the assumption of responsibility for the welfare of the world











2004 January 7


If you are an Afghan ― by which is meant that you live near the states of Pakistan, Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and China, but not in them ― the big news recently has been that a handful of public representatives and a much larger group of polemarchic, theocratic thugs have negotiated and voted to determine what kind of government you are going to be living under for the near future. The loya jirga just completed in Kabul, which functioned much like a democracy if one subtracts the democracy and adds a generous helping of Kalashnikovs, has ended, and soon, under the constitution drawn up there, a genuine democracy may emerge, provided some combination of internal popular pressure and external military and financial pressure can prevent the electoral theft that happens so commonly, most recently in Guinea-Conakry (where coup merchant Lansana Conte claimed a final victory of nineteen to one). It has been settled, apparently, that Afghanistan will have a strong president, with a minimum of accountability to parliament. Liberals are calling this a victory, because it represents the best chance, in most analyses, for someone (meaning Hamid Karzai, the interim president) to limit the power of provincial warlords.

Western Europe is undergoing a process not all that dissimilar in form, with powerful local delegations, each in possession of an army, horsetrading their way to a constitution for the European Union, as it expands this year from fifteen member states to twenty-five. The major difference is that Europe is entirely democratic, and at this stage a constitution cannot be agreed except by unanimous consent of the elected governments of the member states. The state delegations are often treated as warlords by conservative, euroskeptical opponents of integration, but this is silly hyperbole. Under that hyperbole, it is called democratic if integration is blocked, and undemocratic if it is not, which ultimately means that euroskeptics consider the determinative state elections democratic only if they themselves win.

If anything, the European Union has a surplus of democracy. While local or municipal elections are not ubiquitous, they do exist in most places; there are elections for numerous autonomous departments; there are elections for the parliaments and, in a few cases, for a president with genuine power; and there are elections to the European parliament. The union government is balanced between that parliament, a commission appointed by the member governments, and the member governments themselves, meeting in the council of ministers. Major changes require all member states to agree, and those states, unlike the provinces of the United States, have an agreed right to withdraw from the union.

Iraq is about to begin its own constitutional process. Despite a common impression, I never trusted the Bush administration with the creation of a democracy in Iraq; I merely believed that it was more to be trusted than the dictator-heavy UN political apparatus, or, needless to say, the former regime of Saddam Hussein. I was naturally disappointed that it took a Shiite cleric, Ali Sistani, to shame the US into democratizing the constitutional process. The US had favored something along the lines of the misunderstood interim Governing Council. The common belief inside and outside Iraq that the council is a tool of the US is mistaken; even a cursory glance at its membership demonstrates that it includes numerous parties basically hostile to the US in general or to the ideology of the Bush administration, and includes all but two of the genuine, preexisting power constituencies in Iraq ― those two being a clerical faction that rejected an invitation to participate, and the Ba‘thists themselves. The council was simply organized following the same strategy as the loya jirga in Afghanistan, which was to bring in the power brokers and let them settle things among themselves, hoping that having done so, they would not use their powers to undermine the result.

This, again, is much like the European constitutional process, with the caveat that each member-state government in Europe has only a limited ability to speak for and thus commit its own domestic opposition, which will eventually win power and change policy. The European process is instructive in that, while conducted by democracies acting for domestic democratic concerns, democracy itself is not a guiding principle. If it were, there would be no chance that Spain and Poland, each about half the population of Germany, would each have a legislative weight in the union nearly equal to Germany, or that Luxemburg and Malta would have equal representation on the commission with Germany, which are the two major demands preventing agreement on the constitution. The positions of the smaller states, and of Spain and Poland in particular, are simply undemocratic. They are fighting for more power for their constituencies, which is natural in democracy; but they are fighting for disproportionate power. Considering motive and not means, this is no different from what Saddam Hussein did, or the Taliban; it is no different from what the Europeans correctly accuse the US of doing in so many ways. Of course, the Europeans would do it themselves if they could. They protest because they are powerless to do anything more.

On the most obvious level, the constitutional processes in Afghanistan, Europe, Iraq, and elsewhere (Pakistan, Ukraine, Sri Lanka, Cyprus, and Israel and Arab Palestine are other notable recent examples) merely demonstrate that form and content are different things. Even the distinction between democracy and dictatorship is less important than the content of each. A dictatorship that protects justice and freedom (an absurdity, but a theoretical possibility) is preferable to a tyrannical democracy (an all-too-common reality). Within democracy, which we must prefer for its safeguarding properties, the design is less important than the outcome. Parliamentary systems are generally much better at creating a just and, not incidentally, efficient government; the preference of liberals in Afghanistan for a presidential system, with its predisposition to dictatorship, comes down to the predicted personalities dominating in each possible system. That means that all liberal hopes in Afghanistan are pinned on Hamid Karzai, that he wins the election, that he governs liberally, that he voluntarily retires, and that his successor is cut from the same cloth. If any of those is not true, even the loya jirga will look democratic next to its creation.

On another level, these processes demonstrate that the equality of franchise exists in rhetoric, while the jealousy of power exists in fact. One man, one vote, we say; but we only mean it if we suspect that our vote is counting for less than another’s. If our vote is counting for more, then we prefer the status quo. The true hero of democracy ― there could be millions but seem to be almost none ― is the person who gives up a disproportionate power to those who have less. I am mostly a hypocrite on this subject; I am only saved from complete hypocrisy by the fact that I admit to it. The truth is, I probably have disproportionate power in the world and I am not prepared to give up any of it. I view my disproportionate power as the best counterbalance to the disproportionate power of so many with whom I disagree. And, quelle surprise, I consider my judgement to be better than most (okay, all) who would inherit the power I would give up. I do believe that if I had the power to disempower simultaneously all of those who wield disproportionate power, and give each individual a perpetual equal share of the power in the world, I would do it; though the decision would come, as the wizard said, to the balance of a hair.

It is, to repeat the point, a matter of content over form. The content of a Vadist world ― me ruling by fiat ― would be quite different from the present. There would be no arbitrary divisions of the world, and no arbitrary privileges for some parts of it. Civil liberties would take precedence over order and security. Clean air, clean water, and wilderness conservation would be public priorities; sports would not. Food, shelter, education, and health care would be provided to all; but anything beyond that would require a meaningful contribution to society, which means that janitors would be well rewarded and marketing specialists not at all. People could practice any religion they chose, but they could not expect special treatment, or the slightest tolerance of the foolishness that often ensues. Individuals would be free to walk around naked, and selected individuals would even be encouraged to do so. They could also abuse whatever substance pleased them, whether that be salt, saturated fats, tobacco, marijuana, synthetic narcotics, or, in the case of Rush Limbaugh, all of the above. (Limbaugh could even walk around naked, though this, of course, would not be encouraged.) People could complain about the government; they could even plot to overthrow me. They could not, though, hoard the wealth of the world for the use of but a few. And, above all, they could not use violence, individually or collectively, to have their way against the other individuals in the world.

To me, this sounds like a much better world, even though it would probably involve a good deal more work on my part. But as we know from the evidence of the many functioning democracies in the world, Vadism in practice would be extremely unpopular. It would involve most individuals giving up at least some unearned privileges, and all individuals giving up the right to force their neighbors to live as they do. The reason these constitutional conventions matter less than they seem to is because the world is full of individuals who, regardless of the system in place, regardless of the procedures, will use that system and those procedures to appropriate wealth to themselves and deny rights to others. We cannot stipulate in a constitution that individuals respect the principles of freedom and equality.

And for that matter, the United States, a pioneer of written constitutions, shows every day how little they mean. Legislators, officials, and especially judges routinely act not merely as if they were above the law, but as if they were above the language. The virtue of a written constitution, as I understand it, is that citizens are thereby aware of the standards to which they will be held, and of the powers of and limitations on the government to which they are subject. The US constitution is famed for its brevity, clarity, and simplicity; and yet the US government is in frequent violation of articles one, two, three, four, and six, and amendments one, two, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, thirteen, and fourteen. In other words, the world’s most important written constitution would be worth more with a pound of sirloin wrapped in it.


Original version


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