All Commentary
Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Democracy and Civil Society

The first doesn't automatically bring the second.

In the past several weeks, one after another, decades-old dictatorships have been challenged across the Middle East – in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and elsewhere.  Some have likened these events to the democratic revolutions that swept across Europe in the late eighteenth century — France, Switzerland, Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy, and Poland, and course in the American colonies.  Indeed, the Middle East protests are said to be taking place in the name of democracy.

I’m not an expert on Middle East affairs.  It may be that all these countries are prepared to make the transition to a civil society, something their tyrannies have prevented them from becoming, without a great deal of trouble.  I do know, however, that what often takes place in the name of democracy is far from civil and results in tyranny under a different label.  (Let’s not forget that it’s called the “Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea.”)

A tyrant is not bound by the rule of law and habitually violates the rights of his subjects, including their persons and property, and undermines their civil liberties.  Tyranny then is the opposite of civil society.  “A tyrant,” according to Aristotle, “does not look to the public interest at all, unless it happens to contribute to his personal benefit.”  The first step toward creating a democratic, and more importantly, a civil society, then, is to remove the tyrant from power.  It’s a big step, but only the first, as we see with the exit of Ben Ali in Tunisia and  Mubarak in Egypt.

Informal Rules

Having the right formal institutions – constitution, legislature, laws, and so on – in place is important, but these won’t be effective without the informal rules that undergird a civil society.  The problem is that you can’t establish these informal rules by passing a law or merely by taking over the reins of government.  They “co-develop” and emerge over time with the other institutions of a civil society.

A civil society, in other words, requires — at a minimum — respect for the rule of law, private property, and the freedom of association.  These can be codified to some extent by passing the right laws (or by getting rid of the wrong ones.)  But I believe civil society further requires that members of the community adhere to norms and conventions which value tolerance, criticism, trust, reciprocity, and fair play toward everyone, especially strangers.  (I’ve written before on the importance of both tolerance and criticism here.)  These norms among what Deidre McCloskey calls the “bourgeois virtues” that arise in a commercial society.  Jane Jacobs, in her Systems of Survival, includes in her list of commercial virtues:

shun force, come to voluntary agreements, be honest, collaborate easily with strangers and aliens, compete, respect contracts, use initiative and enterprise, be open to inventiveness and novelty, be efficient, promote comfort and convenience, dissent for the sake of the task, invest for productive purposes, be industrious, be thrifty, be optimistic.

Erosion of Prejudices

These are all virtues that promote and, even more important for this discussion, are promoted by free markets.  Trade has a way of eroding prejudices on the one hand and building common ground among strangers on the other.  In addition, as Milton Friedman long ago observed, the things we associate with democracy or so-called “political freedom” – freedom of the press, for example – would be empty if the State owned the printing presses.  And only the very brave few would criticize even democratically elected officials if the State were their employer.

The surest guaranty of political freedom is the practice of economic liberty, and economic liberty is also the surest path to civility.  Toppling a tyrant is no victory for civil society if he is merely replaced by tyranny in a different form, whatever we choose to call it.

  • Sanford Ikeda is a Professor and the Coordinator of the Economics Program at Purchase College of the State University of New York and a Visiting Scholar and Research Associate at New York University. He is a member of the FEE Faculty Network.