Liberty and Justice for All?

Words that elicit our unthinking approval are often dangerous. From Plato to the American Founders, "democracy" signified mob rule and political disintegration, but in the last two centuries, this word has evolved into a feel-good term denoting a self-evident political good, one "universally acknowledged to be the best political system," as Michael Mandelbaum writes in his new book, "a high human achievement that improves the lives of those fortunate enough to come into contact with it." Democracy's Good Name ultimately argues that democracy for the most part indeed deserves this "good name," but it also cautions that our allegiance should be based on a sober understanding of what democracy really means, and take into account the dangers that follow from misunderstanding the "world's most popular form of government," one currently practiced by 119 of the world's 190 nations.

A professor of American Foreign Policy at Johns Hopkins University, Mandelbaum is the author of ten books, including The Case for Goliath: How America Acts as the World's Government in the Twenty-first Century. In his latest work, he traces the origins of modern democracy, its development in modern history, the intimate relationship of democracy to free-market economies, the way democracies promote peace, and its future prospects in Russia, China, and the Arab Middle East.

Mandelbaum begins by defining more specifically the two components, each with a distinct history and development, which democracy comprises: liberty (more often "freedom"), and self-government or popular sovereignty. "Liberty belongs to individuals; self-government is a property of the community as a whole. Liberty involves what governments do, or, more accurately, what they are forbidden to do--they are forbidden to abridge individual freedom." Self-government identifies who governs, liberty sets out the rules for how governing takes place. Most important for liberty is the rule of law, the "map of a democratic political system" that sets the limits to and restrictions on government power, and the "rules and procedures" for protecting from state power the space reserved for free individuals. As Mandelbaum demonstrates from the history of both these components, they are an "odd couple," since for most of history popular sovereignty was thought to "lead to corruption, disorder, mob violence, and ultimately tyranny," in the end destroying liberty. Moreover, self-government and political freedom are historically rare, requiring skills and habits often opposed to human nature. But the success of first Great Britain and then the United States in reconciling these two opposites, at the same time they became wealthy world powers, accounts for democracy's becoming today's "leading brand" of government.

How exactly democracies have become established in the modern world is Mandelbaum's next theme. His most important point is that democracy requires "the appropriate mix of skills and values" that makes possible and nurtures self-government and liberty. These "skills and values" cannot "be called into existence by fiat," particularly in an undemocratic government. They require time to develop and conditions favorable for their development. Mandelbaum's history of how various nations came to be democratic shows how much chance and accident have figured in democracy's success, and how much that success depended on preexisting traditions and habits that had grown up over time. Thus the modern spread of democracy has not been the result of its external imposition on a people (as Mandelbaum shows, Germany and Japan are exceptions that prove the rule), but has followed from the economic and military successes of the United States and Great Britain in becoming wealthy and winning three global struggles with the alternatives to democracy. That success in turn inspired an internal desire among other peoples to learn the skills and values that accounted for such global preeminence.

Great Britain and the United States both became wealthy because they embraced free-market economies, and as Mandelbaum writes, "Free markets, the evidence of modern history strongly suggests, make for free men and women." The free market is "democracy's constant companion" because the "workings of the free market have instilled the values, habits, and attitudes and have helped create the institutions that democratic governance requires." The free-market's respect for private property, itself a form of liberty; its dependence on the rule of law to protect property; its fostering of civil society, Burke's "little platoons" that act as a buffer between the free individual and the power of the state; the practice in sovereignty that comes from private enterprise and commercial transactions; and the need for trust and compromise in business--all foster and reinforce the liberty and self-rule that lie at the heart of democratic governance.

Societies that are free, self-governing, and prosperous are also peaceful. Trade suffers during wars, and modern warfare is very expensive, so peoples with free-market economies are not so eager for conflict. In addition, free peoples tend to become less warlike and more impatient with war's costs in blood and treasure, an impatience that can be politically expressed in elections, as we are currently seeing with the war in Iraq. Whereas popular sovereignty absent liberty can incite wars, as happened in the Balkans in the Nineties, the limits on governmental power and the expectations the people hold for their leaders, both created by the institutions and practices that undergird liberty, will also act as a brake on war. So too will three features of political liberty that carry over into interstate relations: a preference for compromise, lengthy decision-making processes, and transparency in government operations. This connection between democracy and peace, however, paradoxically can create more wars, as non-democratic governments, frightened by the desire for freedom and prosperity aroused by the proliferation of successful democracies, can lead dictators and autocrats to start wars as diversions from their failures, as Saddam Hussein did in 1980 and 1990. As Mandelbaum concludes, although the replacement of dictatorships with democracies does not mean the end of war or terrorism, "the progress of democracy has made the world a more peaceful place."

Given these boons of democratic government, Mandelbaum concludes with a survey of the prospects for increasing even more the numbers of democratic states. He cautions us again that democracy must spring up from within a society, and the process is often lengthy and turbulent. Whereas popular sovereignty is easy to accomplish, liberty is hard, for "it is embodied in institutions, which operate through habits and skills and are supported by values. All take time to develop, and they must develop independently and domestically; they cannot be imported ready-made." With that caveat in mind, Mandelbaum surveys the chances for democracy in Russia, China, and the Arab Middle East. The chances for Russia and China are fair, though certainly far from a sure thing. But the Arab Middle East faces numerous obstacles--not least being the incompatibility of traditional Islam with democracy--which darken the outlook for freedom and self-rule in that region: "The combination of ethnic and religious pluralism, oil, Islam, and the historical legacy of rivalry with the West severely weakens the impact both of the major external sources of pressure for democracy--the power of the democratic example--and of the principal internal source--a market economy." Of course, this means Mandelbaum is pessimistic about the prospects for America's creation of democracy in Iraq.

Democracy's Good Name makes a powerful argument for the continuation of the spread of democracy. My only criticism focuses on the scant attention Mandelbaum pays to the deleterious effects of some ideals that tend to develop in democracies and weaken them from within. For example, Mandelbaum notes that the idea of political equality reflects "an unprecedented and remarkably broad consensus," one beyond discussion and defense in democratic societies. But as Plato and Aristotle both understood, political equality can degenerate into a radical egalitarianism, the notion, as Aristotle put it, "that those equal in any respect are equal in all respects." In the Western democracies, we can see the impact of radical egalitarianism in many government policies, which use the coercive power of the state to impose equality of results rather than just guaranteeing equality of opportunity. This egalitarianism thus maximizes the power of the state in ways detrimental both to a free-market economy and democratic freedom itself.

Second, the tendency of political liberty to degenerate into license is another danger of democracies also visible everywhere in our own society. Most people think that enjoying political liberty means doing what they want. This profound misunderstanding of what, from Plato to the Founders, was called ordered liberty has promoted the multiplication of "civil liberties" to include activities like pornography that would have horrified the Founders. License disguised as political freedom pollutes the public square and compromises the very virtues--self-control and personal responsibility, for example--without which political liberty cannot survive.

These reservations aside, Democracy's Good Name is an important book. Clearly written and organized, and mercifully free of technical jargon and abstruse theory, Democracy's Good Name is an indispensable guide for any citizen who wants a fuller and more accurate understanding of the political system which we all enjoy, and the promotion of which now animates our foreign policy.

Bruce S. Thornton is one of the culture critics at Victor Davis Hanson's Private Papers. He is the author most recently of Searching for Joaquin: Myth, Murieta and History in California.