Tag: democracy

Another View of Tunisia

On Saturday, inspired by Fareed Zakaria’s writings on “illiberal democracy,” I expressed concerns about the prospect of quick elections in Tunisia, a country that has not had a free press, an independent judiciary, or other elements of liberalism. Khelil Bouarrouj, a Tunisian-American libertarian, thinks I am overly pessimistic. Here’s what he wrote me:

While Tunisia has never been a true democracy, the largely educated middle class in the nation is well-learned when it comes to the principles of a free society. The regime’s authoritarianism does not speak for the courageous Tunisian lawyers, activists and students; along with the general professional class. Tunisians know what a free press looks like. They’ve seen it around the world when they travel and social networks have served as a dissident channel. And let me add without hyperbole that on Saturday Tunisians awoke to a free press. The usually propagandistic state television changed its logo (which was a regime ensign) and became a voice for free debate with call-ins from average Tunisians. The private media was hosting panel discussions and it was stunning: people have shaken off the fear, and educated journalists and other civil society individuals were openly debating and discussing a whole host of issues. The newspapers that were published that morning ceased with self-censorship, and their coverage and editorials became free forums. A casual reader and observer of the press/media would conclude that it is dominated by a liberal social class with strong democratic values and articulation. In short, the past absence of an institutionalized free press does not mean that Tunisians do not understand the merit of free debate and differing voices. They always have and needed only the opportunity to breathe, which they have now seized.

This lesson, I believe, applies to democracy as well. The fact is that liberal social norms have been ingrained in Tunisian culture: a secular state, equal rights for women, higher education, religious tolerance, etc. I do not state this as a patriot, who has certainly been emotionally moved in recent days, but as an observer who has numerous family and friends in the nation and been engaged in countless political discussions.

The images of the protesters themselves tell a story. Unlike in other Arab nations, the opposition was not uncouth Islamists but a liberal middle class and students. The demonstrations at colleges had Arab youth spell out the word freedom (which was widely evoked during the month), and this was not just a slogan but a genuinely understood ideal. The nation is ready to be a true democracy and truly entrench democratic values. The cultural ethos is already democratic and this is what led to the protests, defining their voice and even the demand that the transition government adhere to the very letter of the constitution. After the president fled, the prime minister took over but Tunisian lawyers immediately declared it unconstitutional (as it was), along with buzzing messages on Facebook by the newly energized populace, and within hours the premier handed power to the speaker of the parliament according to the constitution. The high court has declared that elections shall be held in 60 days per the constitution as well.

Tunisians wanted to start off right with respect for the rule of law. And that’s just it: this nation has been democratic at heart; the recipe for democracy if you will, and the rule of law is understood, respected by Tunisians and had been upheld even under the past regime with the obvious exception of the corrupt and now dethroned ruling elite. Tunisians precisely threw them out because of their repressive rule and flagrant abuse of the law. And the fact is that the people are so committed to a free, democratic Tunisia and the rule of law that they did not acquiesce to an unconstitutional transfer of power, even though they had achieved their main objective of expelling the president and the premier was going to reign solely as a temporary president until elections are held.

Again: people wanted to start a new dawn without compromise on the rule of law. It is no trivial matter that even in the excitement and shock of victory people still thought about the constitutional provision and demanded it be respected. One may have believed that the people would have been elated and surfeit to achieve a monumental victory, unprecedented in the Arab world for a popular revolt to bring down an Arab tyrant, and not bothered with a provision, which would appear to be minor in context of the historic day and new beginning, and which is ultimately inconsequential since the caretaker would leave after elections. But they were not, and that speaks volumes. I have been glued to Facebook updates, the best pulse of the nation right now, and after the premier assumed power Tunisians immediately noted that this is unconstitutional and began to demand his removal. Tunisians wanted the constitution to be respected from Day One and it was the people who made it happen, again. On Facebook, the sentiment is unanimous: a clean break with the ruling party, respect for the rule of law, free and fair elections, and upholding the constitution. After such a dear victory, the widely heard pronouncement is that the people will not be complacent and are ready and willing to eagerly guard their rights and see to it that a democracy worthy of its name will be planted in Tunisia.

After Friday, the Tunisia people have earned with great sacrifice their freedom, and the people are determined that their God-given rights shall not slip an inch and are closely watching the transition as the proverbial vanguards of liberty, and the people will see to it that their hope will be made concrete. The nation is ready and while no democracy is perfect and all democracies are often in a state of oscillation, Tunisia is the best bet and hope for the Arab world’s first real liberal democracy. And I believe it will be a model for the rest of the region.

Democracy in Tunisia?

In the wake of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s abdication in Tunisia on Friday, both President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton stressed the need for quick elections in a country that has never known democracy, freedom of the press, or the rule of law:

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton …  reacted Friday to Ben Ali’s departure with a statement condemning government violence against protesters and calling for free elections.

“We look to the Tunisian government to build a stronger foundation for Tunisia’s future with economic, social and political reforms,” she said… .

President Obama condemned the use of violence against the protesters and urged the government to hold elections that “reflect the true will and aspirations” of Tunisians.

I’m reminded of Fareed Zakaria’s concerns about the blithe promotion of elections in his article “The Rise of Illiberal Democracy” (pdf; later expanded into a book, The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad):

…for almost a century in the West, democracy has meant liberal democracy—a political system marked not only by free and fair elections, but also by the rule of law, a separation of powers, and the protection of basic liberties of speech, assembly, religion, and property. In fact, this latter bundle of freedoms—what might be termed constitutional liberalism—is theoretically different and historically distinct from democracy. As the political scientist Philippe Schmitter has pointed out, “Liberalism, either as a conception of political liberty, or as a doctrine about economic policy, may have coincided with the rise of democracy. But it has never been immutably or unambiguously linked to its practice.” Today the two strands of liberal democracy, interwoven in the Western political fabric, are coming apart in the rest of the world. Democracy is flourishing; constitutional liberalism is not….

Constitutional liberalism, on the other hand, is not about the procedures for selecting government, but rather government’s goals. It refers to the tradition, deep in Western history, that seeks to protect an individual’s autonomy and dignity against coercion, whatever the source—state, church, or society. The term marries two closely connected ideas. It is liberal because it draws on the philosophical strain, beginning with the Greeks, that emphasizes individual liberty. It is constitutional because it rests on the tradition, beginning with the Romans, of the rule of law….

Since 1945 Western governments have, for the most part, embodied both democracy and constitutional liberalism. Thus it is difficult to imagine the two apart, in the form of either illiberal democracy or liberal autocracy. In fact both have existed in the past and persist in the present. Until the twentieth century, most countries in Western Europe were liberal autocracies or, at best, semi-democracies. The franchise was tightly restricted, and elected legislatures had little power…. Only in the late 1940s did most Western countries become full-fledged democracies, with universal adult suffrage. But one hundred years earlier, by the late 1840s, most of them had adopted important aspects of constitutional liberalism—the rule of law, private property rights, and increasingly, separated powers and free speech and assembly. For much of modern history, what characterized governments in Europe and North America, and differentiated them from those around the world, was not democracy but constitutional liberalism. The “Western model” is best symbolized not by the mass plebiscite but the impartial judge….

It is odd that the United States is so often the advocate of elections and plebiscitary democracy abroad. What is distinctive about the American system is not how democratic it is but rather how undemocratic it is, placing as it does multiple constraints on electoral majorities….

While it is easy to impose elections on a country, it is more difficult to push constitutional liberalism on a society. The process of genuine liberalization and democratization is gradual and long-term, in which an election is only one step. Without appropriate preparation, it might even be a false step….

Today, in the face of a spreading virus of illiberalism, the most useful role that the international community, and most importantly the United States, can play is—instead of searching for new lands to democratize and new places to hold elections—to consolidate democracy where it has taken root and to encourage the gradual development of constitutional liberalism across the globe. Democracy without constitutional liberalism is not simply inadequate, but dangerous, bringing with it the erosion of liberty, the abuse of power, ethnic divisions, and even war.

Let’s hope that the new leaders and the newly active citizens of Tunisia focus on developing freedom of the press, civil liberties, the rule of law, and constitutional limits on the power of government–including economic policies (pdf) more conducive to growth and progress–even as they move toward holding elections.

Venezuelans Vote on Sunday to Defend Their Moribund Democracy

Venezuelans go to the polls on Sunday for a legislative election that will test the extent to which democracy still exists in their country. It’ll be the 13th election since Hugo Chávez became president in 1998 (these include constitutional referenda, gubernatorial, legislative and presidential elections, as well as a recall vote).

Some would say that all these elections prove that Venezuela is a true democracy. I would argue that democracy means more than simply voting. It involves separation of powers, constitutional checks and balances, and freedom of the press. None of these exists in Venezuela anymore.

Even the electoral process is deeply flawed. Just as in previous elections, nobody expects the vote on Sunday to be fair: Independent international observers have again been barred from entering Venezuela. Most of the media are owned by the government, and the remaining private outlets must submit to the constant cadenas (presidential addresses) that the government requires private TV and radio stations to air. From 1998 to September 19th, broadcasters aired 2,072 cadenas for a total of 1,430 hours of transmission (almost two months of 24-hour broadcast).

Moreover, prominent opposition figures have been disqualified from running due to technicalities and dirty tricks. Others have been imprisoned or have fled the country. The electoral body is controlled by the Executive and the voters’ registry has not been independently audited in the recent past. It contains such anomalies as 32,000 people older than 100 years, persons registered multiple times, and 2,000 voters that share the same address.

Despite this daunting scenario, the opposition stands a good chance of making significant gains in the National Assembly. However, it remains to be seen if Chávez will allow even a modest voice of dissent in a country where he has long exerted total control over all government institutions. There will be a three-month period between the legislative election and the installment of the new National Assembly. It wouldn’t be a surprise if, after Sunday’s vote, Chávez moves to curtail the powers of Congress, just as he did with the powers of governors and the mayor of Caracas after the gubernatorial elections of 2008.

Unleashing an Internet Revolution in Cuba

By now the name of Yoani Sánchez has become common currency for those who follow Cuba. Through the use of New Media (blog, Twitter and YouTube) Yoani has challenged the Castro regime in a way that various U.S. government-sponsored efforts have  failed to do before, earning the respect and tacit admiration of even those who continue to sympathize with the Cuban regime. As my colleague Ian Vásquez put it a few months ago, Yoani keeps speaking truth to power.

Although she’s a remarkable individual, Yoani is not alone in fighting repression with technology. Other bloggers are making their voice heard, and that makes the Castro dictatorship nervous. As Yoani wrote in a paper recently published by Cato, despite the many difficulties and costs that regular Cubans face when trying to access Internet,

… a web of networks has emerged as the only means by which a person on the island can make his opinions known to the rest of the world. Today, this virtual space is like a training camp where Cubans go to relearn forgotten freedoms. The right of association can be found on Facebook, Twitter, and the other social networks, in a sort of compensation for the crime of “unlawful assembly” established by the Cuban penal code.

As recent events in Iran and elsewhere have shown, once a technology becomes pervasive in a society, it is extremely difficult for a totalitarian regime to control it. A new paper published today by the Cuba Study Group highlights the potential of technology in bringing about democracy and liberty to Cuba. The document entitled “Empowering the Cuban People through Technology: Recommendations for Private and Public Sector Leaders,” also recommends lifting all U.S. restrictions that hinder the opportunities of companies to provide cell phone and Internet service to the island. For example, the paper reviews the current U.S. regulatory framework on technology investment in other repressive regimes such as Iran, Syria, Burma and North Korea, and finds that “the U.S. regulations governing telecommunications-related exports to Cuba are still some of the most restrictive.”

By removing these counterproductive restrictions, Washington could help unleash an Internet revolution in Cuba. More Yoanis will certainly bring about more change in the island than 50 years of failed U.S. trade and travel bans.

“Deem and Pass” and TARP

The leaders of the House of Representatives plan to address health care through a “deem and pass” strategy.  Professor Michael McConnell believes this strategy violates the Constitution.  But put that aside for now. Ms. Pelosi has chosen “deem and pass” because, as she said, “people don’t have to vote on the Senate bill.” The “people” in question are House Democrats whose votes are essential to passing the bill.  These members fear voters would penalize them for voting for the Senate bill. As the Washington Post put it, “deem and pass” would “enable House Democrats not to be on record directly as supporting the Senate measure.”  A House Democrat running in a tough election will be able to deny voting for the Senate bill if it passes into law. We would then have an odd situation in which a bill became law even though only a minority of House members are willing to take responsibility for having supported it. It would be, as it were, a mystery how the bill became law.

This all reminds me of the TARP legislation. In my recent policy analysis of how Congress performed badly in the TARP case, I found that members of both of chambers were concerned mostly with avoiding responsibility for voting for the bailouts. In the tough cases, and probably many others, Congress does what it can to avoid being held accountable.

Many people inside DC will look at “deem and pass” through the lens of political hardball. If Pelosi can pull it off, she will be praised as tough and shrewd, a risk taker who gets her way by any means necessary.

But there is a larger problem here.  The willingness and capacity of Congress to shirk responsibility for its acts suggests deep institutional decline and corruption.  That decline implicates more than Congress itself. How can representative democracy work if voters cannot hold their representatives accountable?

Drug Violence in Mexico

The apparent drug gang killings of U.S. consular employees this weekend in Juarez, Mexico are a bloody reminder that President Obama is getting the United States involved in yet another war it cannot win. Drug gang killings also occurred in Acapulco, with a total of 50 such fatalities nationwide over the weekend.

Unfortunately, Obama has responded to the latest incident by following the same failed strategy as his predecessors when confronted with drug war losses: a stronger fight against drugs.

Though the deaths are the first in which Mexican drug cartels appear to have so brazenly targeted and killed individuals linked to the U.S. government, illicit drug trade violence has killed some 18,000 people in Mexico since President Calderon came to power in December 2006—more than three times the number of American military personnel deaths in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined.

The carnage only shot up after Calderon declared an all-out war on drug trafficking upon taking office. After more than three years, the policy has failed to reduce drug trafficking or production, but it is weakening the institutions of Mexican democracy and civil society through corruption and bloodshed, which are the predictable products of prohibition.

The 29 people killed in drug-related violence this weekend in a 24 hour period in the state of Guerrero sets a dubious record for a Mexican state. And an increasing number of Mexicans, including former Mexican Foreign Minister Jorge Castañeda, are calling for a thorough rethinking of anti-drug policy in Mexico and the United States that includes legalization. Legalization would significantly reduce drug cartel revenue and put an end to an enormous black market and the social pathologies that it creates.

Six Reasons to Downsize the Federal Government

1. Additional federal spending transfers resources from the more productive private sector to the less productive public sector of the economy. The bulk of federal spending goes toward subsidies and benefit payments, which generally do not enhance economic productivity. With lower productivity, average American incomes will fall.

2. As federal spending rises, it creates pressure to raise taxes now and in the future. Higher taxes reduce incentives for productive activities such as working, saving, investing, and starting businesses. Higher taxes also increase incentives to engage in unproductive activities such as tax avoidance.

3. Much federal spending is wasteful and many federal programs are mismanaged. Cost overruns, fraud and abuse, and other bureaucratic failures are endemic in many agencies. It’s true that failures also occur in the private sector, but they are weeded out by competition, bankruptcy, and other market forces. We need to similarly weed out government failures.

4. Federal programs often benefit special interest groups while harming the broader interests of the general public. How is that possible in a democracy? The answer is that logrolling or horse-trading in Congress allows programs to be enacted even though they are only favored by minorities of legislators and voters. One solution is to impose a legal or constitutional cap on the overall federal budget to force politicians to make spending trade-offs.

5. Many federal programs cause active damage to society, in addition to the damage caused by the higher taxes needed to fund them. Programs usually distort markets and they sometimes cause social and environmental damage. Some examples are housing subsidies that helped to cause the financial crises, welfare programs that have created dependency, and farm subsidies that have harmed the environment.

6. The expansion of the federal government in recent decades runs counter to the American tradition of federalism. Federal functions should be “few and defined” in James Madison’s words, with most government activities left to the states. The explosion in federal aid to the states since the 1960s has strangled diversity and innovation in state governments because aid has been accompanied by a mass of one-size-fits-all regulations.

For more, see DownsizingGovernment.org.