New York Times writer John Tierney has a hopeful essay in today’s New York Times magazine on the prospects of a free and prosperous society for Iraqis. (It requires registration, which is pretty easy and certainly worthwhile.) The analysis is first rate and raises a host of important and interesting issues.
Tierney draws on Fareed Zakaria’s very good book The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad, as well as lots of other sources for insights. One of the most important issues raised was the matter of elections, their timing, the rules that will guide them, and so on. Most of the current discussion of Iraqi elections is informed by a crude Rousseauian idea of the general will, a theory that tends to produce the kind of system that guarantees “one man, one vote, one time.” That theory (just let the majority vote…NOW!….and everything will be ok) is often referred to as “democratic,” but is at war with another common theory of democracy, which associates it with guaranteed rights to religious freedom, freedom of the press, equality before the law, and so on, all of which are at risk when majorities are unrestrained in their powers.
I’ve just read two books on the general problem of representation that shed substantial light on the competing theories of representation that are so often conflated. The nineteenth century statesman and historian Francois Guizot has a brilliant discussion of the different approaches in Book II, chapter 10 of his The History of the Origins of Representative Government in Europe, and Gordon Wood has a helpful discussion of the theories of representation that were invoked during the founding era of the American Republic in chapter 5 of his The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787. Both are worth careful reading.
The key issue is the role of the common good, which liberals identify with liberty, the rule of law, and limited government; if there is no authentic common good, then politics is nothing more than a struggle among interests for the coercive power of the state and the power and loot that it can deliver. The authentically liberal approach (not to be confused with the unseemly struggle to pick each others’ pockets that bears that name in American politics) requires some level of commitment to the common good, which entails that representatives take an oath to the Constitution, not simply to the narrow interests of their constituents. Members of the U.S. Congress are supposed to be concerned about the common good, and not simply the good of their constituents. That awarness, supplemented by a system of checks and balances among branches of government, federalism, and other mechanisms, has worked comparatively well at limiting state power and securing the blessings of liberty for Americans. Let us hope that Iraq develops an authentically constitutional system of limited government, entailing a keen awareness of the role of liberty and toleration in the constitution of the common good, and supplemented by federalism and the separation of powers, rather than a system of unlimited majority power, which would simply devolve again into tyranny.