Sistani and slavery

Responding to my post on Sistani, Brad de Longsuggests that I need to read the Declaration of Independence , going on to assert that

A Bonapartist or a fascist or a theocratic dictatorship is not a legitimate government, no matter how large are its plebiscitary majorities and how enthusiastic are its crowds. The only governments that have even a possibility of being truly legitimate are those that maintain an underlying liberal order–which means protecting minority (and women’s) rights.

I’m tempted to snap back with Dr Johnson’s observation on the American revolutionaries

How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty from the drivers of Negroes (quote from memory here)

but Brad’s post and the comments thread raise a number of important issues.

Before coming to the serious issues, let me agree that the kind of once-off plebiscites pioneered by Napoleon III don’t confer legitimacy on a government, any more than the caucuses proposed by Bremer, or the spurious elections held under Saddam. I don’t see how this could be inferred from my post. Obviously there’s a risk that any post-Saddam government could close down democracy, but I don’t think that a Shia majority government is any more likely to do this than any of the obvious alternatives. Such a government could win office in a free and fair election.

The serious issues are twofold. First, what kinds of violations of a liberal democratic ideal are sufficient to justify the forcible overthrow of a government. As many commentators on Brad’s post noted, the example of the United States is relevant. Until the Civil War, the US Constitution enshrined slavery as part of its fundamental law, notably in the provision counting slaves as three-fifths of a person for the purpose of calculating voting rights. Until around 1900, women were denied the vote. Until the civil rights era, blacks were denied the vote in much of the US. Until the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, many of the kinds of discrimination against women likely to be introduced by an Islamist government were lawful and some were mandated by law.

Which, if any, of these would have justified the forcible overthrow of the United States government by a government with more liberal and democratic policies, assuming this had been militarily feasible. I’m going to take my stand with Dr Johnson and say that, any time between the abolition of slavery in Britain and the election of Abraham Lincoln, Britain would have been justified in reconquering the United States in order to free the slaves, assuming that such an invasion could have been undertaken and sustained. ( In practice, of course, not only was such a course of inaction not feasible, but the British government came close to recognising the Confederacy)

On the other hand, egregious though the subsequent violations of liberal democracy were, none were such as to justify the overthrow of the (imperfect) democratic institutions of the United States. even if this had been feasible. The same applies to the many other examples of democratic governments that have restricted the rights of minorities or even mahorities.

The second question is whether, the occupying powers have some sort of right of conquest which enables them to demand more of the Iraqi people, before restoring their right of self-government, than would be sufficient to give a government international legitimacy in other circumstances. I don’t believe there is. The invasion was illegal, but to the extent that it had any legal justification, it was based on the Saddam government’s noncompliance with a range of UN resolutions. There’s no reason to suppose that a Shia majority government will not comply with those resolutions, and therefore no justification in deferring elections in the hope of preventing the election of such a government.

15 thoughts on “Sistani and slavery

  1. Um, the Nineteenth Amendment , which grated women the vote, was not ratified until 1920. The Equal Rights Amendment was rejected. That does not run against your argument and it’s a simple matter of historical record that many democracies existed for a long time without either women’s suffrage or equal rights.

    The real reason for deferring elections is to try and prevent the emergence of a government which almost certainly will disagree with US policy on the occupation, the contracts and Israel.

  2. As a pro-war man I’d make two points here in relation to John raising some typical left points about progress in Iraq.

    Firstly the left appear inordinately and unrealistically impatient for the new democratic Iraq. I would ask the rhetorical question here- How long did it take the Australian States, which were democratic, to Federate after agreeing on the need to do so. In other words how long to agree to a constitution, thrash out the fine details and get a national parliament prorogued and up and running. As they say Rome wasn’t built in a day, particularly when you don’t even have an electoral roll.

    Secondly I would make the point a lefty like Tim Dunlop raised so well a while ago and that is one of context which has an important bearing here. You see it may well be legitimate to saddle a new democratic Iraq with a constitution that has certain checks and balances in it. Eg the constitution could only be changed by a two thirds majority of men and two thirds majority of women and a majority of states (Sunni, Kurd and Shia)This constitutional safeguard could legitimately protect certain built in social and democratic values. These would be largely the UN rights and those enjoyed and practised by the Anglos. How do we justify these rights we should build in to an Iraqi constitution? Simply the context of the modern world and its development to date. Certain truths are self evident that we should not saddle democratic constitutions with racism, slavery, Marxism, or Sharia Law , etc. How do we know this? Because we can put it in the context of the lesson that history has taught us. You know Lincoln, Mandhela, Ghandi, Luther-King, The Taliban, Hitler, Mao, Stalin, etc, etc. The left can no longer dwell in the past any more than Darwinites can enjoy back-yard pools without over-regulated fences. Mind you, the rigorous Cyclonic building code developed as a result of Tracy, will see the frazzled Ken Parish safe from another Bam type catastrophe if another such cyclone is forthcoming. Its called progress and none of us can afford to dwell in some relativist past.

  3. First, one minor but subtle point. It isn’t true that “the US Constitution enshrined slavery as part of its fundamental law, notably in the provision counting slaves as three-fifths of a person for the purpose of calculating voting rights.” That provision didn’t entrench slavery, it entrenched the strength of slave states. It even was supposed by some that slavery would decline and that that provision would become a dead letter (i.e., “all slaves” would cause an adjustment, but that would be an empty set).

    Now the more serious stuff. Brad DeLong has himself erred philosophically. Liberty is itself only of instrumental and derivative value; he is trying to set it up as a universal basis for values rather than a universally convenient and adaptable means for furthering all values except (sometimes) those that seek to be universal themselves.

    He also cites the US declaration of independence; it’s an unacknowledged argument from authority. It doesn’t help that that document is itself a defective and unsupported argument; it was brought forward originally mainly as a rhetorical device, and its main significance today is in shaping Americans like Brad DeLong (and so it is useless in reinforcing anything he offers to a non-American – he isn’t pressing our buttons).

    Much of what Americans take as self evident in their declaration of independence is merely a cover of rebel tosh drawn from the likes of Helvetius, exploded by historical experience. There were sound arguments, but not simple ones suitable for propaganda; so the US founding fathers reached their answers correctly and sold them spuriously, wrapping the nakedness of rebellion in finery that hid the real weatherproofing they had that didn’t look so good. They preferred Tom Paine to Chalmers, and they have had to live with the inconsistencies that have led them into hypocrisy and self deception ever since. And Brad DeLong is doing it all over again, taking US values as universals and mistaking them for truly generic things that happen to be only tools.

  4. As someone who was ambivalent about the war, I second Observa’s comments. Regardless of its legality, we now have an opportunity to remake a better social order in Iraq. To concede the constructivist aim of this task is not to concede that it is foolishly utopian, because neither Observa nor I are arguing for *liberal* democracy on some nonsense on stilts metaphysical grounds but because based on historical experience, there is an arguable case and demonstration that *liberal* democracies are the most sustainable democracies and are more likely to promote general welfare than alternative forms of social organisation. In response to PM Lawrecen, if liberty is an instrumental value so is democracy – indeed democracy is more so. Perhaps the only great value of democracy is to facilitate peaceful transfer of authority and liberty is a more important instrumental value than democracy in promoting general welfare. Democracy alone is worthless – unchecked democracy led to Hitler and makes a fetish of the lowest common denominator and the tyranny of the majority. To agree with PM Lawrence that the Declaration of Indepencence was a rhetorical device (as I do) is not necessarily to agree that the principles defended by the Declaration cannot be defended by anything more than mere rhetoric.

  5. Of course democracy is even more derivative as a value; I wasn’t suggesting prioritising it over liberty, just showing defects in Brad DeLong’s approach.

    In this respect, he shouldn’t have used the US declaration of independence as an authority. While there were sound (but not overwhelming) arguments for rebellion, they do not appear in that document – so it is a distraction to say that they do exist, when the point I was bringing out was that it was a very shoddy argument from authority. The arguments themselves should have been brought out, rather than pointing at an authority which happened neither to be an authority in itself, nor a useful rhetorical trick when applied to people not brought up with it.

    I was just pointing out the shonkiness of the approach. I’m being increasingly persuaded that getting out of their field is a temptation for a wide range of economists.

  6. Jason:

    I don’t agree about democracy being an instrumental value, or that democracy can be uncoupled, other than abstractly, from liberty, provided I suppose by liberty we mean individual freedom for all in the society. At the same time, I have difficulty in accepting that slavery is not a great moral wrong, and that measures short of war and invasion in the American case were certainly justified, although not employed.

    To me democracy is a way of living, involving individual social responsibility and citizenship, and it is not simply about institution and processes, including voting, important and necessary as these are. Majority rule is also an instrument to the democratic end. Furthermore, democracy does not merely provide a peaceful transfer of legitimacy, but provides a basis for legitimacy based on common citizenship completely different from God, tradition, the group or any other basis that may be posited.

    You say that liberty is a more important instrumental value than democracy, I think, because you may believe in the market as the greatest instrumentality of all, but it does not provide an equal measure of liberty to all. Democracy, perhaps like Christianity, although democracy predates Christianity, recognizes that a person’s humanity is inalienable, it cannot be brought and sold.

    The resonance of the democratic spirit with the Iraqi people and Islamic Civilization is unknown, although I do not presume absence. For this reason it would interesting to read a translation of Ayotollah Sistani’s statement, which goes to John’s second question, and for that matter the heroic neo-conservative mission of giving democracy to the ME, to provide an understanding on what basis democracy is to be built.

    Should this be an opportunity, it not us, but the Iraqis who must grasp it – and so pose problems for the Americans as Alan pointed out.

  7. wmmbb, you have just laid out the very corruptions of meaning that subvert both democracy and liberty.

    Yes, those things do exist – but on the one hand, they have usurped the concepts “liberty” and “democracy”, and on the other hand they are not either universal values or agreed upon good things. The one is a chain to bind us with while the other is the whip to scourge the bound – all in the names of democracy and liberty, which never were things to which we should owe service.

    We should no more owe service to the historical traditions than, say, to stamp collecting; it’s just part of what we are, that is bound to work itself out if allowed. But precisely because traditions vary, to impose this sort of democracy on others is to impose one culture on others (her, to impose the American way of life). And that is not a good thing to do, just a self deceiving self righteousness.

  8. Well said wmmbb. And the ad hominem in the third para is bound to be spot on.

    There is no cultural impost with democracy, PML. Quite the opposite; it is the only way to fully allow cultural expression. There is a cultural impost with liberalism.

    Democracy is rule by the people. A perfect democracy would be a society where everyone has an equal say in making the decisions that are binding on everyone.

    Anything LESS would be a cultural impost. Of course, to impose a set of institutions intended to give practical realisation to democracy would entail some cultural impost, however as long as these institutions did give everyone an approximately equal say in making the rules then such imposed institutions would allow the people to replace them with their own.

    Moreover, if they decided that some section of the population, eg women, should not have a say in the rule-making then they would then have removed the lack of impost and imposed their own culture.

    The moment you insist on qualifying democracy – say with “liberal” – you are putting a limit on it. You are putting a limit on people’s power to decide what their own rules are. You are saying that beyond a certain point people may no longer decide on the rules that bind them but instead YOU are telling them what to do. Odd how liberal becomes suddenly authoritarian.

    The inhabitants of a democracy may (must) delegate some rule-making. The only thing they can’t do is deny themselves all power to revoke that delegation. That would be analagous to a Lockian liberal claiming the liberty to sell herself into slavery. It’s philosophically problematic.

    To be more concrete, if the Americans handed a constitution to the Iraqi people with the usual organisational provisions and a few of the obvious rights, which said that changes to the constitution require a special majority (eg majority of states); that all law was subject to referendum; that referendums can only be held after six months on the table, and that the people can propose constitutional changes and law by petition, then that would allow the people a fair approximation of ideal democracy. There is a broad initial cultural imposition (its provisions, after all, would express centuries of foreign experience) but so configured that the people subject to it can lift its requirements and impose any culture (ie restrictions) they want.

  9. We can all get a bit too esoteric here and lose the plot. The very existence and legitimacy of the UN, in particular with its human rights is surely derived from the idea of ‘worlds best practice’, irrespective of individual countries’ history and culture. You can’t castigate a pro-war Anglo like me for failing to wait for the imprimatur of UN legitimacy without this notion.

    That is the crux of the issue in question with Iraq. The previous Govt was totally unacceptable by any world standard and is no more. Unlike many existing countries and regimes, where enforcing UN human rights(ie the current conventional wisdom on worlds best practice) might entail a fair degree of rapid and painful adjustment, this is not now the case in Iraq. Worlds Best Practice can now be implemented without this concern. After all, Iraq has not had Sharia Law for 3 decades so its constitutional exclusion is not a problem. IMO it’s quite legitimate to saddle Iraq with WBP on human rights and elective democracy, because Iraqis have already paid the adjustment costs. Why don’t we force retrospectively such WBP on all countries? For the same reason pool fencing in Darwin only applies to new pools or rented premises for the time being. Doesn’t mean the ideal is not to see every pool fenced properly.

  10. Ugh! Even the phrase “world’s best practice” betrays the ethnocentricity of the stuffy U.S. corporate liberalism from which it derives. If we viewed people as genuinely shaped by their social circumstances and traditions, as opposed to free-floating liberal atoms, we might perhaps give more value to letting democratic systems of government evolve organically out of particular national traditions. Perhaps the rich Islamic tradition of the Middle East, and the greater role of the extended family there, will give rise to democratic institutions that we don’t yet understand but which work for the citizens of that society. We are unlikely to discover them imposing our Global Best Practices on middle eastern populations at gunpoint. In fact, in the long run I think such a tactic is more likely to discredit western democracy in the middle east than lead populations toward it.

  11. MQ, I understand where you’re coming from but I use the notion of WBP in a very broad sense of the very legitimacy of the UN or similar bodies like Amnesty International, ILO and the like. Their very raisondetre smacks of some notion of WBP and international standards. Indeed much of our Govt enterprise and effectiveness is often compared rigorously with OECD averages and is criticised or acclaimed on the results. This is not necessarily US corporate liberalism, although the US could be said to be at the cutting edge of this increasingly formalised notion of WBP. Why is it not Dutch, Indian, Japanese, or New Zealand liberalism?

  12. Thanks for the thoughtful reply, Observa. There is clearly an international neoliberal class that is (often) U.S. educated but not necessarily American. So let’s not put the emphasis on the U.S. part here but instead on the corporate neoliberalism. What I was responding to in your post was the flavor of corporate planning, which gives lip service to participation from below but in practice tends to impose order from the top. Along those lines, you have probably reflected yourself on why organizations like the IMF or GATT are more powerful in our emerging international order than the ILO or Amnesty International. I think that a genuinely participatory international order which allows forms of democracy that may be “un-Western” to emerge organically will in the long run create a more genuine kind of freedom than an attempt to charge in and transplant a pre-made democratic package from our own experience. (Yes, I know this is somewhat romanticized but no more so than Wilsonian imperialism is, and my view has the added virtue of economizing on invasions). I also believe that there are universal human commonalities in values that allow some cross-cultural consensus on when nations have truly leaped the boundary and engaged in gross violations of human rights. However, this consensus is all too easily kidnapped by supporters of a particular side. Here in America it would be considered wildly “irresponsible” and “nuts” to claim that Iran has a better recent human rights and democracy record than Israel. While that strikes me as plausible to say the very least.

  13. I think I largely concur with MQ, though I might use different language.

    Mike Pepperday, you’re misreading what I put. If anything, your statements support my position.

    Here’s how. I didn’t say that democracy had a “cultural impost”, I said it was just a general tool. I said that what wmmbb was referring to instead of democracy, under the name of democracy, was culturally specific. So the thing that does have a cultural impost is the substitute that so many people use instead, the way wmmbb did. That is one of the main reasons for not letting people switch like that – the moment you use the word “democracy” to be a portmanteau for the body of tradition that this or that culture picked up while practising democracy, you get something real but specific to that culture and you lose sight of the general thing that democracy actually is. You get “the American way of life” or “une certaine idee de la France” or whatever.

    As for the rest of your argument, it reflects the intrinsic limits of democracy; you always have to add something to get a complete system, since democracy just isn’t complete. I’ve mentioned them on earlier occasions, but it does no harm to restate the limits I’ve found (there may be others, and I do know some more that come from the agency costs you get when you are talking about indirect representative democracy):-

    – Democracy doesn’t define “we the people”, you have to get that from outside (if you try to use democracy to define it you get a circular definition, which wouldn’t matter so much except that it doesn’t resolve contradictory definitions and doesn’t guarantee even one definition).

    – Democracy is susceptible to manipulation by agenda rigging, selective editing and/or repeated retrying until “the people are ready”, i.e. get it right. While this violates the spirit, it cannot be controlled from within the system (it doesn’t violate the letter, since the editing distorts the letter).

    – It doesn’t create values, at most it only transmits them. That is, voting doesn’t make wrong right or vice versa (although in the special case where voting is over something that is separately “ours”, it tautologically lines up with what is right).

    This is something I’m going to bring out again in JQ’s misunderstanding of certain issues to do with the republic question.

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