Palmer Spreads Libertarian Ideas in Iraq

July/​August 2005 • Policy Report

Cato Institute senior fellow Tom G. Palmer visited Iraq in April to promote the values of constitutionally limited government, toleration, and free markets. In addition to speaking in the assembly hall of the parliament to members of the Iraqi National Assembly, he met with political figures, clerics, academics, journalists, women’s groups, business people, and activists to promote libertarian ideas and to discover people who would be able to establish a think tank, translate and publish libertarian works, and provide pro‐​freedom input into the political processes in that country.

A highlight of his visit was addressing 61 members of the Iraqi parliament on “Principles of Constitutional Democracy.” He had spent significant time working with Iraqi translators to prepare documents and a graphicrich Powerpoint presentation in Arabic. The presentation started with the Epic of Gilgamesh, which is set in Iraq and is well‐​known to Iraqis. Palmer explained how it illustrates the dangers of unlimited power and the necessity of controlling power. The presentation focused on five basic principles of constitutional democracy: (1) No power is above the law. (2) All are equal before the law. (3) The people delegate power. (4) The rights of the people are constitutionally protected. (5) An effective constitution is like the architecture of a well‐​built house that must last for many generations. (The entire presentation is available on the Cato website in both English and Arabic, and both PDF and Powerpoint, at http://​www​.cato​.org/ people/palmer.html.)

That presentation, along with an Arabic translation of a short paper Palmer wrote on “Challenges of Democratization,” was later distributed to all the members of the Iraqi National Assembly as a part of their preparations for writing a new constitution. In addition, Palmer had commissioned and supervised preparation of a bilingual edition of Cato’s pocket edition of the American Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, which was also distributed.

Palmer also assembled a group of Iraqis who are committed to classical liberal principles and arranged for them to travel to Turkey, where they met with Turkish libertarians, took part in a major conference on “Freedom and Democracy,” and participated in a training program on setting up and managing independent profreedom organizations. He hopes that that group will form the nucleus of a movement for personal freedom, free enterprise, and limited government.

Palmer had been very active during the waning years of the Soviet Union in promoting libertarian ideas in communist countries, and he continued that work in Iraq, notably by commissioning translations into Arabic of books and essays from the classical liberal tradition. Frederic Bastiat’s influential book The Law had just appeared in Arabic, and Palmer commissioned translations of Bastiat’s essay “What Is Seen and What Is Not Seen” (which explodes fallacies in socialist thinking); Libertarianism: A Primer, by David Boaz; Common Sense Economics: What Everyone Should Know about Wealth and Prosperity, by three Cato adjunct scholars, James Gwartney, Richard Stroup, and Dwight Lee; F. A. Hayek’s essay “The Use of Knowledge in Society”; and other works.

Palmer also spoke before groups of Iraqi lawyers and clerics on “Principles of Constitutional Democracy,” to economists on “Rational Choice and Political and Economic Institutions,” and to women activists on constitutionalism, “A Free Market for a Prosperous Iraq,” and “Effective Public Speaking.”

This article originally appeared in Cato Policy Report on July 1, 2005.