Defining our terms when we speak about Egypt

A lot of people keep talking about a desire for a “democratic” Egypt.  I hate to say it but, with the word “democratic” as the starting point, that’s not a very useful discussion.  The dictionary definition of a “democracy” is as follows:

government by the people; a form of government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised directly by them or by their elected agents under a free electoral system.

In other words, a democracy is one in which every citizen or, at least, every adult citizen, or possibly every adult citizen who isn’t a felon or insane, gets to vote, either directly for the legislation itself or for a representative who will handle the legislative end of government.

Calling for a democracy in Egypt sounds great in theory, but if there’s one thing we’ve learned in the last fifty years, having the right to vote isn’t necessarily a good thing for the citizens.  Those of us who came of age during the Cold War vividly remember the Soviet Union sneering that it had a much stronger democracy than the American people because (i) more people turned out to vote (about 90% versus our 60-ish%); and (ii) because socialism meant that there was a direct relationship between people and government, without the necessity (or, in socialist terms, evil) of capitalist, corporate intermediaries.

The dirty little secret was that the votes in socialist nations were shams.  All candidates came from the same pot, and a vote for Candidate A was precisely the same as a vote for Candidate B.  People voted not because they had a meaningful choice that would result in differing forms of governance, but because they would get in trouble for not voting.

The Soviet example demonstrates that a democracy without freedom is meaningless.  But just as “democracy” is a fluid term, so too is “freedom.”

Some use the term “freedom” in the colloquial sense of being free from something negative:  freedom from hunger, freedom from poverty, freedom from fear. I would argue that this notion of freedom is a socialist definition, because it has the government promise to provide for the people’s physical needs.

For example, under the “government will provide for all wants” school of freedom, the promise is that you will not be hungry because the government will give you food.  Of course, in order to make good on that promise, the government must force people to harvest the land, whether they have the interest or the ability.  The government will also bend its bureaucratic might (a might usually untethered to functional knowledge) to decide what crops will be grown, how they will be grown and, assuming there is a harvest, how the food will be collected and disseminated.

Under this scenario, which we saw replayed repeatedly throughout the 20th century in Communist lands, because people who are coerced into a task tend to do it badly and because bureaucratic guidance can be worse than no guidance at all, the ultimate harvest is often . . . well, minimal.  Nevertheless, you can be assured that your friendly socialist government will share out the small amount of available food amongst its citizens.

There you have one form of freedom:  government-provided freedom from hunger or, at least, freedom from total starvation . . . or possibly, the government will earnestly tell you that none of the myriad emaciated corpses it’s burying actually starved to death.  And you, as a good citizen of this type of “free” country,” will politely ignore the gun that encourages you to believe this bizarre fiction.

The other form of freedom, the one that so many of us effortlessly conflate with democracy, is the type that leaves the citizens of a nation with the maximum available choices over their destiny.  In order for the free society to function, freedom shouldn’t equal anarchy.  In a healthy, free society, you don’t get to kill, rape, steal, vandalize, and assault with impunity.  Functional democratic freedom envisions a society that has the smallest possible number of equally applied rules for all citizens.  Examples of that are rules holding that none of us get to murder at will, that we all stop at red lights, and that legal sex is consensual sex amongst adults.

There’s always the risk, of course, that the rules will mushroom, not only because this is the nature of government, but because ordinary people want a certain predictability in society, and predictability can be had only in the presence of myriad rules.   The more rules you have, the less individual freedom you have.

Indeed, right now, many of us feel that America has too many rules.  However, as the last two elections showed, we’re still falling on the side of freedom.  The candidates presented to us reflected genuinely different approaches to government in America and, if you managed to avoid the New Black Panthers standing at the polling place doors, you, as a citizen, got to go into the voting booth and, in private, express your preference as between those real choices.  Unsurprisingly, after four years of heavy-handed, freedom-limiting legislative activity, joined by two years of equally heavy-handed executive activity, the majority of Americans voted for the representatives who promised to get the government to retreat.

Now that’s freedom!

That freedom, the maximum number of individual choices exercised in a stable society with the minimum number of rules to ensure honesty, functionality, safety and stability, is also the type of government I wish for the Egyptian people.  To call for “democracy,” when that “democracy” seems to be the right to vote for Radical Muslim Brotherhood Candidate A or Radical Muslim Brotherhood Candidate B — both of whom will cheerfully lock your women in their homes, hang your gays, murder your Christians and start an apocalyptic war with the Jewish neighbor next door — is not a helpful way to free the people of Egypt from the chains that have bound them for so long.

Cross-posted at Right Wing News

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  • Zachriel

    Excepting a few minor quibbles, a good essay. Democracy depends on strong institutions, including an independent judiciary and protection for minorities. 

  • eric-odessit

    I have to make one correction.  In the old Soviet Union there were no Candidate A or Candidate B.  There was only one candidate, Candidate X.  It was always a person you knew nothing about, usually some poor soul forced to run for office by his/her factory Communist Party Committee.  That person usually was a member of the party and had some career expectations, so the run for office did not really contradict that person’s aspirations.  After the formality of rubber-stamping election the candidate became a Deputy of the Supreme Soviet and participated in rubber-stamping the Central Committee’s decisions.
    There was one instance of real elections in the old Soviet Union, a couple of years before it disintegrated and shortly before I left the country.  In my district there were 2 candidates.  One came out of nowhere and was clearly a representative of the Communist establishment.  The other one was an editor of the local newspaper, a good guy and very popular.  The prove that he really was a good guy lies in the fact that some years later he was gunned down by the Mob.  Now, both candidates were members of the Communist Party, at least on paper.  But the difference was very stark between them.  Oh, and the good guy won back then.

  • Mike Devx

    Zachriel: Democracy depends on strong institutions, including an independent judiciary and protection for minorities.

    I agree, but I would add that you also require an enlightened and informed citizenry.  In my opinion we in the U.S.A. have an extraordinarily strong Constitution and very strong political institutions.  But in a democracy – including our sort, a representative democracy with federalism – you will always tend to get the government that the people want.  It takes time for the peoples’ will to be expressed, due to lifetime tenure in the Court and its selection process, and six year and four year elections for Senator and President, respectively, but over time the will of the people tends to be reflected in the composition of our representatives in all branches.

    If the Constitution means only what those in power think it means, then it really means nothing.  If the representatives of the people in any branch exceed their legal authority and the other branches do not resist – as can happen and is in fact happening to a dismaying extent these days – you have one road to ruin.  Your representatives can take you to economic disaster and collapse – as is *definitely* happening.  These disasters take time to occur and, if not corrected in time, will definitely lead to the failure of the political system, and collapse.   The collapse would be directly the fault of those in power over the decades leading to the collapse, but the ultimate responsibility devolves to the peoples’ choices.  If they screw it up, collapse can happen.

  • Zachriel

    Mike Devx: Your representatives can take you to economic disaster and collapse – as is *definitely* happening.

    The economy is not in collapse, though it’s still reeling from the global recession tied to the 2008 U.S. fiscal calamity. The recession has left large deficits in many countries, but that’s something that can be addressed as the economy recovers. But you’re right. It’s up to the people to make the tough decisions that are required to put their fiscal houses in order.

  • Ymarsakar

    I made a similar point to the one you made Book, so I agree with you. Democracy is one of those Democrat propaganda power words they like to use. Doesn’t really mean anything good.

  • jj

    It should of course be remembered (but often isn’t) that the Founders of this country were very suspicious of democracy, regarding it as pretty much a polite euphemism for “mob rule.”  This is why we are in fact not a democracy, despite third-grade teachers from sea to shining sea.  We are a representative republic.

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