24 August 2011

Democracy is not freedom

I'm not as pessimistic as Peter Cresswell over Libya, because the country has never itself been a hotbed of Islamism, and there has been only scant evidence of Islamist involvement in the rebel movement.  Indeed, the loudest claims about Islamists have come from the Gaddafi regime, keen to scare its erstwhile Western friends into supporting Gaddafi.  Libya has had over 40 years of a regime that embraced Islam, but also pushed a secularist agenda based on Gaddafi's erratic Green Book.   Libya neither has the history of Islamism that Egypt has had, nor the poverty and sectarianism that have bolstered Islamism elsewhere.  Of course, I hope I am not wrong, yet there is a window of hope for Libya emerging.

I believe Libya will have a better future without Gaddafi, but let's not pretend that "liberation" of Libya means Libyans will be free - they will simply be less oppressed and have some freedoms that were denied them under Gaddafi.  For the oft-repeated statement "the Libyan people will now be in control of their destiny" or "the Libyan people will not determine their future" has been said in some form or another by the likes of Obama, Cameron, Sarkozy and others.

However what does that mean?

At best what they mean is that Libyan can become a democracy, and that Libyans can then vote for their government.  

However, ticking a box on a ballot is not being in control of your destiny.

A functioning liberal democracy (bear in mind that in the Arab world only Iraq can be said to come close to this) has to have certain core freedoms to function.  Freedom of assembly and association, so that political parties can be formed and operate, and for people to organise politically outside parties, are rather essential.   Freedom of the press and freedom of speech are essential for a proper contest of ideas to occur.   Almost as important are for the core functions of the state to operate objectively, so that when laws are enforced they do not target based on political belief, or when elections are held, the counting or management is not subject to corruption.

It would be a bold presumption to say that Libya is about to get all of that.  For even some ostensibly liberal democracies in Europe have struggled to manage this 20 years after the end of the communist bloc.

However, even if Libya appeared to have all of that, would Libyans really have control of their own destiny?

Unless Libya's future government is constitutionally constrained to protect Libyan's individual freedom, then all democracy will do is put their destiny in the hands of the largest number of hands.   You don't have control of your destiny, when your rights are up for a vote.

For example, will Libya protect apostasy?  It hasn't been a crime so far, but it is a serious criminal offence in much of the Muslim world, including Egypt (with the death penalty in many countries).

Will Libyan private property rights be protected?  Human rights advocates rarely care at all about this, yet it is about protecting the products of people's minds, which is essential for survival.

Will Libyans be entitled to live their lives in peace as long as they respect the rights of other Libyans to do the same?  Or will they face restrictions based on politics or religion?

The only way Libyans will have control over their own destiny, is when the word "they" means "each and every individual independently deciding how to live their lives" in peace with each other.

That could only come if Libya gained a government that existed not to initiate force against them, but to protect them from the initiation of force.   To ensure that under a liberal democracy, it would need a constitution to protect that.   I doubt that in the wildest dreams of most of the rebels that such an idea is in the minds of many.

Eliminating a totalitarian dictatorship, particularly one that was so outwardly aggressive towards other countries (though funnily enough you rarely heard the so-called "peace" movement decrying Libyan imperialism), is positive.  It is likely Libyans will have more freedom than they have had for a long time, but let's not pretend that they will have "control of their destiny".  

At best they will have a very small say in the government that will control their destiny.   It is like asking the slaves to vote on who will be their master.

1 comment:

Mark Hubbard said...

Great post. Until we can get people to understand how our tyranny of the majorities are holding freedom back, the freedom movement will remain still-born.

(And, of course, the great thing about realising democracy is not freedom, is the knowledge that means we don't need damned politicians).