Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The Practice of Freedom

The Egyptians held a free election? Does that oblige us to respect the results? Does that mean that Egypt is now a liberal democracy?

Those are the questions.

The answers depend on what you mean by freedom and democracy.

Public debate  takes for given that we all know what freedom and democracy are and that, moral beacons that we are,  we must respect the way the two are practiced in other countries.

Classical liberalism involves the practice of freedom in numerous areas of everyday life: from free expression to free elections to freedom of religion to property rights to the freedom to participate in the marketplace to respect for the freedoms of others.

If that is what freedom involves, then one would be hard put to see Egypt as anything like a free country.

For instance, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood despises the freedom enjoyed by its Israeli neighbors.

Bret Stephens clarifies the issue by comparing liberal democracy to pre-liberal democracy and post-liberal democracy. The distinction is well worth our attention.

We see post-liberal democracy in Greece, in Europe and in much of the advanced industrial West. We know it well.

Stephens describes it:

Post-liberalism seeks to replace the classical liberalism of individual liberty, limited government, property rights and democratic sovereignty with a new liberalism that favors social rights, social goods, intrusive government and transnational law.

In practice, post-liberalism is a giant wealth redistribution scheme. It bankrupted Greece and will soon bankrupt the rest of Europe.

In post-liberal democracy the collective good is considered to be more important than the good of individuals. It induces individuals to give up their personal liberties in the interest of a larger good. But then, who is to say what the collective good is? Shall we leave it to bureaucrats and government functionaries?

Post-liberalism wants to curb the workings of the free market when it does not appear to be distributing goods and services in a fair and just manner. Again, who decides what is fair and just?

Obviously, the free market is a collective enterprise. Equally obviously, when individuals compete and cooperate in a free market they are more efficient and effective than they would be if they were pursuing someone’s idea of the collective good.

Believers in post-liberalism worship ideas. They make freedom and democracy into moral absolutes, supremely good no matter how they are practiced. And they believe that the results of competition must be judged against their ideas of fairness and justice. If reality does not produce a result that pleases them, then they will try to force reality to conform to their ideas.

When it comes to pre-liberal democracy, we can see it at work in today’s North Africa.

Stephens writes:

It is democracy shorn of the values Westerners typically associate it with: free speech, religious liberty, social tolerance, equality between the sexes and so on. Not only in Egypt, but in Tunisia, Turkey and Gaza, popular majorities have made a democratic choice for parties that put faith before freedom and substituted the word of God for the rule of law.

He continues:

An Egypt ruled by the Muslim Brotherhood will respect democratic procedure only to the extent that it does not infringe on the Brotherhood's overarching goals: "Restoring Islam in its all-encompassing conception; subjugating people to God; instituting the religion of God; the Islamization of life," according to Khairat Al Shater, the Brotherhood's de facto leader.

Pre-liberal democracy pays lip service to freedom. It uses free elections as a means to acquire and to exercise power. It legitimates tyranny and terrorism.

It dupes the populace into thinking that they are free when in fact they are voting for their own oppression. 

Stephens explains:

[Liberal abdicators is] a catch-all term for anyone who believes the result of any free election is ipso facto legitimate and that the world's responsibility toward Egyptians' democracy is to preserve a studied neutrality about their political choices. But a democratic election that yields a totalitarian result isn't "legitimate," except in the most cramped sense of the word. In reality, it's a double-barreled catastrophe: a stain on democracy's good name and a recipe for turbocharged political extremism.

You cannot affirm liberal values by respecting candidates who use them like a Trojan horse, a ruse whereby they can solidify their hold on power.

In a more recent column Stephens debunked the misconceptions about Egypt that our foreign policy experts have been feeding us. He calls them consolations; they serve merely to rationalize a massive and apparently bipartisan foreign policy failure.

In Stephens’ words:

Don't console yourself with the belief that the victory of the Muslim Brotherhood in the country's first free presidential election is merely symbolic, since the army still has the guns: The examples of revolutionary Iran and present-day Turkey show how easily the conscripts can be bought, the noncoms wooed and the officers purged.

Don't console yourself with the idea that now the Islamists will have to prove themselves capable of governing the country. The Brotherhood is the most successful social organization in the Arab world. Its leaders are politically skillful, economically literate and strategically patient. Its beliefs resonate with poor, rich and middle class alike. And it can always use the army as a scapegoat should the economy fail to improve.

Don't console yourself with the expectation that the Brotherhood will play by the democratic rules that brought it to power. "Democracy is like a streetcar," Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey's Islamist prime minister, observed long ago. "When you come to your stop you get off." Any party that rules street and square makes its own "democratic" rules.

Don't console yourself, finally, with hope that Egypt will remain a responsible, status quo player on the international scene. By degrees, Egypt under the Brotherhood will seek to arm Hamas and remilitarize the Sinai. By degrees, it will seek to extract concessions from the U.S. as the price of its good behavior. By degrees, it will make radical alliances in the Middle East and beyond.

Of course, we are going to pretend to give democracy a chance in Egypt. We do better however not to believe that we are under any obligation to respect and to fund a government of, by, and for the Muslim Brotherhood.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for sharing that article and your thoughts! Terrific!!