(Dr. Boks, alas, will not be writing to day. I will be filling in again. He lost his mechanical pencil in the parking lot last night. He has been searching for it all day in his office. I told him to look in the parking lot. He told me the light was better in his office. Nonsense, I told him. The light was just as good outside. He told me he was accustomed to looking for things in his office, he was happy looking for things in his office, he always looked for things in his office, so damn it, that's where he was going to look now. He is an economist.)
When and where is democracy possible?
An argument has been making the rounds that asserts democracy is not possible in the Arab world. There is a counter-argument. It goes like this: You racist. Saying that democracy is impossible in the Arab world demeans an entire people. There is a counter-argument to the counter-argument. It goes like this: You self-righteous pig. How can you say that saying democracy is impossible in the Arab world is racist when all I meant was that they lack the institutions and the cultural context necessary for democracy to take root.
I propose a counter-argument to the counter-argument to the counter-argument. I think.
Economists--who are, by and large, shallow and unintuitive thinkers who know more math than lay persons but are not deep enough or smart enough mathematically to be real mathematicians--have underestimated the importance of institutions before. When the Soviet Union fell, many expected free markets to rise spontaneously and fully functioning from the ashes of totalitarianism. They learned that institutions can be more important than models.
But it is possible to learn a lesson too well.
I lived in Indonesia for a time. When I talked to people associated with the government, they always said the same thing: Democracy is all very nice, but it is completely inappropriate for Indonesians. They are not ready for it. Culturally, they work best within hierarchies. They appreciate clear authority and community, not the disruptive individuality of the west. The same was said of other Asian countries, of the Phillipines, of Taiwan. Asians are different. Culturally, of course. And institutionally. Not genetically. This was how the argument went.
Many Asian peoples have since demonstrated that they desire to have a say in their own affairs and that they are capable, culturally and institutionally, of doing so (given half a chance). There was always something self-serving about the argument in Indonesia: You need me to rob you blind because you're not developed enough to make decisions for yourself. But even well-intentioned arguments about supposed institutional realities can be restrictive, a way of underestimating a people's potential.
There's a line in one of Graham Greene's novels: "Hatred is a failure of the imagination."
An unrelenting pessimism about an entire culture (and its institutions), though not deliberate or hateful, may also be a failure of the imagination. Democracy arises in unexpected ways. Is it so impossible to imagine that a war-torn people might find a way to cooperate to prevent catastrophe? Might not these people be weary of violence and internal warfare? Having seen the worst, might not they know (much better than we ever will) how little there is to be gained from further violence?
We've seen clear indications that the moderate Shiite cleric in Iraq is more popular than the militant one. Isn't this just common sense? A matter of self-interest?
I am convinced that even the most diverse cultures share common traits. People want a voice in determining their own affairs. In Indonesia, they wanted it. In Iran they want it. In Iraq, they want it too. It is as close to a universal desire as one will find.
Do institutions prevent this? Sometimes.
A few months prior to the fall of the Berlin wall, that event would have been considered impossible. Absurd. Beyond absurd. Totalitarian regimes would never voluntarily relinquish power. It was not in the nature of these "institutions" to abdicate power to voters. But military "institutions" in those countries supported the people and defied their leaders. A new equilibrium arose. Institutions evolved because the people who made them functon imagined a better life.
Institutions, it seems, are full of surprises.