Getting What They Deserve: A Response to "The Warlords of Democracy"

If people, as the old saying goes, get the government they deserve, then it explains the failings of some new democracies…

By Gord Gekko
web posted November 1996

Microsoft’s Slate magazine published an article a few months ago by Paul Goble, Assistant Director for Broadcasting at Radio Free Europe. "The Warlords of Democracy" argued quite correctly that the democracies that came about after the fall of various Communist governments are having a difficult time because of various factors, including the reemergence of ethnic tensions, adjustment to ‘capitalist’ economies, old geopolitical rivalries (Moscow-Berlin being given as the sole example), and the rise of nationalistic leaders.

Among the other various reasons that someone could think of, the main ones that occur to many are the fact that many of these countries have been historically collectivist through much of this century, and because of this, the people of these nations have relied on government for many things. Old habits also die hard, and these countries are continuing to spend much more money than they raise perhaps in an effort to keep the populations from revolting again. Finally, it may be the height of folly to allow the men and women who rose through ranks of communist or other totalitarian governments to run these democracies. Boris Yeltsin is the most palatable of the Russian leaders, but his first response to the October 1993 attempted coup was to assault the parliament buildings.

I view those factors as symptoms, not the actual cause of the problem. Democracy is undergoing a difficult time in many countries precisely because, in our and their rush to promote the benefits of democracies, we forget to tell the populations that they would need several important philosophical tools to be able to make a go of freedom successfully. Without these philosophical tools, these nations will fall back into some collectivist nightmare, once again enslaving their citizens and threatening the world.

The populations of these countries must be educated about the free market. In their clamor for political freedom, many activists forgot that the market that a country has must also be free. Unused to the concepts of private property and competition, capitalism is under attack by those suffering under a bastardized version of it, and from governments who are used to laying out money for ‘public’ projects.

The populations of these countries must be taught that "Capitalism is a social system based on the recognition of individual rights, including property rights, in which all property is privately owned." (Ayn Rand, Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal), that capitalism rewards productive ability, that it banishes force from the domain of human interaction, and that it gives people the right to disagree. In addition, capitalism destroys those forces who are in opposition to freedom, and it rewards those who act rationally. Capitalism is a moral system and must be presented as such to those people.

The history of collectivism in these countries has also done much to destroy the concept of the individual. Without the dominance of this creed, no nation can hope to remain free. It is the collectivist ideals that are the dangers in these nations. Witness people like Vladimir Zhirinovsky and Aleksandr Lebed of Russia, the unholy trinity of Slobodan Milosevic, Franjo Tudjman and Alija Izetbegovic of what used to be Yugoslavia, and Levon A. Ter-Petrosyan of Armenia among others, promote a tribalistic collectivism, one where all citizens are of uniform culture and creed. Note also that all of these men, and their ilk, have employed or called for force to further their aims.

Without respect for the individual, the cornerstone of any society, these new democracies will fail and collapse back into chaos, as Yugoslavia did. Society has no rights except those that the individual has. A group of people has no new rights, only those that their individual members enjoy. First and foremost, these nations must safeguard the individual against any impeachment of their rights. These nations must recognize that they cannot deny the concept of the individual and expect to be a free state.

The troubled democracies in the world often had large collectivist governments in the past and have carried that into their semi-democratic governments. With an unnatural fondness for a government that did nearly everything for them, including robbing them of their liberty, their populations clamor for their government to continue to provide services at the expense of true freedom.

These people must understand the proper role of government. Government is instituted by people to protect their rights. The government does that by protecting the citizenry against external threats by means of a military. It protects citizens from internal aggression by means of a police force and the judiciary. Finally, the government protects citizens during civil disagreements with the judiciary. Anything else must be financed by voluntary means, such as government lotteries, guarantees provided for contracts, etc.

Outside of the guarantee of the protection of rights, government has no function. While we would do well to implement it in our democracies, those in support of freedom should urge those citizens to pass constitutional amendments to insure that the government make no laws that infringe on free trade and property rights. They should be urged not to rely on government, but instead themselves. The fostering of a small-government mindset is vital. Government is a barely necessary evil, one that if it grows too elephantine inevitably infringes on its citizen’s rights, and therefore must be kept as limited as possible.

Goble also makes the assertion that it is the democratic countries that are sometimes the most warlike, but astonishingly fails to provide any examples. He is correct though, when he states that democracies are sometimes less willing to fight "until the last man", making some conflicts more violent than usual.

As Rand points out in her 1966 essay "The Roots of War" though, "Statism needs war; a free country does not. Statism survives by looting; a free country survives by production." A quick look through the history of this century shows that democracies have almost never initiated war without just cause. Since capitalism bans violence in its interaction, it is the only system that is fundamentally opposed to war. People’s economic interests are not served by conflict since it inevitably costs them the money to finance the war. Long term profit can only be had in times of peace, and it must be noted that it is government that starts wars, not the men and women of productive output.

Goble was right, democracy does celebrate ourselves. It celebrates peace and the intellect. "Our conviction reflects a widespread belief that the people are basically good and pacific, while governments are fundamentally suspect and aggressive." Individuals cannot start wars and regulate economies, only governments can. Individuals cannot destroy the concept of rights, but governments can and are doing so. The new and unstable democracies of the world can only survive by understanding that their long term prosperity will come only when they institute a true free society, one where individuals are free to pursue their interests. One where government’s role is reduced to only that which is necessary. One where people have the philosophical tools to understand that they alone are responsible for their prosperity

Admittedly it is a hard sell. Today we hear people in Russia call for a return to Stalin-style communism because of the uncertainties of transition. We saw hundreds of thousands slaughtered in what was Yugoslavia. We see democracy’s teetering on the edge of statist, nationalistic and collectivist precipices with the ambivalent support of their populaces. The idea that we can make world safe for democracy is illusory at best. It was attempted in both world wars with laughable results. What the stable democracies of the world can do is promote the idea of peace, freedom and prosperity through democracy by action. Democracy flowered in Eastern Europe because we provided the model for success. While successive leaders raped their countries to preserve the appearance of strength, we produced our strength through freedom. While they starved their populations to drag their countries forward into what was barely modern, we acted and it was done. They looted from the weaker while we continued to produce. Perhaps there is no better way to promote democracy and freedom…by simply being what we are.

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