Liberty and Democracy

Mark says that they're not necessarily the same thing. He cites the example of Hong Kong:

I prefer to speak of "liberty" or, as Bush says, "freedom", or, as neither of us is quite bold enough to put it, capitalism - free market, property rights, law of contract, etc. That's why Hong Kong is freer than Liberia, if less "democratic". If I had six or seven centuries to work on things, I wouldn't do it this way in Iraq or Afghanistan. But the "war on terror" is more accurately a race against time - to unwreck the Middle East before its toxins wreck South Asia, West Africa, and eventually Europe. The doom-mongers can mock Bush all they want. But they're spending so much time doing so, they've left themselves woefully uninformed on some of the fascinating subtleties of Iraqi and Afghan politics that his Administration turns out to have been rather canny about.
This seems to have reflections of the Realist school of thought. To me, it is nothing more or less than a compromise. In a debate with some people on a forum, somebody casually brought up the point of benevolent dictatorships as opposed to mob rule. It seems to me that this dichotomy is too wide.

For one thing, few if any systems of government in the world are true democracies. Since the Trial of Socrates, through Federalist Papers Number 10, and Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America, the idea of the tyranny of the majority has been a spectre haunting projects in democracy. Most modern, so-called "liberal democracies" are really republics, or reprentational democracies. This form of government was most famously pioneered by the Romans; and indeed, in reading the biographies of the American Founding Fathers, one finds an underlying respect for Roman legacy.

For another, as someone who was born in a modern "benevolent dictatorship" (I was born in the last year of the life of Chiang Kai-shek, the late ruler of the Republic of China on Taiwan), I think I can speak with some perspective about benevolent dictatorships. Moreover, I have a number of acquaintances from Singapore, which is also rather authoritarian. True, as Mark writes, there is some degree of liberty in places like that under those situations (I am proud to say that Taiwan is no longer under martial law and is a de facto republic). But just as importantly, I cannot stress enough that under these regimes, particularly in the case of Taiwan under the rule of Chiang Kai-shek, there was no political liberty whatsoever. While I was living in Taiwan, of course, I was far too young to appreciate that. But as I've become more politically aware, and as Taiwan has grown in openness, I have learned more.

When my family first moved to the United States, we had an opportunity to meet my mother's sister's friend and her daughter. My impression was simply that she was quite a pretty girl, and, being very young, I thought nothing more of that. I found out later, though, that the reason I never met her father was because he was incarcerated for political dissent. Coming from an Asian background, it didn't seem so odd that speaking out against authority was going to land one in hot water. What I found out next about her family, however, was enormous. She had had older twin sisters, but they had been killed, along with her father's mother, during a government raid. She herself had made it to the United States only by a miracle that spared her from death in the same raid, where she had received a slash in the back by a knife or some other bladed weapon.

This was all revealed to me in the political safety of the United States. And I thought it was simply because my mother's siblings tended to be very opposed to the Nationalist Party, and pro-Independence, with the exception of one uncle, who supposedly is Communist. After martial law was lifted in 1987, though, and after I was old enough to appreciate it, I discovered that one of my great-uncles had also been a Communist, except he wasn't fortunate enough to escape to the West before he was found out. He was executed, and my grandfather and his brothers were sent the bill for the bullet. I still wonder to this day if that might have impacted the political ambitions of people in my family.

The latest thing I discovered had to deal with the infamous 228 Incident of 1947. I had heard of the incident before from my mother, but had always figured it to have been an incident that was localized around the Taipei area. But during this last trip to Taiwan, as we went through a tour of southern Taiwan, my father and aunts pointed out mangrove forests, and my father related an anecdote of how locals wrapped heavy quilts around themselves to hide in the thorny mangrove forests. I didn't think much of that, until he mentioned that he'd experienced it himself when he and his mother hid from government troops scouring the area for signs of opposition.

Because of stories like this, especially contrasted with the insipid "protesters" in San Francisco who lead raucous marches screaming about how their freedom of speech was being taken away, while the police hang back and make sure no bystanders get hurt, I have grown in appreciation of the need for political liberty. These folks sometimes forget just how much liberty they actually do have.

Taiwan was more stable in the '70s and '80s. And, as a child, I suppose I never really knew what freedoms I was missing, or what "grown-ups" felt about their lack of freedoms. I suppose I was lucky that, by that time, the "benevolent dictatorship" started by Chiang Kai-shek had mellowed out, and his heir, Chiang Ching-kuo, was a gradual reformist. There are even many in Taiwan who maintain that the island's economic miracles might not have been possible if not for political restrictions resulting in the redirection of energy from politics to entrepreneurship. There is something to be said about that.

But in the end it's about principle. While we may make excuses to ourselves for supporting "benevolent dictatorships", the fact remains that the regime is a dictatorship, and thus susceptible to all the vicissitudes that may befall any authoritarian regime. And if there is no progress toward what the Russians once called glasnost and perestroika, then there is the very real, very dangerous risk, that the next heir would not be so "benevolent".

Today, the best example is probably Pakistan. General Pervez Musharraf keeps his people quiet, against their popular will, but without the excessive human rights abuses of Saudi Arabia. That it was a bloodless coup that brought him to power, rather than a bloody Bedouin overthrow the likes of which brought the al-Saud family to power in the Arabian Peninsula, speaks well for him. But how many assassination attempts will he survive before he succumbs to the dark side?

The American Founding Fathers grasped this essential truth, that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. In The Federalist Papers Number 51, James Madison writes (emphases mine) that

the great security against a gradual concentration of the several powers in the same department, consists in giving to those who administer each department the necessary constitutional means and personal motives to resist encroachments of the others. The provision for defense must in this, as in all other cases, be made commensurate to the danger of attack. Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place. It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.
We should acknowledge, of course, the relative economic well-being of the Thirteen Colonies. With a large middle class composed of yeoman farmers, merchants, and professionals, particularly in New England and the Mid-Atlantic Region, the economic development was already far enough along that a desire for self-governance became strong enough. There was also the contributing factor of a large physical distance between the governed and the government. So the example of the United States would not fit, for example, Afghanistan. But it can serve for Iraq, which also has a large middle class.

Returning to Mark's point, then: I won't begrudge him his very astute observation, but don't count me as one among those who would be sufficiently satisfied to see a people fed, clothed, and sheltered. There must ever be a drive toward greater political liberty.

[Cross-posted at Between Worlds]

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