By Selywn Duke
A little less than a century ago, the West entertained the notion that WWI would be “the war to end all wars.” Insofar as this was seriousness and not just selling point, it was naiveté. Obviously, a military solution cannot solve a moral problem – nor can it change man’s nature. And while we should realize this today, we now fall victim to another flight of fancy. This is the idea that a political solution can solve a moral problem.
As with the “nation-building” efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq, the unrest in Egypt has placed the issue of political change front and center. While longtime American ally Hosni Mubarak no longer clings to power, some Americans risk Iranian revolution redux as they continue to cling to a dream. Thoroughly democrazy, they believe that democracy, a means to an end, is the end itself; they sometimes even behave as if it’s a cure-all. For example, I’ve actually heard liberals say, “You conservatives are hypocritical; you only believe in democracy until it yields an outcome you don’t like. If the Egyptian people vote for the Muslim Brotherhood, we have to accept it.” Ah, what principle.
You see, I seem to remember something called Proposition 8, that marriage-protection amendment passed by the people of California. Now, perhaps my memory fails me, but I don’t quite recall liberals passing the bong and saying, “Well, the people voted for the measure, so we have to accept it, dude.” But I do recall the gnashing of teeth, acerbic vitriol, and violent protests against the people’s democratically rendered decision.
The point is that only the most pathetic sheep accept a decision – whether made democratically or not – they consider immoral. Poison is poison, whether inflicted or chosen; consensus cannot make a bad politician or policy good. Yet the belief in democracy as panacea is widespread, so we need to explore the matter more deeply.
Now, some have said that the difference between 1979 Iran and 2011 Egypt is communication technology. With widespread access to the Internet, young people are exposed to the outside world and other ideas – and they know about “freedom.” And, these optimists tell us, à la George Bush, that everyone (“most people” is more accurate) wants freedom.
Ah, ‘tis true, most everyone wants freedom. So does an animal. Yet civilization cannot be safe when animals roam free, which is why the beasts within it are generally leashed, penned in or imprisoned in a zoo. For wanting and acquiring are very different things. (And being able to manage something is different still.) Everyone wants health, but many still eat, drink and smoke themselves to death. Everyone wants wealth, but many still lack the discipline to apply themselves to a skill or hold down a job. And everyone wants good government, but some still glom onto demagogues who promise bread and circuses.
The problem is that a people may want better than what they are, but they cannot be better than what they are. As Edmund Burke said, “It is written in the eternal constitution that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.” This great truth isn’t hard to understand. It’s as in Lord of the Flies, William Golding’s story about a large group of schoolboys who get stranded on an uninhabited island and must fend for themselves.
They start out as a democracy, voting for their leader, but quickly degenerate into a brutal dictatorship governed by a demagogue. But they are only children, you say? That is the point. They simply weren’t mature enough – and “maturity” actually refers to moral development – to maintain a democratic society that enjoys proper freedoms. Their passions forged their fetters.
The truth is that morality is the fertilizer of the tree of liberty, while the monster of tyranny feeds on man’s vice. I explained this relationship in-depth in 2008, writing:
Think about the task of raising a child. We are born savages, acting on impulse, screaming out when sad, striking out when angry. Left to his own devices, a child might drink detergent or put his hand on a hot stove, and he certainly wouldn’t brush his teeth or clean his bottom. He is incapable of “self-government.” So his parents must micromanage his life, watch his every move – hence baby monitors and the use of cribs or gates or harnesses to limit his movements – and do for him what he cannot do for himself, which is a lot. They must be his “nanny state.”
As he grows, however, many rules and restrictions can be eliminated. His parents may still have to ensure he does his homework and takes a bath, but over time even this will be unnecessary. As he matures morally and increasingly starts to impose proper rules and standards on himself, the need for a parent to impose them diminishes proportionately. Then, finally, if his parents have succeeded, he can enjoy the full freedoms of adulthood. He will actually choose to eat his vegetables.
But what happens when his parents don’t do a good job? Or when, despite their efforts, outside influences corrupt the child? He then will have weak internal governance. …And, should his impulse control be poor enough, the overgrown savage beyond the crib may run afoul of the law, perhaps by driving drunk, buying illegal drugs, or stealing. Then, incapable of adequate self-government, he may find himself back in a crib. The authorities will lock him up, and he will once again be controlled from without. Thus, you might say that parents’ job is to civilize their children, for people of intemperate minds will lose their freedom. Moreover, if there are enough such overgrown savages, they may bring civilization down with them.
Civilize is an interesting word. What is true civilization? One could say it is when a majority of people have become morally advanced enough to attain true adulthood. The goal of raising a civilization is only realized when enough people reach the goal of raising a child: to create citizens who may live beyond the crib. …the more we can govern ourselves from within collectively, the less we will have to be governed from without.
Unless we understand the aforementioned, we not only won’t know what kind of government other nations can sustain, we won’t even be fit to sustain our own. And those at America’s helm cannot even begin to grasp the morality/government relationship because, being moral relativists, they don’t believe in morality. (They certainly do believe in government, though.)
But the great thinkers of ages past understood it. This is why, when Benjamin Franklin emerged from the Constitutional Convention and was asked by a woman what kind of government he and the other founders had given us, his reply was, “A republic, madam, if you can keep it.” If you can keep it…. Franklin grasped an important truth: Virtue in the people is worth ten thousand laws and vice ten thousand usurpations. The boys in Lord of the Flies couldn’t keep their democracy for long. And all over the West modern man descends into moral relativism – which leads to moral primitiveness – and thus moral juvenility. As a result, we are losing our republics. We are increasingly being treated as children, controlled more every year with burgeoning laws, mandates and regulations.
As for Egypt, can it have democracy? Perhaps…for at least as long as Golding’s island boys, anyway. And here I think of what former leader of Pakistan Pervez Musharraf said after being pressured to institute reforms (I’m paraphrasing): “What good is so-called democracy if Pakistan becomes a failed state?” Democracy is no guarantor of good government. Egyptians may get the vote and Islamists may get the power – and the demo-crazies may nevertheless break out cigars. And the Mideast may go up in smoke.
Of course, when observing the tinderbox that is that region, it’s comforting to believe in a happily-ever-after system to end all wars. And, oblivious to how Western nations are even now treading that well-worn path from democracy to tyranny, it’s easy to think democracy is that system. But the utopians among us miss an important truth: There is no happily ever after this side of the great divide. Foreign policy, arranging and perpetuating civilization, and maintaining peace are never-ending poker games; you play the hand you’re dealt, and sometimes the best you can manage is a pragmatic dictator, pacified and paid for – and always provisional.
Something must be remembered about a government of the people, by the people and for the people: It will look like the people. So the question is, does Egyptians’ collective face look better than Mubarak? If the answer is no, then it would have been better to keep him than agitate for a republic that wouldn’t be kept long, anyway.