Democracy vs. Freedom

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Thomas Sowell, arguing against "nation-building and Wilsonian grandiosity," has written one of the better conservative critiques of the war in Iraq that I have seen in awhile. Its main strength is that it emphasizes the difference between freedom and democracy, a distinction that seems lost on our President.

Natan Sharansky's book "The Case for Democracy" argues persuasively for the international, as well as internal, benefits of democracy, seeing it as the kind of government that reduces the dangers of war.

President Bush became an enthusiast for the idea and spent hours talking with Sharansky in the White House.

Perhaps he should have spent a little time talking with Amy Chua, whose book "World on Fire" points out that democracy -- in certain kinds of societies -- is a recipe for disaster, despite how valuable it has been in Western nations.

Democracy means voting. It does not mean freedom. When we lump the two ideas together, we confuse ourselves and others.

Britain was a free country long before it became democratic. In Germany, Hitler was elected democratically. In much of Africa, democracy in practice has meant, "One man, one vote -- one time," as elected leaders put an end to both elections and freedom.

It would be wonderful to have free and democratic nations throughout the world, and that would very likely reduce military conflicts, as Sharansky and others say. But we do not ensure freedom by holding elections. [bold added]
As desperately as that point needs to be hammered home, Sowell's lack of appreciation for deeper philosophic ideas limits his effectiveness.

For example, Sowell can only imply that something about Britain predisposed it to freedom and something about Germany predisposed it to tyranny. But what? And yes, arbitrarily tossing disparate peoples together into one country can lead to conflict, as in the examples he cites, but what of America, populated as it is by peoples from around the world who have been killing each other for centuries?

That "what" is at least an implicit respect for individual rights among the citizens of free nations. Sowell grasps at this when he says that, "Real nations evolve over time out of the mutual accommodations of peoples, not by imposing the bright ideas of theorists from the top down."

Indeed Sowell even sounds a little like an Objectivist in that quote, given how we are constantly hammering home the need for cultural change (i.e., the intelligent grasp and adoption of better philosophical ideas by the people themselves) before its politics will move towards freedom. But if he saw this, his article would have been more explicit about this point, and I have noted in some detail before his failure to appreciate the importance of abstract ideas and of intellectuals.

His disdain for ideas comes to full flower as the weed that chokes off his column -- causing it to end weakly. He argues admirably against nation-building, but not at all for what we ought to be doing in this war. " It is the terrorists' war, regardless of where it is fought." Yes. And ... ? Setting aside for the moment whether we should be in Iraq, this piece may not be a call for withdrawal, but it ain't exactly gonna rally the troops, either. Or sustain home front morale.

This war transcends international borders and national interests among our enemies precisely because it is an ideologically-motivated war. And one must appreciate the role of ideas in motivating our enemies if one is to know how to fight the war, including such tactical details as which country we ought to be in. Had Sowell appreciated this, he would have argued for a devastating attack on Iran regardless of where he stands on whether to stay in Iraq.

But instead, his column ends short of ideas and sounding rather pessimistic. Those who think Objectivists, for all our dismay at the improper prosecution of this war, sound like pessimists should think about this.

We sounded the alarm sooner because we saw that the war was being fought the wrong way sooner. And we sound angrier because we know what should be done instead. Most importantly, though, we are speaking up because we know that ideas (and a war based on an understanding of how they affect history) are not futile.

Sowell sounds like he is giving up the ghost here, which is a shame, because there is no substitute for victory, no reason to think it is impossible, and no reason to quit fighting for it.

-- CAV


madmax said...


Thanks for the Sowell link. I have read many comments form Objectivists on the Iraq war and there seems to be a split on whether this war is fundamentally self-interested (although heavily compromised) or fundamentally altruistic. I lean toward the latter.

I think I read an Objectivist ask the question that in the Vietnam War it was obvious that America was not fighting to win so wouldn't it have been better to withdraw back in the 60s rather than latter and save all those soldier's lives? I'm thinking the same question can be asked of Iraq.

I hate to be defeatest but there seems zero chance of us taking any action against Iran - in fact did you read that Mayor Bloomberg of NY may give Amadhinijad a tour of Ground Zero when he visits here!! In a climate like this I can't help think that it would be better to largely quit Iraq and fall back to our bases in the Iraqi desert and let the Sunni and Shiites kill each other. I do not see Tracinski's virtue of persistence in this war.

Gus Van Horn said...

"Mayor Bloomberg of NY may give Amadhinijad a tour of Ground Zero."

That would have truly been a sacrilege -- and yet, not that surprising given how unable and unwilling to think in terms of principles (or act on them) so many of our politicians are.

It's bad enough that George Bush is letting Ahmadinejad enter the country in the first place.

Galileo Blogs said...

Gus, thank you for a great analysis of conservatives, in this post and your June post. Your reference to Sowell's "failure to appreciate the importance of abstract ideas and of intellectuals" is spot-on.

Thomas Sowell and Walter Williams are two of the best conservative economists I enjoy but, as you point out, they suffer from the conservative antipathy toward philosophical ideas.

In your June post, you speculate on the utility of blog posts such as yours. I agree with you that they are valuable for the conservatives and others who read them and as a result may end up checking their premises.

All of the blog voices out there, even if they largely "preach to the converted," help spread rational ideas. They make the "converted" more knowledgeable and therefore more effective, but they also enlighten those with similar, but not the same, ideas.

(As an aside, I really don't like the term "converted" since it implies a religious process, not a rational process, of adopting an idea. But I use it anyway, in quotes, because it is a good word if stripped of its religious implication.)

Gus Van Horn said...

Thank you, GB, and I'd forgotten about the speculation you mention. Thanks for bringing that up.

Yes. You don't need (or even want, actually) to reinforce the prejudices of thousands of unintellectual readers a day to count in the war of ideas. It is far more effective to help thinking people reconsider their own innocent errors.

And I understand your reservations about the word "convert". Not only is challenging a culture harder than just dunking enough people into water, it also does not require that everyone fully agree with Objectivism. If people generally would approach intellectual issues rationally we'd be a lot better off since it is our method of political debate that keeps getting us into trouble.

Galileo Blogs said...

A rational method can certainly get one into trouble. I once had a dinner companion lunge across a table at me when I challenged his blithe assertion that the world would be better off if private property were abolished. I asked him to check his premise, since it was my understanding that he owned a house. Did he consider his house a bad thing that he would be better off without? That triggered his leap across the table.

Since then, I have been more circumspect in my choice of conversation partner, but not too much more. This particular fellow had just earned a Ph.D. in an engineering field and I had (erroneously, in his case) assumed that the Ph.D. signified he held a certain amount of respect for reason!

Yes, if people would simply use reason and respect evidence, regardless of their current conclusions on issues, the world would become a better place a lot faster.

Correcting bad thinking practices is the battle of philosophers. If this engineering guy learned any philosophy at all, it could not have been pro-reason.

Gus Van Horn said...

Wow! Maybe I'm not trying hard enough, but I have not had someone lunge at me!

I have a PhD and know all too well that an advanced degree is hardly, in and of itself, a sign of respect for reason or rationality.

Galileo Blogs said...

Well, mind must have body to protect it. In this case, it wasn't my own body, but that of my 6'2", 200 lb. brother who intercepted the lunger mid-flight. He made quite a good interception.

Still, there is a place for lunges and interceptions. I have determined that it is the football field, not the dinner table!

Gus Van Horn said...

Whoa! This story gets "better" the more of it you tell.

I take it your brother quickly defused the situation, given that he seems big enough to have employed "manual override" if necessary!

Galileo Blogs said...

He did. He applied "speak softly and carry a big stick" diplomacy. By employing a credible threat of overwhelming force, further combat was avoided.

That's a lesson for the modern age! :-)