Matt Manweller, an associate professor of political science at Central Washington University, recently wrote an editorial in the Seattle Times. There are some interesting insights and some conclusions I agree with, but overall, I think he sees a lot of evidence for what he’s saying that doesn’t really exist. His overall point is that as we stumble about trying to modernize the third world, we’re not understanding that capitalism is the root of liberty, rather than democracy. He posits that if we just help people recognize the benefits of limited government, de-regulation, and free market principles, they will more quickly attain liberty. I agree with that to a point, but I think Manweller is avoiding a much more basic reason why true liberty has been so elusive to much of the third world, especially the Middle East.
He starts off with an interesting observation:
I want to start with a relatively controversial premise. Despite the continual barrage of attacks from the blogging left, the neoconservatives got one core argument correct: Killing Osama bin Laden will do nothing to stop terrorism. If we want to stop terrorism, they correctly argue, we need to bring hope, social and economic mobility, and the rule of law to the places that foster terrorism. The mistake the neocons made was assuming that democracy would foster such an environment in the Middle East.
I agree that just simply killing Osama bin Laden from on high would do little on its own to stop terrorism, but bringing the rule of law to a place like Afghanistan would have certainly benefitted by apprehending bin Laden and putting him on trial. He’s also right that democracy alone can’t transform the Middle East, but I think he ignores how much the Bush Administration agrees with his notions of capitalism and thought that it would be a transformative force in the region. It just failed as well.
Where I think Manweller is really getting it wrong is right here:
The neocons were correct to start with their initial premise: Liberty will nurture an environment hostile to radical Islam. From there, however, they should have done a better job finding the variable that actually creates liberty. If they had looked harder, they would have found capitalism, not democracy.
Although there are always exceptions to the rule, history has shown that capitalism (more so than democracy) does an excellent job of fostering property rights, independent courts, the rule of law, and dispersing power to multiple stakeholders — particularly in countries that have few cultural predispositions toward civil society.
Applying this conclusion to Iraq and the greater Middle East relies on a number of bad assumptions. For one, it assumes that those involved in the invasion and occupation of Iraq didn’t try hard enough to introduce capitalism. That’s crazy. The CPA tried very hard to emulate the kinds of anti-regulatory small government principles that Republicans cherish back home. It just didn’t work. The reason is because Manweller’s underlying assumption is completely wrong. Capitalism, like democracy, is not the root of what eventually leads to liberty. The element that has been missing in Iraq (and other parts of the third world) is a sense of trust in the overall system of justice. Manweller dances around this point here:
Democracy does not cultivate liberty because democracy trades tyranny of the one for tyranny of the 51 percent. It does nothing to limit the power of government, protect the rights of minorities, or establish the rule of law. Democracy ends up looking just as ruthless as a dictatorship because it transfers ultimate and unchecked power from one to anyone who can create a coalition of 51 percent. In such a democracy, the other 49 percent usually pick up a gun.
But how is capitalism the cure for this? Just like democracy, capitalism also doesn’t work if there isn’t a certain level of faith in the system. For many of the poorest nations of the world, the problem isn’t one of too much government regulation over commerce, it’s a matter of too little. People in other countries often fear capitalism because they don’t have faith that their government can provide economic justice within the system. They see capitalism as a way for the rich nations of the world to get richer and they reject it and fend for themselves. Even when this is a misperception (and a lot of times it is), it’s what happens in the real world. The more basic element that leads to liberty is a sense that a government can provide justice for the weak against the powerful. This is difficult, especially when the authorities take power by force and certain subsets of a society feel like outsiders. In Iraq, we believed that it was more important to get the stock exchange running than the court system in order. That was a mistake. The most important tasks were to convince the Iraqis that we could keep them safe and prove that the government represented everyone. Capitalism alone couldn’t accomplish either thing.
Even in the greater Middle East, the idea that small-government capitalism is the missing element from having them achieve liberty is misguided. The Middle East has a long history of engaging in trade and many Arab countries have lax regulations on industry. But they are also very authoritarian when it comes to issues of personal liberty. Saudi Arabia is one of the worst. It’s hard to argue that radical Islamism would disappear in Saudi Arabia if they just stopped regulating industry so much. In fact, an argument can easily be made that the country in the Middle East that we consider to be the most free, Israel, is also the most socialist.
I agree with the concept that Tom Friedman discusses in his latest book – that as the world economy becomes more intertwined that we’ll find it harder and harder to sever those bonds for the sake of war. In that sense, capitalism does play a very big part in promoting liberty and generating opportunity. But those bonds aren’t forged until people both here and elsewhere feel that their economic interests can be protected by those who govern them. Capitalism is not some magical powder that we need to bring to the Middle East and spread over the land to sprout freedom. It is no more the magic elixir than was having the Iraqis dip their fingers in purple ink and vote for a civil war. The Middle East doesn’t need our economic system as much as they need our justice system, so that they can more easily count on their governments to protect their rights. Unfortunately, the current occupants of the White House don’t have a lot of respect for our own justice system, so it was kind of useless to expect that they’d be able to export it over there.