One democracy, many cultures

Is liberal democracy rooted in universal values?  I asked the question once, and came up with a mixed — and possibly mixed-up — answer.  The path of freedom is open to all.  Look at the moral and political trajectory of Japan and Spain in the last century.  Yet freedom, as understood by the advocates of liberal democracy, requires certain traditions and habits of mind, and there can be no question that some countries today are farther along than others in developing such traditions and habits.

Finally, if freedom is a universal longing, and liberal democracy one specific expression of it, it is nonetheless true that corruption, self-interest, and power-lust contest its progress at every step.

I concluded that liberal democracy was an ideal, a moral and political true north, toward which we, together with other nations, struggle imperfectly over the centuries.

Here is a WSJ article by Amartya Sen, Nobel-winning economist, criticizing the idea that democracy is proprietary to the West.  Sen has an annoying, “on the one hand, on the other hand, on the third hand” style of writing, and his thoughts seem to wander without the discipline one would expect from an economist.

He criticizes cultural determinism, correctly, but then proposes a definition of democracy (apparently borrowed from J. S. Mill) so broad as to seem meaningless:  “government by discussion.”  He then proceeds to show how many nations at various historical moments have hopped over that very low bar.

Liberal democracy is rule by the citizenry, who have stripped government of many of its old despotic powers.  Discussion plays a part, but so does the desire to be left alone.  Historically, whatever Sen thinks, democracy evolved in the West; like industrialism and the market economy, however, it has long transcended the region of its birth.

Undue pessimism about cultural obstacles to democracy should recall the examples of Japan and Spain.  Vague and condescending talk about discussion ignores the violence that democracy has almost always required to become established, and the difficulty in sustaining freedom once won.  That has been true in Athens and the West, no less than in Latin America, Africa, and Asia.


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