George A. Sprecace M.D., J.D., F.A.C.P. and Allergy Associates of New London, P.C.
www.asthma-drsprecace.com


Is Democracy for Everyone?
Myron R. Schoenfeld, MA,MD,FACP,FACC
2 Overhill Road, Suite 210
Scarsdale, New York 10583
Tel. # 914-725-4966
Fax # 914-725-6009

This paper was presented on Wednesday, Dec.15, 2004, at the 75th combined meeting of the Scarsdale/Westchester/Fairfield Phi Beta Kappa Association and the Polymath Society, Dr. Schoenfeld is president of both organizations




        Freedom and democracy are inextricably linked. After all, democracy just is freedom in the political sphere, wherein voters choose both the rulers and rules which govern them. Democracy is part of the social contract made between free and independent individuals, whereby each gives up some of their freedoms for the greater advantages of community living.

        Americans long have regarded the universal applicability of freedom and democracy with what has been termed "cognitive dissonance" - the simultaneous holding of two, mutually exclusive, beliefs.

        On the one hand, in the planning for a re-ordering of world politics in the aftermath of World War II, it was widely held that democracy never would take hold for long in Germany and Japan. Their people were accustomed to being regimented, and both wanted and needed a strong leader to tell them what to do.

        It was widely believed that India, once unshackled from British colonial rule, surely would descend into chaos. After all, India was not a single country with a united background and loyalty, but rather a potpourri of a hundred kingdoms which had warred against each other, and each with its own history, culture, language or dialect, and religious mix.

        Besides, the vast majority of Asians, Africans, and Latin Americans were felt to be too poor and too uneducated to care about the vote and other such highfalutin ideas when they didn't have enough to eat. In "The Good Earth," the Nobel Laureate Peal S. Buck writes that during a Chinese uprising for democracy, one peasant said to another:

        "Democracy? What's democracy?" The other responded: "I don't know. I think it means more rice.Ē

        On the other hand, it also long has been a core belief of Americans that both freedom and democracy are fundamental yearnings of all peoples, that these yearnings widely are thwarted by tyrants who seize and hold power illegally only by brute force, and that it is the duty of the United States, as the exemplar of morality, wealth, and power, to help these unfortunate squelched peoples to throw off their yokes of oppression.

        It is argued that to do so is a matter of our self-interest, because democracies rarely make war against each other.

        It also is a form of secular messianism, a conceit that daddy knows best. Wasn't British colonialism of yesteryear partly justified by the conviction that they, the British, were bringing the benefits of Christian civilization to the barbarian heathens?

        Finally, we believe that it also is our religious duty to do so because it is dictated by our strong Judeo-Christian beliefs. Thus:

* * *

The struggle for freedom is a continuous struggle,

For never does man reach total liberty and opportunity.

In every age, some new freedom is won and established,

Adding to the advancement o human happiness and security.

Yet, each age uncovers a formerly unrecognized servitude,

Requiring new liberation to set manís soul free.

In every age, the concept of freedom grows broader

Widening the horizons for finer and nobler living.

Each generation is duty-bound to contribute to this growth,

Else mankind's ideals become stagnant and stationary.

The exodus of the Israelites from Egypt more than 3,000 years ago

Was but the beginning

Of a force in history which will forever continue.

In this spirit, we see ourselves as participants in

The Exodus,

For we must dedicate our energies to the cause there begun."

From the Haggadah, the Passover prayer book.
* * *

        Freedom and democracy largely, but not entirely, overlap.  A full democracy necessarily entails a large amount of economic freedom too, of course, for humans are materialistic as well as spiritual creatures. The reverse is not true. Mercantilism can allow a great deal of economic freedom with little democracy, as is true in Singapore and China to this very day. Less than a full democracy can exist without freedom of religion and the press, and many countries sponsor elections without ever allowing opposition parties! Thus there are various degrees of democracy, as we all know.

        Freedom too can be partial. In this regard, it is important to recognize that freedom is not license. License is anarchy, in which case no one has freedom (does anyone have freedom in a riot?). Freedom requires limits to behavior, which, in turn, requires disciplined control. That is why those who demand unlimited First Amendment rights go astray. We do not have complete freedom of speech, for example. It is against the law to preach violent overthrow of the government, incite a riot, defame another person, practice false advertising, yell fire in a crowded theatre, etc. Freedom is not a matter of yes or no, then, but of where do we draw the line? Thus, there are various degrees of freedom, just as there are various kinds.

        With these few general introductory comments, let us proceed with the specific subject under consideration. To do so, let us take American-style democratic capitalism as our standard as apparently does President Bush and most Americans when they speak of spreading democracy -- while recognizing that other acceptable variants also exist.

        The concept of freedom and democracy goes back at least to the biblical Hebrews 3,800 years ago (no one forced the Israelites to follow Abraham and Moses, did they?), and to the classical Greeks 2,500 years ago.  It was re-invented by the Vikings more than 1,000 years ago, codified by the French philosophers during the Enlightenment in the first half of the 18th century, refined on a visionary global scale by President Wilson ("Fourteen Points") and President Franklin Roosevelt ("Four Freedoms"), and repeated over and over again, and propounded as an obvious truth, by President George W. Bush to this day. Thus, at least for most of the past century, spreading democracy to the rest of the world was a reflection of our idealism, a kind of political messianism.. Nothing new about that.

        Parenthetically, what is new is that our political parties have reversed their roles. In the modern era, it was the Democrats who had been the idealists and the internationalists (and the big spenders and proponents of big government). Now it is the Republicans.

        But is the desire for freedom and democracy as we know it intrinsic in human nature? If it is, are they necessarily for everyone? Is it our sacred mission to help them get it, as President Bush believes? And do we have a right to impose it without being asked? All are critical questions.

        Certainly we did impose it on Germany and Japan after WW II, on South Korea in the 1950s, and recently on Afghanistan. None of these countries had any experience with self-rule before, and so it was widely predicted that our efforts at imposing democracy and other freedoms on them would fail.

        After all, it was argued, the American colonies had 150 years of town meetings and essentially self-rule before actual independence, inasmuch as the home country was so far away, and it took so long for messages to go back and forth by sea, that most decisions had to be made locally. Moreover, the Glorious Revolution of 1688 in England set the stage for parliamentary supremacy over the king, and hence for democracy at home and abroad. This American experience, it was argued, could not be readily transplanted elsewhere.

        Besides, these countries were sure to resist being recreated in America's image to the exclusion of their own cultures and histories.

        Yet we militarily occupied Japan, Korea, Germany, and Afghanistan only for seven, seven, five, and three years respectively following our military conquests, and, at least in the first three, democracy sank deep roots right from the beginning. Apparently, there is a yearning for a people to be free, irrespective of their own previous cultural experiences and histories. The old saw that some countries are not ready for democracy had been negated by this experience. Indeed, as far as we can tell, all mammals hate to be caged.

        By the same token, ordinary observation also suggests that most people do not want unlimited freedom. The absence of boundaries or rules makes them feel insecure. Ask any child psychologists if children thrive without clear-cut parental guidance.  Ask any college professor if their students prefer given tests on the basis of specific page assignments in the assigned textbook and prescribed lecture notes, as opposed to a test on the basis of a generic subject announced months in advance without specific textbook assignments or a requirement that they attend his/her lectures. Ask any political scientist if ever there was a prospering nation which did not have sharply circumscribed rules of behavior for its citizens, and clear rules for changing these rules from time to time.

        Case in point. Many years ago, I visited a pharmaceutical plant. Amongst many other wonders, I was impressed by seeing a line of workers seated in front of a moving conveyor belt bringing to them an endless line of uncovered pill bottles. There they sat, mindlessly and apparently contentedly screwing on bottle cap after cap, hour after hour, day after day, week after week. I said to my guide in astonishment: "My God, don't they go crazy?"

        "On the contrary," he said. Many of them have been here for years, so, on the basis of seniority alone, we offer them promotion to foremen. Do you know, many turn down the offer, and many of these who do accept subsequently ask for demotion back to their old assembly line jobs? They don't want the responsibility and decision-making that comes with the promotion. It makes them insecure. They just want to sit there on the assembly line, chatting with their neighbors, and doing what they are told without any worries"

        It seems, then, that the need for a degree of freedom and democracy indeed is intrinsic in human nature, but how much? The United States, with its motley mix of immigrants and descendents of immigrants, without a long history of overarching traditions, and with vast open spaces which allow for all kinds of life style choices, easily accommodates a laissez-faire democracy. Japan, in contrast, has a culturally homogenous citizenry, a long history of rigid traditions, and very limited space for deviant life styles, would be expected to grant much less freedom, and impose a more restricted form of freedom and democracy. And it does, especially in regard to criminal law. In Japan, the operating principle is: "the protruding nail gets hammered down."

        Interestingly, Japan was not a total stranger to the concepts of freedom and democracy before the end of WW II Feudalism ended there with the Meija Enlightenment of 1860-1880, during which Japan opened itself to Western ideas. Japanese intellectuals became particularly fascinated by the American Declaration of Independence and the American Constitution, but they opted for a British-type system because they felt that, the British system being older than the American, was likely to be more stable, and because the idea of a constitutional monarchy was more suitable to their own traditions. For some years thereafter, a degree of parliamentary democracy prevailed. Unfortunately, all semblance of freedom and democracy ended in the early 20th century as economic depression supervened. The law of the land was replaced by martial law and military adventurism until America imposed full democracy after WW II.

        Do we have the right to impose democracy?

        Certainly the majority of our people would agree that we do if a foreign country represents an obvious threat to our national safety or that of our allies -- assuming that reasonable efforts first were made to settle the matter by diplomacy or sanctions. A megalomaniacal Saddam Hussein, with his proven track4ecord of using chemical weapons against his own Kurds and against Iranian soldiers after he had invaded their country, with his proven huge stores of biological weapons, with his proven efforts to build nuclear weapons in the past, and with his intransigence (until near the end) to allow international inspectors represented just such a threat. With a country as big as California in which to hide weapons of mass destruction, how could we trust him even if the inspectors failed to find anything incriminating? Do we wait for a mushroom cloud to confirm our suspicions?

        A majority probably also would agree that arranging regime change would be justified if a foreign country represented a serious major threat to our economic power and well-being, and, thereby, our hegemony. The previous face-off with the former Soviet Union, and the wars we fought in Korea and Vietnam, were cases in point. Today, we must face the realistic possibility that there might be a radical take-over of Saudi- Arabia and/or other Persian Gulf states, and that the radicals will jack up the price of oil to $100 a barrel. I believe we would respond by invading and taking over the oil fields.

        Such pragmatic foreign policy guidelines, in which each nation pursues its own national interests, have long been recognized as legitimate by the international community "Nations don't have friends, only interests," to paraphrase a British statesman. Such was not always the case. After the Napoleonic wars of the early 19th century. Bismark of Germany, Metternich of Austria, and Castlereagh of Great Britan hammered out the Concert of Europe in which there was a balance of powers, and hence political equilibrium and the absence of wars, for almost a century.

        How about imposing democracy for moral reasons -- on a cruel and oppressive dictator - if our own interests were not threatened? Surely there is not any shortage of such tyrants today. Even for the richest and most powerful nation in the world, cleansing the world of vicious tyrants would be an impossible task. But just because we cannot do everything does not mean that we should not do anything. In the most outrageous cases, we must intervene if we are to sleep nights. Bosnia, Kosovo, Cambodia, Rwanda, and the Sudan are examples of such extreme moral outrages.

        We can conclude, then, that, a priore, it might seem that many, perhaps most, nations would not be temperamentally, historically, or culturally suited for democracy experience nullifies that belief Here, as with many things in life, experience trumps expectations.

        Hopefully, Iraq will follow this experience.


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