Special Report

Egypt’s Missing Precondition

Without a commitment to liberty there can be no democracy.

By 7.12.13

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It is commonplace today to regard liberty and democracy as inextricably correlated -- if you have one, you must have the other. Yet as Egypt and other failed democracies are showing, that is not the case. Indeed, we are rediscovering some fundamental truths that the American Founders knew -- that liberty is an essential precondition for sustainable democracy and that there is more to democracy than majority rule.

We often forget that the Arab Spring was brought about not by an unquenchable thirst for democracy, but by restraints on trade. The self-immolation of street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi in front of the Tunisian parliament that set off the Arab Spring was caused not by a desire for a vote in who should rule that country, but because of the repeated confiscation of his wares by local police, culminating in the confiscation of his scales. His last words were, “How is a man to make a living?”

As Tom Palmer of the Atlas Network notes, this basic plea for human dignity reverberated around the Arab world. The Egyptian wing of the protests blew up particularly over police brutality.

A little over two years on, the autocratic Hosni Mubarak has been overthrown, but the solution of “democracy” appears to have solved none of Egypt’s problems. Farida Makar of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies told Deutsche Welle in February, "[T]orture still happens in police stations… excessive violence is still used against demonstrators and… everything is decided according to a security mentality."

Now many are asking, “What went wrong?” A more apt query is, “What hasn’t gone on?” In the case of Egypt, plenty.

Magna Carta, the foundation of English rights, tackled these problems long before democracy was established in England. In 1215, King John promised that if a man were to be fined, the tools of his trade would not be taken away. He also promised not to imprison anyone save by the judgment of 12 of his peers. These two provisions laid the foundation for the law’s respect of the dignity of England’s common man -- what we now call the “institutions of liberty.”

Other institutions of liberty of liberty followed, some springing from Magna Carta, others won by a distinctly undemocratic Parliament. These included the rule of law, an independent judiciary, enforceable contracts, free markets, property rights, and many others.

The recognition of these institutions was essential in the growth of England’s economy. A similar phenomenon occurred in Holland, and these two countries led the way in the creation of a modern economy based around what economic historian Deirdre McCluskey calls “bourgeois dignity.”

These are the institutions that the American Founders inherited. Indeed, the American Revolution was fought not to remake society, but to preserve these rights from a King who seemed determined to abrogate them. One of the complaints articulated in the Declaration of Independence was a condemnation of arbitrary bureaucracy: “He has erected a Multitude of new Offices, and sent hither Swarms of Officers to harass our People, and eat out their Substance.” In other words, “How is a man to make a living?”

The Founders, however, were wary of democracy. In Federalist Number 10, Alexander Hamilton warned against it:

A pure democracy can admit no cure for the mischiefs of faction. A common passion or interest will be felt by a majority, and there is nothing to check the inducements to sacrifice the weaker party. Hence it is, that democracies have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have, in general, been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.

This phenomenon, which the great classical liberal philosopher John Stuart Mill called “the tyranny of the majority,” is what has been at issue in Egypt. A new, democratically elected government without a foundation in the institutions of liberty showed no inclination to obtain or rule according to them.

Democracy as we know it took centuries to establish not only in Britain, but also in the relatively young United States, where such illiberal institutions as slavery and the denial of the vote to the unpropertied and women took a long time to overcome. However, it was the institutions of liberty that provided the foundation on which democracy and equal rights for all could be built.

Egypt has underlined this lesson. It has shown us one undeniable truth: The institutions of liberty are more important than the trappings of democracy.

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About the Author
Iain Murray heads the Center for Economic Freedom at the Competitive Enterprise Institute and is the author of Stealing You Blind: How Government Fatcats Are Getting Rich Off of You.