Question for the day: Is liberal democracy a universal value?

The images of Iraqis by the millions risking their lives to vote on a new constitution – an activity and a system both alien to their culture – raises questions in my mind about the reach of liberal democracy.  Is it, as the Iraq photos seem to suggest, a system of government rooted in universal human longings, equally apt to Baghdad and to Peoria?  Or is liberal democracy the peculiar inheritance of a specific people – Anglo-Saxons, Europeans, fill in the blank?

The President stands firmly with the first camp.  He believes in the universality of democracy and liberal rights, to the extent of basing his policy for Iraq and the Middle East on this principle.

“From the day of our founding,” he asserted in his second inaugural, “we have proclaimed that every man and woman on this earth has rights and dignity and matchless value because they bear the image of the maker of heaven and earth. Across the generations, we have proclaimed the imperative of self-government, because no one is fit to be a master, and no one deserves to be a slave.”

Historically, this claim is correct.  Our country was based on “self-evident” and inalienable protections against the power of government, universally guaranteed by “our Creator.”  The current democracy policy assumes the exportability of Thomas Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence.

It’s fair to ask:  what is a universal value?  A crude way to put the matter would be to say it is a moral or political judgment recognized as valid by anyone, anywhere.  In this rough sense, liberal democracy is surely not a universal value, given that it has had to struggle against powerful forces the world over, led by people who violently rejected its validity.

It’s equally fair to ask:  can there be values that are universal?  For much of the twentieth century, most right-thinking intellectuals would have answered no.  All values, they believed, were local and contingent, probably fraudulent or at best mere “superstructure,” derived from the interests of ruling elites or (what often amounted to the same thing) the relations required by the “means of production.”

The Founding Fathers, on this account, were simply blowing smoke so they could close the greatest real estate deal in history, and get ownership of the North American continent.

The intellectual tide has turned, among scientists if not academics.  The neo-Darwinists  have identified a list of 200 human “universals” – behavioral traits, such as language or making music, found in every known community – which they suspect spring directly from human biology, and may be hardwired into our DNA.  One need only look at the institution of marriage, and the condition of motherhood, to be persuaded that, in many important respects, we often behave as one species rather than multiple cultures.

The problem of the universals is that they represent generic rather than specific modes of behavior:  they require fine-tuning to local conditions.  We are all genetically endowed with an ability for language, but I speak English rather than Chinese because of an accident of birth.  We all have hierarchies of taste in food, but haute cuisine in Tasmania will be different from that of Paris.

A second problem, arising from this first, is that such differences aren’t perceived as tactical or trivial, but become integral to self-definition.  (It should surprise no one to find “ethnocentricity” on the list of universals.)  Yet on this account alone, it seems to me, can liberal democracy, or any human behavior, be conceived of as universal in any meaningful sense.

The crude and implausible version of universality I described above comes close to the rationalist position.  Jefferson’s understanding of the matter was more sophisticated.  He believed that human beings, naturally and universally, were endowed with a moral sense, which like the sense of sight or hearing guided the individual in times of fear and temptation.  Of course, the moral sense didn’t automatically produce model citizens of a free republic.  That required a special kind of moral education, anchored to the habits of freedom, themselves distilled from experience – from history.

Jefferson believed the path to freedom was open to all.  He also believed that freedom had to be earned, not merely found, and that some communities, like the United States, were farther along the path than others.  Finally, Jefferson understood that, however strong the human longing for freedom might be, equally strong forces, rooted in selfishness and corruption, would always rise to oppose it.

This is consistent with our current understanding of human nature:  universal drives adjusted to local conditions.  But what does it mean for the Iraqis, and for other peoples taking their first steps toward freedom?

Let me suggest some of the consequences.  First, whatever happens in Iraq will be determined by the Iraqis.  No outside force can make one free.  The U.S. overthrew Saddam, and may well defeat the terrorists, much as the French assisted the Continental Army to defeat imperial Britain.  But all the might of the United States can’t make Iraqis free, or open by a hair the door to freedom.  If Jefferson was right, and freedom is a moral condition, it can only be attained by the people of Iraq acting both as individuals and as citizens in a political community.

Second, anything approximating American levels of personal and social freedom will take a long, long time to achieve – generations, and maybe never.  The Founding Fathers could find a model in the Glorious Revolution, which in turn harked back to the triumph of Parliament in the English civil war.  Even so, many of our freedoms are of recent vintage.  More than an established form of government, liberal democracy is an ideal:  a moral and political true north, toward which we, no less than the Iraqis, strive imperfectly over the centuries.

Third, if the Iraqis, in time, earn a substantial degree of personal freedom, they will little resemble Americans in their enjoyment of it.  Their peculiar history and traditions will be conscripted to the effort, and while their virtues, private and public, will be recognizable to the discerning foreigner, the local quirks in which such virtues must be wrapped will make them appear eccentric if not perverse to the American public.

All of which suggests a difficult road ahead – in fact, a struggle against the odds.  That is true.  But the birth of  freedom, and the development of liberal democracy, has always been a struggle against the odds.  That it has succeeded in so many countries may be the best evidence of its universality.


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