A reminder of the caution with which the U.S. must proceed in its admirable efforts to advance the cause of liberty and freedom in the world. The first in a series of special American Spectator essays.
This essay is the first in a ten-part series being published in successive issues of The American Spectator under the general title, “The Pursuit of Liberty: Can the Ideals That Made America Great Provide a Model for the World?”
Also in The American Spectator’s Pursuit of Liberty series: James Kurth’s “America’s Democratization Projects Abroad,” Norman Podhoretz’s “A Masterpiece of American Oratory,” Lawrence E. Harrison’s “The Cultural Prerequisites of Freedom and Prosperity,” and Roger Scruton’s “The Nation-State and Democracy,” with more to come.
A reminder of the caution with which the U.S. must proceed in its admirable efforts to advance the cause of liberty and freedom in the world.
WHEN PRESIDENT BUSH said that America hopes to spread democracy to all of the world, he was echoing a sentiment many people support. Though Americans do not put “extending democracy” near the top of their list of foreign policy objectives (preventing terrorism is their chief goal), few would deny that if popular rule is extended it would improve lives around the world.
Democracy, of course, means rule by the people. But the devil is in the details. By one count, the number of democracies quintupled in the second half of the twentieth century, but there are freedom-loving and freedom-disdaining democracies. Fareed Zakaria calls the latter “illiberal democracies.” Among them are Kazakhstan, Pakistan, Ukraine, and Venezuela.
The number of democratic regimes has grown rapidly in the last several decades, but what has grown is not like American-style democracy. Though most democracies have certain things in common—popular elections, the rule of law, and rights for minorities—we should never suppose that what we hope will appear in the Middle East and elsewhere will look like American government any more than Britain, France, Germany, India, Japan, or Turkey look like us. Recall that American democracy contains some strikingly undemocratic features, such as an Electoral College, two senators for each state regardless of state populations, and an independent judiciary.
America differs from other democratic nations in many ways, some material and some mental. It has a more rapidly growing economy than most of Europe and deeper sense of patriotism than almost any other country with popular rule. A recent survey of 91,000 people in 50 nations, conducted by the Pew Research Center and reported on by Andrew Kohut and Bruce Stokes, outlines our political culture and shows how different it is from that in most other democracies.
Americans identify more strongly with their own country than do people in many affluent democracies. While 71 percent of Americans say they are “very proud” to be in America, only 38 percent of the French and 21 percent of the Germans and the Japanese say they are proud to live in their countries. And Americans are much more committed to individualism than are people elsewhere. Only one-third of Americans, but two-thirds of Germans and Italians, think that success in life is determined by forces outside their own control. This message is one that Americans wish to transmit to their children: 60 percent say that children should be taught the value of hard work, but only one-third of the British and Italians and one-fifth of the Germans agree. Over half of all Americans think that economic competition is good because it stimulates people to work hard and develop new ideas; only one-third of French and Spanish people agree. Americans would like their views to spread throughout the world: over three-fourths said this was a good idea, compared to only one-fourth of the people in France, Germany, and Italy and one-third of those in Great Britain.
In 1835 Alexis de Tocqueville discussed American exceptionalism in Democracy in America, and he is still correct. There was then and there continues now to be in this country a remarkable commitment to liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, and laissez-faire values. He gave three explanations for this state of affairs: we came to occupy a vast, largely empty, and isolated continent; we have benefited from a legal system that involves federalism and an independent judiciary; and we have embraced certain “habits of the heart” that were profoundly shaped by our religious tradition. Of these, Tocqueville rightly said that our customs were more important than our laws and our laws more important than our geography. What is remarkable today is that a vast nation of around 300 million people still share views once held by a few million crowded along the Eastern seaboard.
Our constitutional system is, I think, even more important than it was to Tocqueville’s mind. He wrote about federalism, local township government, and an independent judiciary but neglected the system of separated powers and the checks and balances each branch imposes on the other two. Federalism, he correctly understood, keeps government close to the people, but the separate branches of the national government, each of which shares power with the others, impedes the rate of change in ways that make it both difficult to adopt new policies and hard to change old ones.
America was slow to adopt welfare programs, social security, unemployment insurance, and government supported health care, while Europe adopted these policies rapidly. We have kept our tax rate lower than it is in most of Europe. The central difference is not that Europeans are either smarter or dumber than we, but that a parliamentary system permits temporary popular majorities to make bold changes rather quickly, whereas a presidential system with a powerful, independent, and internally divided Congress requires that big changes undergo lengthy debates and substantive accommodations. On occasion America does act like a parliamentary system, as it did under Franklin Roosevelt during the Great Depression and under Lyndon Johnson when he commanded extraordinary majorities in both houses of Congress.
The system a country uses to elect its rulers also makes a difference. In a recent study, political scientists Torben Iversen and David Soskice have shown that, among 17 large democracies, those that elect their legislators using proportional representation (PR) are three times more likely than those electing them by majority vote to have leftist governments that redistribute income from rich to poor.
Australia, Canada, Japan, Great Britain and the United States (among others) have majoritarian systems, while Austria, Germany, Italy, and Sweden (among others) have PR systems. Under a PR system, several parties will compete, while in majoritarian systems, only two parties usually contest elections. If there are several parties, middle-class voters will support programs that tax the rich and benefit them, knowing that they can change their voting habits if a government wishes to tax them more. But if there are only two major parties, middle-class voters will worry that voting for leftist parties will mean more taxes for them, and so they will be inclined to support right-wing parties.
As we struggle to rescue Medicare and Social Security from their inevitable bankruptcy we are learning that correcting old programs is as difficult as inventing them in the first place. How well our constitutional system will handle these problems remains to be seen, but some changes will surely occur: the government cannot abandon programs that are as popular as these. Already national commissions have reported on both, though so far with little effect.
Our constitutional system is, of course, no guarantee against making mistakes. When President John Adams was in office, Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts; after we entered the First World War we experienced an overblown Red Scare; it took a century after the Civil War before Congress was willing to pass laws ending racial discrimination; and of late the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, written by Senators John McCain and Russell Feingold, constitutes a massive attack on the First Amendment rights of various interest groups.
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