T Nation

Rousseau and Iraq

I, like most of us, have been thinking about the war in Iraq. I’m rather ambivalent; I think getting rid of Hussein was a good thing, but I don’t know whether “liberating the Iraqi people” will actually work.

Along those lines, in “On the Social Contract,” Rousseau talks about how Peter tried to forge an advanced European-style state out of the Russians, when they just weren’t at that state of development. According to Rousseau, they should’ve been allowed to be what they were: warriors. Eventually, they would’ve matured and would’ve been capable of being molded into a more advanced people. Instead, however, they were ruined, and would probably never have the luck to advance as a society.

Rousseau’s point is that different peoples are at different stages of development, and one role of the legislator is to shape the mores of the people so that they are ready to enter into a system of law and legitimate government. Force won’t work, and neither will persuasion.

The whole point of this post, then, is that the mores haven’t been shaped in the Iraqi people; democracy must arise from WITHIN the people, it cannot be imposed from the outside. And even if you don’t buy into Rousseau, what American here would deny that the Founders are looked on with a reverence that borders on being a civil religion? Do we not have, as a people and inheritors of the English tradition, certain core values and beliefs that shape our Constitution, our law, and even our personal mores and behaviors? Could America work if we did not revere these values?

[quote]nephorm wrote:
I, like most of us, have been thinking about the war in Iraq. I’m rather ambivalent; I think getting rid of Hussein was a good thing, but I don’t know whether “liberating the Iraqi people” will actually work.

Along those lines, in “On the Social Contract,” Rousseau talks about how Peter tried to forge an advanced European-style state out of the Russians, when they just weren’t at that state of development. According to Rousseau, they should’ve been allowed to be what they were: warriors. Eventually, they would’ve matured and would’ve been capable of being molded into a more advanced people. Instead, however, they were ruined, and would probably never have the luck to advance as a society.

Rousseau’s point is that different peoples are at different stages of development, and one role of the legislator is to shape the mores of the people so that they are ready to enter into a system of law and legitimate government. Force won’t work, and neither will persuasion.

The whole point of this post, then, is that the mores haven’t been shaped in the Iraqi people; democracy must arise from WITHIN the people, it cannot be imposed from the outside. And even if you don’t buy into Rousseau, what American here would deny that the Founders are looked on with a reverence that borders on being a civil religion? Do we not have, as a people and inheritors of the English tradition, certain core values and beliefs that shape our Constitution, our law, and even our personal mores and behaviors? Could America work if we did not revere these values?[/quote]

Interesting – this debate has been going on since Bush first talked about building democracy in Iraq.

I suppose the question that immediately arises is what should have been done in the alternative, given the removal of the Hussein government?

More directly on your point though, I don’t know. Perhaps there does need to be a slow progression toward freedom – Russia seems to be a good argument for that (especially recently). But some of the Asian countries have done well since having had democractic governance foisted upon them, most notably Japan.

At the time of our founding, it was widely believed that the electorate needed to be informed for a democracy to work – we’ve seemingly disproved that since the extenstion of universal suffrage.

There are also those who think the Reformation was directly related to the movement toward democracy – Islam hasn’t had anything resembling a Reformation, and it doesn’t even really have a central authority against which a Reformation could arise.

I guess there are too many factors for me to think I could put them altogether to say definitively what could or could not be accomplished. However, I think there could be a successful democratic-styled government in Iraq, provided there is a strong rule of law enforced, and there is a good structure in place from the beginning. And there have to be strong leaders committed to maintaining both the rule of law and democratic government. I doubt it will be exactly like ours – the cultural similarities aren’t there – but it could be as successful as the Asian countries.

Also, as a digression, small quibble with Rousseau’s observation that you stated above: the majority of Russians were peasant subsistance farmers, not warriors – that analysis might apply to the nobility, but not to the peasants. On an even bigger tangent, it’s somewhat amusing that the countries in which communism really took hold and stayed put for the long term were still mostly agrarian when the revolutions took place (China and Russia), rather than industrial countries as was predicted by Marx.

[quote]BostonBarrister wrote:
At the time of our founding, it was widely believed that the electorate needed to be informed for a democracy to work – we’ve seemingly disproved that since the extenstion of universal suffrage.
[/quote]
Do you really think we’ve disproved that assertion? I do sometimes wonder if we’ve been too quick to grant people the right to vote who have no business doing so. But that’s a different issue.

If you mean that the Reformation was a precursor to the Enlightenment, with its emphasis on secular origins for power, then yes, I agree with you. Machiavelli, for example, can be read as a Protestant Reformationist (and a republican).
I also agree that the Reformation forced a fundamental religious tolerance of limited scope: tolerance was extended to other Christians with differing interpretations of the scriptures. This is crucial, I think, as it is only after being able to accept people of only limited religious difference from yourself that you can accept people with vastly different beliefs.

I don’t know any more than you do, obviously. I’d like to think that there’s a possibility of a stable, democratic Iraq; but without a built in respect for at least some diversity of opinion, we’re looking at an ochlocracy, at best.

Part of the problem, I think, is that the world has become too small. Cultures can no longer evolve on their own, or simply isolate themselves, at least not easily. But the Middle East has been a mess for centuries, with few signs of improvement. Perhaps this is our best bet.

[quote]
BostonBarrister wrote:
At the time of our founding, it was widely believed that the electorate needed to be informed for a democracy to work – we’ve seemingly disproved that since the extenstion of universal suffrage.

nephorm wrote:
Do you really think we’ve disproved that assertion? I do sometimes wonder if we’ve been too quick to grant people the right to vote who have no business doing so. But that’s a different issue.[/quote]

Well, I see you caught me hedging myself there with “seemingly disproved.” Studies about voter ignorance leave me highly disturbed (see: http://www.cato.org/pub_display.php?pub_id=2372 ), but I suppose if we choose a loose-enough defintion of “functioning” w/r/t “functioning democratic government” then we’ve disproved it. See, we just have to have low standards… =-)

This is why I would not be averse to having some basic standards of intelligence and/or knowledge as prerequisites for voter registration – it really is too bad such tests were so abused and misused by Jim Crow officials in the South to disenfranchise black voters, because conceptually such tests are a good idea. I am pretty sure any attempt to institute a test now would be instantly demagogued.

[quote]
BostonBarrister wrote:
There are also those who think the Reformation was directly related to the movement toward democracy

nephorm wrote:
If you mean that the Reformation was a precursor to the Enlightenment, with its emphasis on secular origins for power, then yes, I agree with you. Machiavelli, for example, can be read as a Protestant Reformationist (and a republican).
I also agree that the Reformation forced a fundamental religious tolerance of limited scope: tolerance was extended to other Christians with differing interpretations of the scriptures. This is crucial, I think, as it is only after being able to accept people of only limited religious difference from yourself that you can accept people with vastly different beliefs.[/quote]

That is essentially what I meant. However, thinking about it, Islam is already somewhere between Catholicism and Protestantism in that there isn’t really a central authority to whom Muslims turn for their scriptural interpretation the way Catholics turn to the Pope, but generally I don’t believe the Muslims have the focus on individual interpretation of the Koran either – they just get it from less centralized religious leaders. I think that the focus on thinking and interpreting individually laid the groundwork for a lot of the democratic reforms, which were so dependent on the idea of individuals being able to think and determine things for themselves.

[quote]
nephorm wrote:
I don’t know any more than you do, obviously. I’d like to think that there’s a possibility of a stable, democratic Iraq; but without a built in respect for at least some diversity of opinion, we’re looking at an ochlocracy, at best.

Part of the problem, I think, is that the world has become too small. Cultures can no longer evolve on their own, or simply isolate themselves, at least not easily. But the Middle East has been a mess for centuries, with few signs of improvement. Perhaps this is our best bet. [/quote]

Iraq’s other problem is that it’s not really a traditional country, but a relic of the British colonial system – they just drew up the borders and put together 3 groups that don’t much care for each other. This is why I think a federal system – maybe along the lines of what the Swiss have – would be an ideal option.

And I think you’re right about diversity of opinion – perhaps we could enshrine some of our Bill of Rights in their constitution, but they would need to have the will and dedication to enforce them, especially in the face of religious-based pressure.

As for the world being too small, I think there’s a lot to that – but hopefully we can utilize part of that to accelerate the learning curve. Maybe a lot of exposure to Western culture and mores via TV, internet and other media can at least help them gravitate toward the our mean in terms of the values and principles necessary to sustain a democratic government.

“This is why I would not be averse to having some basic standards of intelligence and/or knowledge as prerequisites for voter registration – it really is too bad such tests were so abused and misused by Jim Crow officials in the South to disenfranchise black voters, because conceptually such tests are a good idea. I am pretty sure any attempt to institute a test now would be instantly demagogued.”

and rightly so. That is elitism of the worst kind.

The issue should be tackled from the other end. There should be an emphasis on education and involvement, (although arguably there is a huge dissinsentive to implement this as it would likely result in a shift in the status quo).

People have a right to vote. Period. If they want to keep their eyes blind, that is their choice.

On what Kieran wrote:

It’s elitism of the worst kind to want some assurance that voters aren’t throwing darts in the voting booth? The whole premise of legitimacy of government via a vote of the people presupposes an informed choice. Now, you can argue all day long as to how much knowledge one needs to be informed, but there has to be some sort of minimum

[quote]BostonBarrister wrote:
On what Kieran wrote:

It’s elitism of the worst kind to want some assurance that voters aren’t throwing darts in the voting booth? The whole premise of legitimacy of government via a vote of the people presupposes an informed choice. Now, you can argue all day long as to how much knowledge one needs to be informed, but there has to be some sort of minimum[/quote]

Well, I think maybe it’s going overboard to accuse you of being an “elitist”, BB, but I think kieran’s got a point. I mean, there’s always going to be a segment of society that is ignorant. The trick is to educate the living shit out of our kids, and make the ignorant a small minority. You don’t wanna start deleting the rights of some people based against some standard do ya? Imagine having to study for the voter’s SAT!

lothario:

I think the right to vote comes with the concomitant responsibility of being an informed voter. We tend to focus only on the “right” side of the equation, but most of our rights also come with responsibilities. I don’t want to blithely go around indiscriminately eliminating individuals from voter rolls, but at the same time it is ridiculous to have people voting on issues they know nothing about.

As I said, with voting, the theory that the “consent of the governed” legitimizes governments requires that the voters are making an intelligent, considered choice. As I pointed out above, one could argue all day about the amount of knowledge required, or even whether it’s possible, given the size and scope that government has attained, that one could be informed on ALL relevant issues.

That said, however, when voters are completely ignorant, it poses a huge problem, because it takes away meaning from the electoral result. There is nothing inherently illegitimate about requiring citizens to demonstrate some basic familiarity with their government in order to exercise the franchise.

[quote]BostonBarrister wrote:
lothario:

…I don’t want to blithely go around indiscriminately eliminating individuals from voter rolls, but at the same time it is ridiculous to have people voting on issues they know nothing about.

As I said, with voting, the theory that the “consent of the governed” legitimizes governments requires that the voters are making an intelligent, considered choice. As I pointed out above, one could argue all day about the amount of knowledge required, or even whether it’s possible, given the size and scope that government has attained, that one could be informed on ALL relevant issues.

That said, however, when voters are completely ignorant, it poses a huge problem, because it takes away meaning from the electoral result. There is nothing inherently illegitimate about requiring citizens to demonstrate some basic familiarity with their government in order to exercise the franchise. [/quote]

I think the problem goes much further than simple ignorance. Consent of the governed presuposes that you can actually vote for a candidate whom you actually agree with on most issues. In a 2 party system, it doesn’t matter if you understand all or most of the issues, because you can’t vote for a candidate that actually shares most of your opinions anyway. People are, for the most part, relegated to voting for “the lesser of 2 evils” instead of someone who they substantialy agree with.

“Democracy is the worst form of government except for all those others that have been tried.”
-Winston Churchill

oh, and BB’s new personal favorite:

“The best argument against democracy is a five minute conversation with the average voter.”
-W.C.

[quote]Kieran wrote:

I think the problem goes much further than simple ignorance. Consent of the governed presuposes that you can actually vote for a candidate whom you actually agree with on most issues. In a 2 party system, it doesn’t matter if you understand all or most of the issues, because you can’t vote for a candidate that actually shares most of your opinions anyway. People are, for the most part, relegated to voting for “the lesser of 2 evils” instead of someone who they substantialy agree with.

“Democracy is the worst form of government except for all those others that have been tried.”
-Winston Churchill

oh, and BB’s new personal favorite:

“The best argument against democracy is a five minute conversation with the average voter.”
-W.C.[/quote]

kieran:

On your voting point, that’s not the case, because democracy is a majority rule, so whether any particular voter has a choice he agrees with who has a chance to win is not relevant to consent. A person can write in his vote if he is so inclined, can vote for minority party candidates who have no chance to win, or can even choose to refrain from voting, and if the voters have a chance to make an informed decision among those options and voting for one of the two large-party candidates who do have chances to win, then consent of the governed is there. Consent of the governed is a concept that applies to the majority of citizens, not to the preferences of any particular voter.

Also, while I appreciate Winston Churchill very much, especially as a wartime leader, I think you would do well to find critiques from other sources if you wish to imply that elitism is bad.

That said, no one ever said democracy was perfect… but Churchill was right – it is a helluva lot better than the other alternatives, at least in the long run.

Going back to Montesquieu, Rousseau, Constant, etc. (and thereby contributing to the founders’ sense of governmental legitimacy), the general will (rather than merely the consent of the governed) does confer legitimacy on a government. Constant pointed out that that was a necessary but not sufficient condition; inalienable rights must also go along with that. But the reason that the general will does confer legitimacy (to whatever extent it is capable of doing so) is that individual men, while ill-equipped to make specific decisions on policy, are quite capable of determining the capability of a given candidate. As Montesquieu pointed out, the common man is perfectly able to tell if a given judge has been assiduous, and if people tend to leave his court satisfied.

But there’s a modern problem with this; with urbanization and increased population density, we don’t really know most of the officials who ought to concern us. Can you name a single judge (who doesn’t happen to be a personal friend)? Supreme Court justices don’t count. Consent of the governed rests on the presumption that the people are continually confronted with government and its effects, and can thereby discern a meaningful opinion about its ministers.

We are no longer so confronted, unless through the biased media source of your choice; we have come to rely upon ersatz political involvement, rather than true blood and guts politics that rely on you actually experiencing it in a meaningful way apart from taxes.