Tag: monarchy

Democracy Versus Autocracy in Kuwait: Where Is Real Liberty?

KUWAIT CITY, KUWAIT—This small Gulf nation was largely unknown in America before Saddam Hussein’s Iraq invaded more than 20 years ago. The United States intervened to drive Iraqi forces out. Kuwaitis remain grateful to Americans and emphasize their friendship with the United States.

Although a monarchy, Kuwait has an elected parliament and a generally free media. It regularly invites foreign analysts and journalists to observe its elections. I am making my second trip this year.

Tremors from the Arab Spring are being felt here. The parliament elected in 2009 faced charges of corruption and lost popularity, and was dissolved at the beginning of the year. Elections were held in February.

All very democratic.

The new legislature was dominated by anti-government activists and, more important, Islamists. Top of the latter’s agenda was making Sharia the basis of all laws, imposing the death penalty for blasphemy, and closing Christian churches. Not very good for liberty.

The Kuwaiti emir, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, said no to all three. Liberty was protected only because Kuwait was not a genuine parliamentary system where elections determine the government.

The constitutional court then reinstated the previous parliament on technical grounds—that it had not been properly dissolved. The members were no more popular than before and the body soon was properly dissolved. But the emir unilaterally changed the voting system from four votes to one vote per district—from which ten MPs are chosen. Public protests and a large-scale boycott ensued.

Nonetheless, the election was held on December 1. Turnout fell—to about 40 percent, compared to 60 percent in February—but the conduct of the poll received general praise from outside observers. The vote elevated a number of unknowns to parliament.

The government claimed success, but the opposition, which ranges from liberals to Islamists, organized 15 demonstrations involving thousands on Monday night. The police responded with force and injuries resulted. The opposition promised more protests, including a large rally promised for Saturday. The emir met with members of the royal family. My friend, political scientist Shafeeq Ghabra, told me that Kuwait was at a “political crossroads,” with the public determined to “deepen democratization.”

No one knows there this will end. The main opposition leader Musallam Al-Barrak, until this election the longest-serving MP, emphasized the protestors’ commitment to the emir. He told me the situation in Kuwait was different than elsewhere in the Arab Spring: “We want to have an elected government. That does not mean we are against the ruling system.” However, the driving force behind the protests is the youth movement—an incredible 70 percent of the population is under 29. Some of them, at least, seem less than enamored with monarchical rule, with or without a parliament.

As the current political crisis—a word now used by some—plays out, Kuwaitis may find themselves with something closer to a popularly elected government. Unfortunately, however, experience shows that this may not make them freer.

Vive La Revolution?

Today is the 222nd anniversary of the storming of the Bastille on July 14, 1789, the date usually recognized as the beginning of the French Revolution. I’ll be speaking this weekend at FreedomFest on the topic, “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity: A Libertarian Version.” I previewed part of my talk at this week’s Britannica Blog column. So what should libertarians think about the French Revolution? The great Henny Youngman, when asked “How’s your wife?” answered, “Compared to what?”

Compared to the American Revolution, the French Revolution is very disappointing to libertarians. Compared to the Russian Revolution, it looks pretty good. And it also looks good, at least in the long view, compared to the ancien regime that preceded it….

Lord Acton wrote that for decades before the revolution “the Church was oppressed, the Protestants persecuted or exiled, … the people exhausted by taxes and wars.” The rise of absolutism had centralized power and led to the growth of administrative bureaucracies on top of the feudal land monopolies and restrictive guilds….

The results of that philosophical error—that the state is the embodiment of the “general will,” which is sovereign and thus unconstrained—have often been disastrous, and conservatives point to the Reign of Terror in 1793-94 as the precursor of similar terrors in totalitarian countries from the Soviet Union to Pol Pot’s Cambodia.

In Europe the results of creating democratic but essentially unconstrained governments have been far different but still disappointing to liberals….

Still, as Constant celebrated in 1816, in England, France, and the United States, liberty

is the right to be subjected only to the laws, and to be neither arrested, detained, put to death or maltreated in any way by the arbitrary will of one or more individuals. It is the right of everyone to express their opinion, choose a profession and practice it, to dispose of property, and even to abuse it; to come and go without permission, and without having to account for their motives or undertakings. It is everyone’s right to associate with other individuals, either to discuss their interests, or to profess the religion which they and their associates prefer, or even simply to occupy their days or hours in a way which is most compatible with their inclinations or whims.

Compared to the ancien regime of monarchy, aristocracy, class, monopoly, mercantilism, religious uniformity, and arbitrary power, that’s the triumph of liberalism.

Read the whole thing.

The Moral Equivalent of Monarchy

Matt Yglesias plumps for monarchy, based on – what else? – human nature:

[I]t seems inevitable in any country for some individual to end up serving the functional role of the king. Humans are hierarchical primates by nature and have a kind of fascination with power and dignity. This is somewhat inevitable, but it also cuts against the grain of a democracy. And under constitutional monarchy, you can mitigate the harm posed by displacing the mystique of power onto the powerless monarch. We follow the royal family with fascination, they participate in weird ceremonies, they have dignity, they symbolize the nation, we all talk about them respectfully, etc. Meanwhile, the Prime Minister gets to be just another politician. Admittedly the one who’s most important at this given moment in time. But that’s no reason not to jeer at him during Question Time. He’s not the symbol of the nation who’s owed deference. He’s a servant of the people and people who feel he’s serving them poorly should say so.

Dignity and power?

Dignity, sure. I admit, I am fascinated by dignity. I delight when formerly servile people regain it. I love, without apology, the dignity of being an American, under which our “weird ceremonies” happen chiefly of our own volition. I love the dignity of the immigrant shopkeeper – she might not have much, but what she has is hers, she’s worked for it, and she knows it. I love the dignity of a good book, a well-baked loaf of bread, or Dvořák’s Ninth. I love the dignity of suburbia, and of bohemia. I’ve known them both, and what they have in common is this – large stretches of time in which you are left to your own devices. That’s dignity.

But power? In a wide swath all around it, power destroys dignity. That’s not just an unfortunate side-effect. That’s the whole point of power. That’s what it does. It’s telling that Yglesias manages to praise power unstintingly – but only among a group of preposterous twits who’ve long ago stopped wielding any significant power themselves. Except, evidently, the power to fascinate the power-hungry.

Is it human nature to love power? Maybe for some. Indeed, I could hardly explain otherwise the continued presence of coercion in the world. Thinkers far greater than I have come to the same conclusion, so let’s just leave it at that.

Not everyone, though, is quite so keen on power. As Ravi Iyer, Jonathan Haidt, et al. have recently suggested, one self-identified group – libertarians – has a high degree of skepticism regarding authority, tradition, and conformity. Self-described libertarians place a high value on individualism, personal choice, and reason, even sometimes at the expense of other values, like emotion or community. In short, when we see a king, we don’t say “Wow!” We say – “Why?”

Even if you’re not a libertarian, it’s probably a good thing that someone is out there asking that question for you. That’s particularly so if Yglesias is right, and if most humans are hard-wired to idolize. Even a few false idols can be pretty costly. Having people around who encourage us to see them can do us a lot of good in the long run.

As I’m sure I don’t have to point out, the mistrust of kings, of those so-called gods on earth, runs deep in the American tradition. As Thomas Jefferson put it:

[T]he mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of god.

Modern science is increasingly finding that humans aren’t equal in a positive, descriptive sense. You and I are emphatically and obviously quite different, from the genetic level on up. Modern political experiments have shown that we should not try to make ourselves materially equal by rearranging society, either. The results of all such projects have been atrocities.

But claims about human equality really do shine in one area. They say, as Jefferson did, that your notions of the superior man are probably delusions, and that we should be aware of our embarrassing tendency toward them. Personally, I’d no more bow to the queen of England than I would to the doorman at the Ritz-Carlton. They both have fancy clothes, and a retinue of servants attending them, and time-honored traditions that they uphold. Bully for them. But also for our power to place them, at least once in a while, on the same level.

Somebody Tell Serena Williams

Americans don’t curtsy to foreign monarchs.

Serena, who earned her third title by beating her sister in last year’s final, has tweaked her tournament preparation in anticipation of a visit Thursday to Wimbledon by Queen Elizabeth II.

“I’ve been working on my curtsy,” Serena said. “It’s a little extreme, so I’m going to have to tone it down. I was practicing it this morning.”

This is a republic. We do not recognize distinctions among individuals based on class or birth. We are not subjects of the queen of the England, the queen of the Netherlands, the emperor of Japan, or the king of Saudi Arabia. Therefore we don’t bow or curtsy to foreign heads of state.

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