Friday, May 2, 2008

Democracy or "Non-Tyrannical, Representative Government"

Soob has a post on a topic that I've been wanting to write about for a while now but kept putting off, although I did write about it in a couple of comments a while ago. First at Coming Anarchy:

Perhaps we should revisit the old idea of mixed government with its combination of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy. Obviously not every country has a monarchy and aristocracy, but I think the model could be useful in balancing the existing power structures (e.g. tribes) within a society, while incorporating democratic institutions into the mix. I don’t know if that would work. Some of the Arab sheikhdoms do have elected legislatures. But it may offer us a compromise position in which we can support both democratization and a liberalizing autocrat.

And then at Zenpundit:

The persistence of tribal/clan forms of social organization have led me to think that instead of exporting European-style parliamentary democracy with party-based proportional representation, we should be reconsidering and adapting the old idea of “mixed government” to local circumstances. Organizing government in a way that the different “orders” of society are represented, while not appropriate to American circumstances, may be a better way of establishing non-tyrannical, representative governments in places where tribes and other pre-modern social organizations predominate. For example in Iraq and Afghanistan perhaps it would have been better to have instituted a bicameral legislature in which one house was democratically elected and the other provided for equal representation of each tribe or clan. This would have allowed for both the evolution of democracy without abandoning tradition institutions and identities.

In the past I have always been someone who believed in promoting democracy. What we mean by "democracy" when we talk about promoting it is not always what we end up with when it is applied. The word democracy has become short-hand for a complex of ideas and institutions: a government of limited powers that is representative of and accountable to its people, that guarantees the rights of all its citizens etc. But when it is applied in practice it seems to get reduced just to elections. Of course this can often result in establishing a tyrannical democracy rather than a liberal democracy and I have come to see that the critics of promoting democracy when it manifests itself as just elections without the larger liberal framework are right in their criticism. That doesn't mean that the solution is some form of authoritarianism. Rather there is a way to accomplish the goals that are intended when we talk about "promoting democracy" without falling into the "just elections" trap. Let's put aside the word "democracy" and articulate the goal with different terms. I've come to use the phrase "non-tyrannical, representative government" because I think it captures what we are trying to achieve. We want the government to be non-tyrannical and we want its citizens to feel that they are represented in the government therefore endowing the government with legitimacy. This way of phrasing the goal does not specify the institutions designed to achieve it. Rather it offers a general guide and allows for institutions to be customized to the particular needs and circumstances of each society. In societies where tribes are still significant institutions, an individual may feel represented if his tribe is represented whether or not there was an election. There is no reason that can't be a legitimate form of representative government. A bicameral legislature is a useful tool for introducing democracy into a society without building the entire government around the democratic process while also preserving components of an existing social order while checking the power of that order through appropriate institutions. The goal is to build viable modern institutions that allow developing societies to evolve in their own way. There is no one-size-fits-all solution, each society will develop its own unique institutions. But we do have experience to draw on; we are not starting from scratch. Though many seem infatuated with the European-style proportional representation system, it is not necessarily appropriate to the realities of the Gap. If we think in terms of "non-tyrannical, representative government" then we have a more general guide that can help Gap societies innovate culture-specific institutions.

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