I have often, in posts having to do with foreign policy, expressed the sentiment that it is in our interest to foster “democracy”. It has occurred to me, however, in the course of a recent conversation, that the essential point is to promote regimes that rule with the consent of the governed. I’m not sure that this is an important distinction, but it might be, so I thought I’d make it.

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  1. JK says

    I do consider this a very important point, and it clarifies for me having re-read the previous commentary. I don’t wish to get anyone mad a me here but I rather view China, being a several thousand year old, uh mostly coherent society, undergoing a massive and unique (for them) evolution.

    There are going to be things (that I see personally as reprehensible) happening. However, taking the long view, I consider that there has been an unstoppable process of democratization that has begun. They may have their version of Shays’ Rebellion yet.


    Posted April 5, 2008 at 11:03 am | Permalink
  2. Jesse Kaplan says

    I think it represents a substantial distinction. I thought I’d go ahead and post this without, or before, dredging up the formal political science. Note, for instance, the difference between “republic” and “democracy.” Totally abstract categorizations of forms of government are a nice heuristic place to begin one’s freshman year. One also looks at the evolution of “democracy” since ancient Athens. It bears remembering that what you are so fond of has no historical precedent. When people talk about some place “not being ready for democracy,” it’s not such an off-hand remark. And, strange as it may seem, there are some inherent problems with “democracy,” (which you might be able to beard Dick Cheney about when he soon gets a much-deserved break from running this country). I think this is a healthy step on your part away from neoconservatism : )

    Posted April 5, 2008 at 11:47 am | Permalink
  3. Malcolm says

    I’m working in the studio all day, so will have to join in later. But briefly: I realize, of course, that there are various forms of government between dictatorships and American-style democracy. The point is that the governed must have a means of expressing their consent (usually by voting in some fashion, rather than armed revolt), which is the meaningful difference I am trying to preserve, and which unites the various forms that fall under “republic”, “democracy”, “constitutional monarchy”, etc. Going back to the original Greek sense of the word, it is that rootedness in the consent of the people that I am focusing on here.

    How would you characterize what I “am so fond of”? And who said I was moving away from neoconservatism?

    Posted April 5, 2008 at 12:17 pm | Permalink
  4. the one eyed man says

    Malcolm moving away from neoconservatism? A consummation devoutly to be wish’d.

    I deliberately used the phrase “consent of those governed” in the other thread because it is a more important criterion for determining the legitimacy of a government than whether it is democratic or not.

    The King of Bhutan recently announced his intention to abdicate and turn the place into a democracy. According to news reports, his people are reluctantly following his direction: they would prefer a kingdom, but voted recently in a mock election because the King requested it. I read somewhere that the Bhutanese are the happiest people on Earth. (Difficult to believe, as they have to cross the Himalayas to get to the nearest Banana Republic or Bed, Bath, and Beyond). Regardless of what happens with their experiment in democracy, it’s hard to argue that the happy Bhutanese don’t consent to be governed by their King.

    I’m no expert in Imperial Japan, but I would bet that the monarchy ruled with the consent of those governed. The system worked and people went along. I wouldn’t be surprised if the populace of some Muslim countries would choose a theocracy over other forms of government.

    I think that democracy is the best form of government — or, to quote Churchill, the worst one except for all of the others — but I don’t think that it is a priori better than other forms of government, provided that the others are based on the consent of the governed.

    Posted April 5, 2008 at 5:01 pm | Permalink
  5. the one eyed man says

    One example of a theocracy which rules with the consent of those governed is the only country on Earth with no children.

    Posted April 5, 2008 at 5:12 pm | Permalink
  6. Malcolm says

    Well, right, this is the point. A people ruled by coercion are being held hostage, it seems to me, and it is arguably the moral obligation of those outside to intervene.

    Are there really no children in the Vatican? There must be a few…

    Posted April 5, 2008 at 5:41 pm | Permalink
  7. the one eyed man says

    Apparently not.

    Insert your altar boy joke here.

    Posted April 5, 2008 at 6:25 pm | Permalink
  8. Jesse Kaplan says

    From democracy to not being coerced in 7 easy comments. That intervention thing’s too complicated. First, we have to figure out what to call your new bad before we know where to intervene. I guess “authoritarianism” rapidly shades into coercion. We don’t really have a lot of names for wicked governments; just a lot of people who think democracy is the only kind of good one. Actually, I always thought “neoconservative” was kind of a pejorative term : )

    Posted April 6, 2008 at 12:25 am | Permalink
  9. bighominid says

    Insert your joke into the altar boy.


    Posted April 6, 2008 at 2:26 am | Permalink
  10. Malcolm says

    Well, neoconservatives don’t see it as a pejorative term, though neoconservatism is hardly monolithic, any more than liberalism (another term that many see as a pejorative) is.

    “That intervention thing’s too complicated”…? So, for example, the next time a Hitler is exterminating the Jews, or the Hutus the Tutsis, a few UN resolutions ought to do the trick?

    Posted April 6, 2008 at 1:08 pm | Permalink
  11. JK says

    Oh I see I might step into dog poop here, but since this isn’t my blog-well Malcolm will have to pay the price. I wish he didn’t know how to do payback.

    If a dissident (or a few) get arrested in China. which incidentally I don’t view as a problem. If a NeoCon (provided s/he’s my type of, well) gets elected so what? If either of the two Demos or the one Repub? I don’t really recognize a dimes’ worth of difference among them.

    Whether it is Locke, Voltaire, Rosseau, hell even Jefferson, whomever pays the price of being elected, with whatever ideological baggage , any of them carry (I don’t declare prescience here) has one big, mean, milk cow to pull the teats of. There is also the ingenious recent NATO inclusionary moves.

    I say, or suggest, taxpayer money be utitilized on a great big bumper-car track at Camp David be built, paint the bumper cars in NASCAR colors, give George W. the “Viagra Car” and wait ten months. Oh, paint another car “Winchester Green” and paste a sticker across the handlebars, “smack that bad boy in the face.”

    Think about it: we’ve only got ten months. Then somebody has to begin fixing stuff. Who(m)ever gets this oncoming job needs a bumper-car track in the Rose Garden. The Nation will forego the annual “Easter Egg Roll.” Or whatever the commensurate.

    We can promise a Halliburton contract to re-paint the cars on April Fool’s Day of ’09 but let’s give the oversight to the SEC.


    Posted April 7, 2008 at 1:38 am | Permalink
  12. JK says


    Not the SEC, they occasionally lift off their seats to pass gas.

    Put the re-painting in the hands of the FAA.


    Posted April 7, 2008 at 1:47 am | Permalink
  13. Malcolm says

    JK, We’ll need some time to assimilate all of that, I think. No payback is imminent, from this quarter at least.

    Posted April 7, 2008 at 10:29 am | Permalink
  14. Jesse Kaplan says

    Going back four comments, I of course meant intervention was too complicated to discuss in my comment.

    Posted April 7, 2008 at 11:49 am | Permalink
  15. Malcolm says

    Hi Jess,

    Thanks for making that clear; I obviously misunderstood you. Others may have also.

    Posted April 7, 2008 at 11:51 am | Permalink
  16. I have this viewpoint that democracy is a bad way to govern a country. Not saying we have anything better, mind you, but with a democracy, how does one ever do any long-range planning?

    A newly elected president spends his (or her) first year getting themselves acclimated to being in office, the next year paying back all the political debts that got him there in the first place, and then the focus is on re-election. It’s terrible for any long range planning, which is why I think the country’s healthcare and energy sectors are a mess…

    China, on the other hand, can think about what their energy needs are 20 years down the road and implement the necessary policies. The bad side to this, of course, is that they don’t give a crap about the people in the way, but at least that planning can take place.

    I’m thinking there must be a decent middle ground on this spectrum.

    Posted April 8, 2008 at 5:03 pm | Permalink
  17. Malcolm says

    Hi Salim,

    Yes, this is a well-known problem with democracies, and especially in wartime. But China and Russia’s long-term central planning have never shown terribly impressive results either. And here in the US we actually have managed to maintain some long term-projects fairly well — although others, like the Superconducting Supercollider, were victims of exactly the sort of political shifts you describe.

    If you can come up with a better system, we’d all love to hear the plan, as the old song goes. But if you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao…

    Posted April 8, 2008 at 5:12 pm | Permalink