Daniel Hannan worries that democracy is going out of fashion. Now that the voters of Great Britain have chosen to exit the European Union, elites are denouncing the ignorant masses for their inability to exercise rational judgment… that is, to think like the elites.
Thus, major Brexit supporter Hannan cheers for democracy, because sometimes the common people, the ones who pay the price for whatever the elites have concocted, have reason on their side. Just because you are smarter does not mean that you are right.
And yet, there are times when we fetishize democracy. Recall the freedom agenda promoted by the Bush administration. Recall the thrill everyone felt when Iraqis cast ballots in a free election. But, recall the chagrin when the Egyptian people voted for a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood and when the inhabitants of Gaza voted for Hamas.
And lest we forget, our great American Republic was not founded as a democracy. In the early days of the Republic precious few people were allowed to vote. In the first contested presidential election, in 1796 fewer than 5% of the population cast votes.
The founding fathers were worried about factionalism and they were worried about the tyranny of mobs. Besides, casting a vote is a one-off action. In a functioning democratic nation people live by the rule of law and respect the verdict of the ballot box. They treat each other with respect, courtesy and decorum. They do so every day. It takes more than a purple finger to create a functioning democracy.
One does well here to distinguish between the freedom to cast ballots and the freedom to function in the marketplace. They might seem to be the same, but they are not.
As agents working and consuming in a free market, individuals make free decisions all the time. Thereby they allow capital to be allocated more efficiently and more effectively than any central planner has ever been able to do. But, that is the rub. Free enterprise is the ultimate rebuke to central planners, but free enterprise and democracy are not necessarily the same thing. And they do not necessarily coexist.
Why would the majority of the population not vote itself an income? Why would they not vote to redistribute the wealth? It surely beats working.
In truth, it’s all about China. One notes with Hannan that the happiest countries are democratic. Among them are Norway, Australia and Switzerland. They are also relatively homogeneous. They are not brimming with diversity, as the saying goes.
And yet, China is today’s rising global superpower. Surely, it has become a model of free enterprise, but it has not allowed people very many democratic freedoms and human rights. When developing nations look around the world do they want to become more like China or more like America?
I do not know how well Chinese people rate on a happiness scale, but they have certainly, over the past 35 years, gained more confidence and more swagger. You might believe that they are miserable for having been deprived of their right to vote. Yet, many of them recall the Maoist past where millions of people starved to death and the rest lived in extreme poverty. And yet, the rulers of China turned it around without allowing anyone to vote.
When it comes to debates over democracy, China is the problem. Of course, China does not have a democratic tradition that goes back two millennia. It has no real notion of human rights. And yet, it allows the free market to function in a relatively unfettered fashion and has moved fromf extreme poverty to ascending world power.
But, China is run by an elite. It is run by leaders of what is still called a Communist party. Before it was run by a group that Mao called capitalist roaders, it was also run by an elite, by Mao and his henchmen. Today’s elite has allowed the people to make relatively free decisions as actors in the marketplace. Mao never imagined such a thing. When Deng Xiaoping and his band took over China in 1976 the first thing they did was to privatize agriculture, to roll back the central planners’ communized agricultural policy. They did not hand out ballots. They freed people to function in the market.
Even today, democracy does not have very much of an appeal in China. One recalls in 1989 that student radicals occupied Tiananmen Square in Beijing and demanded democracy and freedom. You know how that worked out.
Strangely, most Western observers did not understand what was going on. At the least they did not understand what it all looked like to those who were in power. To us it looked like Woodstock. It looked like a legitimate demand for increased political freedom.
The people who were then running China, Deng and his cohorts, had had some experience of dealing with radicalized students. They were the survivors of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. They had seen their friends and colleagues murdered and humiliated by radicalized students. We saw Woodstock, Deng Xiaoping saw the Red Guards. It’s not the same thing.
When the Chinese authorities crushed the protest movement in Tiananmen Square our wiser commentators were saying that the human yearning for basic freedoms was so strong that the people would soon rise up and overthrow their Communist oppressors. Recently, some of them have had the humility to admit that they were wrong.
They were wrong because Deng and Co. were granting unprecedented economic freedom. People liked economic freedom. They enjoyed prosperity. It beat starvation and being oppressed by the Red Guards.
Moreover, when the Chinese look to America and the West, they do not just see the glory of democracy. They see the madness that democracy can unleash. Do they really want to spend their time debating transgender restrooms? Do they really want to spend their time trying to integrate women into the combat infantry? Do they really want their people to be rioting in the streets, shooting the police and burning down their neighborhoods in the name of free expression?
And that's just America. What do they see when they look to democratic Europe. Do the Chinese want, out of an excessive concern for equal rights and for democratic freedoms, allow their nation to be overrun by refugees who will molest women and to rob, pillage and murder? How is democracy working out in Europe these days?
When members of its own Muslim population decided to try their hand at terrorism, the Chinese authorities cracked down on them, even to the point of suppressing their ability to practice their religion. Those who were deemed responsible for terrorism were not represented by an army of law professors. They were not sent to prison while their cases awaited appeal. They were put on trial, convicted and taken out and shot. China does not have a very significant terrorism problem these days.
Democracy is like a product in a market. Either you can sell it or you cannot. Either you can show that it produces domestic peace and social harmony or you cannot.
Keep in mind, social harmony is primarily important for Chinese culture. The Chinese have known the horrors of civil strife and will do whatever it takes to keep it at bay. One reason why the authorities cracked down so hard on the Tiananmen protestors is that the country was beginning to unravel. In particular, the soldiers stationed around Beijing had been refusing to follow orders, thus had been in a state of mutiny.
If democratic rights contribute to prosperity and social harmony, other peoples in other parts of the world might find them worth emulating. If they seem to be leading great nations to doom, other peoples will not.