As America this weekend celebrates the birth of its liberty, in much of the rest of the world freedom and democracy are in retreat.
Over the past decade, authoritarian rulers have refined their techniques to stay in power, learning from each other and thinking two steps ahead of democratic forces. Unprepared for this systematic reply to the advance of democracy from the 1970s through the 1990s, democratic governments have yet to formulate a coherent response.
“A global political recession” is how Tom Melia describes the current state of affairs. Melia is deputy director of Freedom House, a nonprofit that annually measures the state of liberty in every nation — and that has found “more countries seeing declines in overall freedom than gains” in recent years, Melia said last week.
There are, IMHO, two main problems here.
The first is that the information technology we think is so conducive to “democracy” (true representative government is what’s really on the table here) tends, in most places, to favour the centralising of power. That’s because it’s easier to gather information on your citizenry and stamp out power challengers before they get off of the ground. That was certainly the case in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, and now in Iran and China. The democratising effect of the Internet in our own society is based on the fact that we had the legal framework for the free exchange of ideas–and the protection of that freedom–in place before the media got going.
The second problem is more subtle. I used to have a statement in my About page that stated that democracy was dying in the places that made it work in modern times. It’s no secret that we have a dysfunctional political system that is expensive to keep up and produces marginal results. Beyond that, if we read what our élites say and take their words at face value, what we see is a strong lack of faith in people to make their own decisions, and for democratic processes to produce acceptable results unless those results go their way. We see the insatiable desire to centralise economic power. Finally we see a culture that is obsessed with educational institutions (not necessarily real education, just the institutions) to the point where only products of certain ones get to actually make the substantive decisions in our society, to say nothing about educational qualifications for positions that may or may not need them. Educational institutions are, by their nature, inherently undemocratic, and if we make them a model for everything else, democracy will suffer, even if we like the results.
The example we’re putting forth right at the moment isn’t inspiring to those who would consider opening up their societies to a more democratic process. If we want these processes to work elsewhere, we need to start making them work here first.