March 29, 2011 9 Comments
This is true:
It is impossible for a democracy to make peace with a non-democracy. Overthrowing non-democracies is a permanent foreign policy aim of any democracy.
I suppose this can either be taken as a sinister statement or an innocuous one. I lean toward the latter.
What is a ‘democracy’? There is this schoolchild notion, which never made sense to me, that ‘democracy’ is ‘government by the people’, which supposedly was once in place over in Greece (or something). Of course, if that’s what ‘democracy’ means, there’s no such thing, never will be, and likely never really has been (at least among any group of people larger than a few dozen). ‘The people’ and ‘the government’ cannot both refer to the same group, that is a contradiction; by definition, a government is some proper subset of the people whom it is meant to govern. If I ask you ‘who’s the government here?’ and you say ‘the people! all of them!’ then we have to start the conversation all over and I need to find a new word, because I was looking for the actually-governing subset.
But if you think about it, ‘government by the people’ not what anyone actually means by ‘democracy’ anyway, at least not on any level other than the highly metaphorical. Instead, what they usually mean is constitutional republic – that is, a government which is (1) constrained by a constitution (which does not have to be written down), and (2) yes, representative of/answerable to the people via some plausible (often quite weak) mechanism. Usually that way is via elections (no one seems to have thought of a better way), which leads people to mistake the elections for the democracy. But it’s not impossible to imagine some other implementation of ‘answerable to the people’ (say, using the Internet, or decision markets) that doesn’t literally involve what we think of as ‘elections’.
So the point is yes, I think it’s true, that governments as described above – constitutional republics – have essentially a permanent (if often dormant out of expediency) war-status on with governments that don’t fit the above description, e.g. autocracies and the like. That is, they never fully accept such governments as legitimate or worthy of recognition in any sort of permanent sense. Now we need to decide what we think about this.
One answer – perhaps the answer of the post linked above – is that it’s bad because it means that democracies are, like, mean and we should dislike them. After all we’ve just identified a situation where they are essentially permanently belligerent. But belligerent against whom? Surely that’s important. If ‘being consistently mean and belligerent against some identifiable target’ is your metric, well all right, but that doesn’t actually lead to a sorting where democracies are worse than autocracies.
It may help to think of autocracies and similar governments as squatters (if only because, I think this is how democracies treat them). What is an autocracy or dictatorial government? It is essentially a (relatively) small gang of people with guns who, at some point in the past, took control over some geographical region and the people in it and claimed to be its ‘government’. In other words, they squatted on a country and refused to leave. There is no ‘legal’ basis (albeit I am using the term ‘legal’ quite loosely) for their rule. Yes, democracies have a hard time recognizing such squatters or defending them against internal threats to their squatting, and on some level, rightfully so.
A common retort will be that all of this is all just as true of ‘democratic’ governments – they too are men with guns, who claim to rule, and stay in power with the guns. This is surely what a frustrated Qaddafi must be thinking. And there’s something to that. A few years ago there was a video going around of a libertarian bent, done in a kids-cartoon Schoolhouse-Rock style, about how governments were all just pirates, but bigger. I think it is this one. Heh. But that criticism, however seductive, only goes so far. Yes, ‘democracies’ (constitutional governments) can too be likened to just bigger/more powerful gangs of pirates who have taken over and stayed in power and done a bunch of stuff to create this illusion of legitimacy. But this is like saying a cake is just flour, eggs, butter, and sugar; that bunch of stuff leads to a sort of phase transition that ends up making a world of difference. It’s the difference between having some sort of ‘legitimacy’, or ‘rule of law’, to back you up, and not. Or, if you prefer the reductionist attitude of that video – just replace ‘rule of law’ with ‘way, way, way larger gang of people who would back you up’.
Qaddafi has his army and special forces and cousins. But democracies have all that and more: judges, bureaucrats, nonprofit organizations, welfare recipients, soccer mom divorcees collecting alimony, tenured professors, etc., etc., virtually all of whom are committed to the illusion (if you think it is one) that the democratic government, at least in its basic constitution, is ‘legitimate’ and (therefore) unassailable. Autocracies don’t have that (if they did they would be democracies, i.e. constitutional republics). So, when you get into a dispute with an autocracy, your dispute is with their Big Baddie and whatever henchmen he has; but his dispute is, in turn, with not just the President and his army but with a giant long tail that includes everyone from the Department of Education on down to your local librarians. I don’t mean to suggest that any of those people can fight worth a lick of course, but what they do do is perpetuate the illusion of the democracy’s government’s legitimacy, power, authority, and unseatability in whatever it does.
Back to the squatter analogy, the reason the squatter can and would get kicked off the land in a dispute is ultimately because the land’s rightful titleholder (if he felt like it) could go to a judge – a stranger to him – and get an order to get him kicked off. The judge would give this order to the police, more strangers, whose chief would send some cops over to kick the squatter off. If the squatter still refused to leave and shot at the police, the police would shoot back, and everyone involved would say they were right to do so. If the squatter shot back and the police chief or judge relented, and said the policemen were in the wrong, then the policemen’s wives would get very pissed off ‘how dare you do that to my hard-working husband who risked his life for the state!’ and hold bake sales to kick out the judge or the Governor who appointed him or whose party appointed him. And to a large extent this all works not because the people involved are terrorized into acting this way, but because they actually believe it. This is all very approximate but it’s meant to illustrate a loose, perhaps slightly invisible network in place that leads to people in a democracy acting in concert, in a way that is probably not sustainable in a non-democracy, or even achievable other than by use of active state terror. You can call this the ‘rule of law’ or you can call it ‘having a larger, bought-and-paid-for brainwashed gang on your side’ but either way, the squatter is probably going to be out of luck.
A similar dynamic seems to have taken place with the American Indians. It is said that the early United States ‘stole their land’ but (on a very semantic level, I realize) this is factually incorrect: they did not own that land. I don’t think they had a system of land-owning, title and deed, in place at all. So, no matter how nice a person you were back then, you would have had a hard time seeing as immoral the settling on land that wasn’t ‘claimed’ – legally claimed and defended, with a long tail of judges and lawyers behind them – by anyone else. Who, exactly, had the legal right and standing to complain? That land didn’t actually seem to belong to anyone, so why not our settlers? The Indians, ok, but they were basically squatters there. Who were the US settlers even supposed to rent or buy the land from? Who was ‘in charge’?
Why does the squatter have to be bothered at all you ask? Well, he might not be, if the external democrat doesn’t want to have anything to do with the land. And indeed, in the real world, there are plenty of autocracies we don’t bother about. But say someone does want to do something with the land, or wants to buy something from the owner of the land. Being a democrat (I’m using this term loosely), he is a accustomed to a rule of law situation, that is his normality, so he will start to look around for ‘the law’, for who’s ‘in charge’. “Who’s in charge here?” he will ask. The squatter might well step up and say “I am”, and maybe he kinda is, so they strike a deal. But later, other people on the land attack the squatter, and the squatter’s hold on power seems shaky, and he doesn’t seem to obey all sorts of rule-of-lawey things like whether to make good on contracts and such, maybe he starts seizing assets (to fight off his internal challengers). The external democrat gets confused, and disturbed. What’s going on? Howcome there’s no law there? Howcome this squatter doesn’t really seem to be ‘in charge’ like he said he was? This isn’t how it’s supposed to be. I can’t do business this way, the external democrat says. Show me who’s really in charge, once and for all, so I can get this headache off my plate and move on to the next thing. What’s that? You mean no one’s more in charge than that squatter? Well, we must change that, mustn’t we? That’s step one.
And there you go, the foreign policy of democracies.
There is the notion, I don’t know where from, that wars occur when the two parties disagree about their relative strength. And in a way that seems to be all that’s going on here. Autocracies (squatters) all seem to think they are stronger than they actually are. And locally, they are strong (that’s how they got in power), so you can understand why they think this. Similarly, they look on democracies and see them as weak, because they don’t have the trappings of what got the autocrats their power. But in fact it is (or has been historically, anyway) non-democracies that are actually weaker, because they don’t have ‘legitimacy’ (or ‘a long tail of a huge, bribed-and-brainwashed gang behind them’, or whatever you want to call it). And so, this disagreement being always there, war is always ready to spring to the surface, at least unless/until the autocracy flips to democracy (after which, read Rudy Rummel).
In effect, this dynamic does indeed become to a one-way ratchet that has the macroscopic appearance of democracies always seeking to overthrow non-democracies. Which, I hasten to add, is not among the things I lose sleep over.