequisites, ignoring that morality is the fertilizer of the tree of liberty and the monster of tyranny feeds on man’s vice.
For example, George W. Bush once marketed his nation-building by saying that all people want freedom. Yet polls informing that large numbers of Muslims prefer Sharia law to Western civil law shows that they certainly don’t want our conception of freedom. Just as significantly, however, there is a difference between wanting and acquiring.
Most everyone wants wealth, but not all possess the ability and discipline to achieve it. Everyone wants health, but some still smoke and drink heavily and dig a grave with a knife and fork. And everyone wants good government, as they conceive of it, but some still glom onto demagogues who promise bread and circuses.
So people may want freedom. All right, so does a caged beast. So does a toddler. But neither has the capacity to freely negotiate civilization without hurting himself or others. The issue is that a people may want better than what they are, but they cannot be better than what they are. A person’s early life is always one of captivity and control, with the babe safely placed behind bars in a crib, with his life micromanaged and liberty curtailed by his nanny state, the parents. As he becomes civilized and his moral compass develops, he can incrementally be given more freedom and, ultimately, enjoy the full rights of adulthood. Yet if this civilizing process — which includes insulation from corruptive influences — isn’t effected properly, the person can remain morally stunted, barbaric, in a childlike state of virtue. And then he may end up back in a crib, one with iron bars and no mother’s loving embrace.
And as it is for one individual, so it is for two, ten or enough individuals to make a group — even a nation-size group. It is then, to quote British statesman Edmund Burke, that we become those men of “intemperate minds” who “cannot be free,” those men whose “passions forge their fetters.”
And this is a cautionary tale for us. Even now we have a popular presidential contender who calls himself a “democratic socialist.” And when socialism is instituted democratically, it’s a good indication that your days of making decisions democratically may be numbered.
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