December 4, 2000
Democracy has never really been popular on the Right. Well, how could it be when almost the very definition of being right wing is that us human beings are not perfectible, the more religious would call it original sin. This belief, doctrine, or excuse for professional gloom informs almost all of the Conservative movement. The think tanks and neo-conservatives get their glitzy charts out and worry about the growth of the underclass and how on present trends most of Europe is going to be one large sink housing estate in 2087. The traditionalists worry about the decline of morality, the parlous state of Western culture and its inevitable decline. Even Libertarianism, that sunny capitalist creed is largely based on the (surprisingly controversial) idea that people will just go off the boil without the discipline of the market. Oh and in case my left wing readers think that they have got off, why are you reading this unless you believe in the unlimited capacity for imperialist meddling making the most dreadful situation ten times worse? A set of beliefs based on the fallen nature of man is hardly going to lend itself to the ordinary man ruling over government. This lack of enthusiasm is, I would say, unnecessarily throwing away one of our strongest cards in taking our world back.
Now by this time if I haven't got at least a few of my dear readers gasping in disbelief at my portrait of their motives, I doubt they've been reading. The Libertarian creed is a direct attack on the legitimacy of democracy three wolves and a sheep voting on dinner. Liberty trumps democracy. As far as the neo-cons and think tanks are concerned, all I can say is that if they believe in the mass of America they seem to be devoting remarkably few of their resources towards them rather than their leaders. What of the movement conservatives, who stretch from the Conservative and Republican parties to the National Review to the Heritage Foundation to the rough tribes of Paleo Conservatives and Eurosceptics in the hinterland? Surely they have learned the efficacy of mass democracy with all the populist posing and odes to the grassroots? Well to an extent, but a very weak extent. Those Americans who have suddenly found the wonder of the Electoral College or the British who argue against proportional representation often do so from an antidemocratic position. Although I will not wade into these controversies, especially the electoral college that is none of my business I think the basic thrust that the people cannot be trusted is wrong and self-defeating.
The first essential fact of democracy is that it is by far the best way of ensuring the maximum of Liberty. Now all these socialists who think that democracy is going to lead to the spontaneous expansion of the state into the economy are wrong. Well wrong if they think that Democracy will lead to socialism faster than any right or left wing dictatorship. Now this is not because the masses are yearning to breathe free (if you want sunny optimism on human nature you're reading the wrong column) but precisely because they are not. If we accept that human freedom in both the economic and social spheres leads to a better society then what's stopping that? Simply put the fear of those who will resent the differences or envy the success of others. How does democracy deal with it? Regulations, stupid regulations to be sure, and taxes that are far too high. But the crucial point is that they decide how far people can be different. Non-democracies cannot be so certain. They have to appease the people, but they do not know quite what will strike the right note. So there are two opposing urges that go in the same direction, suppress unpopular and impotent groups, and suppress the potential rivals for power. In this sort of environment property rights and free philosophical enquiry are hardly going to flourish. In democracies on the other hand they may break up Microsoft to satisfy the jealousies of the people, but Microsoft was allowed to grow in the first place. I am not saying that this is a perfect system for fostering liberty but it's by far the best we've got.
Another reason why Democracy is a good thing is because of its symbiotic relationship with nationalism. I use this word sparingly because nationalism is becoming a boo word, so what I mean is that democracy helps maintain states with shared cultures and similarly democracy has only proven itself permanent in these states. If we left everything to the political, business or journalistic elites then nations would have about as much meaning as the "nations" of the Soviet Union. The idea that America has a view of economic policy that is informed by her circumstances, and that France has a radically different view is just not comprehended by many of our elites. The idea that there is only one method and pace and order for economic reform is a given to most of our elites, and it is this blinkered view that informs the disastrous decisions of the IMF and World Bank. The reason why American style policies have been imposed has been the weakness of the indigenous political culture in, for example, many African countries (yes it was largely the Limeys' fault). No one dares to try labour market reform in France.
Democracy does not often survive outside the nation state. This is for a good reason, unless you have immersed yourself in another culture, you do not fully understand the subtleties of the discourse. Few British people understand why many Americans think that keeping guns is the most effective safeguard against tyranny (and I probably know roughly two thirds of them I haven't met the other three yet). Few Americans really understand the importance of the monarchy as a focus of national unity and a symbol of continuity. It is for this reason and about ten thousand others that making England the fifty-first state is a nonstarter. The inability of the voters to comprehend their leaders makes democracy unworkable. This even goes for when there is a large minority as is sadly proving the case with the Catholic population of Northern Ireland. And this is before we bring in the question of language. Democracy simply cannot survive multilingualism unless the country is so decentralised, like Switzerland, that the central Government barely matters. This is one reason why the European Union will never be effectively democratised.
The title is a bit misleading, but it fits in with the rest of the headlines, so I'll keep it. The international order is most peaceful when nations are ruthlessly pursuing their own strategic interests. Crusades and empires are most definitely not in any nations narrow strategic interest therefore these two most unsettling habits are held in check. Nationalism can lead to wars, especially when your national group is just over the border, but it wasn't nationalism that brought NATO into Kosovo or Bosnia. If the baffling medieval nationalism of Serbia, Albania and Croatia had been allowed to run its course would there still be fighting today? Maybe, but it was becoming clear that the forces had exhausted themselves to a standstill and were only holding out for (or trying desperately to forestall) foreign intervention. The most thorough ethnic cleansing of the Serbs in Krajina, the Muslims in Srebrenica and the Serbs and Gypsies in Kosovo were either done with the aid of or in reaction to the coming of NATO forces.
If Democracy helps nationalism, it also helps freedom. This is not just a case of keeping tax rates low and currencies (fairly) stable through the unforgiving gaze of the capital markets, but it is at a more fundamental level. In the Cold War dissidents escaped from the Soviet Union to the West, will this be possible in a post-national age?
In the olden days when I was at school I was taught European political history. One of the things that was taught was the growing wave of rebellion in the nineteenth century that yoked together the nationalists, liberals and democrats. This was taught as if it were a contradiction by my teachers. How could those three creeds ever get on? It looks like we'll have to find out, and soon.
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