Perhaps it was reading a hagiographic
review of new collections of social philosopher John Rawls' work
in the Oct. 25 New Republic that got me going. The reviewer,
Thomas Nagel, actually claimed that "hope for the future of
humanity resides in the spread of liberal democratic societies,
which have so far fulfilled Kant's remarkable prediction that they
will not go to war with one another, and have left behind the worst
forms of domestic oppression.''
All right, Nagel qualified his comment by referring to "liberal
democracies,'' a loosely defined term. And some sloppy thinkers
do equate democracy with some of the conditions that seem to be
important to sustaining democracies, like the rule of law, respect
for some rights and liberties and concern for the rights of minorities.
But the mere act of holding democratic elections to choose one's
rulers implies, in and of itself, none of these niceties. And concern
about the desires of a majority is often used as a pretext, perhaps
especially in nominal democracies, for running roughshod and brutally
over the rights of minorities.
But the fact is that the NATO nations, which choose their rulers
by at least nominally democratic means, waged a war of aggression
(illegal under the terms of treaties they had solemnly signed) on
Yugoslavia, which while it might not be a "liberal democracy''
in Nagel's nonexistent definition, chose its rulers by at least
nominally democratic means that were not judged more corrupt than
average by international observers.
Democracies waged war on another democracy, (perhaps not a perfect
democracy, but which of the NATO nations is?) putting the lie to
one of the more sanctimonious myths of our time, that democracies
don't go to war with one another. The myth should have been exploded,
but obviously it hasn't been.
Maybe some people prefer to believe that this wasn't a real war.
The persistence of the will to believe
in the old "democracies don't war with one another'' myth underlines
how the word democracy "in the incantatory sense,'' as C.S.
Lewis once put it, has come to replace sturdier concepts of the
good society like limited government, confining government to the
Declaration of Independence's assigned role "to preserve these
rights,'' or governments of limited, designated powers with all
other rights reserved for the people. As long as a government can
be viewed in any sense as a "democracy'' and the meaning of
the word is kept suitably vague, it can venture forth on aggressive
and bloody missions in the world, oppress its own people, kill citizens
(as at Waco) and violate individual freedom at will, and most modern
sages will view it with complacency.
A more useful ideal to those who value peace would be a "free society''
rather than a "democracy.'' But how long has it been since Americans
casually invoked, often in an easily joking fashion, the old saw
that "it's a free country, isn't it?''
When I was young the phrase came easily to most peoples' lips, and
even though it might not have been as true as some of us might like,
Americans believed the country was and should be a place where individuals
could do as they liked so long as they didn't harm others. You seldom
hear the phrase anymore. It's probably because few Americans believe
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