Monday, December 3, 2007

Venezuela a wake-up call for democracy peddlers

Venezuelan voters' rejection of a laundry list of constitutional changes that would have radically strengthened the power of the president, allowed President Hugo Chavez to stay in office indefinitely and redefined the role of the state to be dominant over the private sector comes as good news to anybody who'd like to see that much-troubled country stay within the family of nations where individuals have some hope of seeing their rights respected and their liberty preserved by the powers-that-be. Human Rights Watch, among other organizations, warned the proposed constitutional changes "would jeopardize the protection of fundamental rights at times when they are most needed." But this close call should serve as a rude awakening to those people in the habit of pushing democracy, in and of itself, as the cure to the world's political ills.

The 51%-49% victory for the opposition could easily have gone the other way, further cementing Chavez's status as the poster-boy for Latin America's long-standing tradition of awarding near-absolute political power through the ballot box. Chavez is by no means an innovator in this regard; he's just a sad reminder that regular elections, by themselves, do not a free country make.

Just what would Chavez's proposed "reforms" have accomplished? The changes to 69 articles of the nation's constitution are too numerous to mention but, referring to some, Human Rights Watch said:

The proposed changes would eliminate the constitutional prohibition on suspending due process guarantees during states of emergency. They would also eliminate specific time limits on states of emergency, giving the president de facto power to suspend due process and other basic rights indefinitely.

Human Rights Watch is particularly concerned that these provisions could lead to suspension of fundamental rights in violation of international law, as the proposed amendments would also eliminate the requirement that such restrictions “meet the requirements, principles, and guarantees established in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the American Convention on Human Rights.”

Note that these changes, if they had been adopted, would have become the law of the land courtesy of majority support. Through perfectly democratic means, Venezuela would have become a less free country.

And that's saying something. Venezuela is already a place where thuggish, pro-government street gangs attack pro-opposition demonstrations, where anti-government television stations can be stripped of their license to broadcast and where supporters of the opposition can be denied access to jobs, education and passports.

And all of this is administered by a strongman and his allies in the National Assembly who won their offices through democratic elections.

I don't mean to beat up solely on Venezuela. The point is that democracy, by itself, can bring about results as nasty as those achieved through any other political system. That's fine if you think that anything preferred by 51% of the population is automatically anointed with righteousness. But if you believe that there are higher values -- freedom and individual rights, for example -- then democracy just isn't enough. To arrive at a political system fit for human beings, you need protections for the individual and strict limits on the power of the state no matter what the majority wants.

I'm hardly the first person to warn that elections -- no matter how honest -- aren't sufficient for making a country a decent place to live. Israeli historian J. L. Talmon warned of "totalitarian democracies" in which citizens have the right to vote, but must then submit themselves to the winners' visions of the "right" way to live. More recently, Newsweek International editor Fareed Zakaria wrote of "illiberal democracies" where elections just pick the next gang of thugs who go about their business of beating up on their constituents. In both cases, the prophets of democracy have achieved their supposed wish -- free and fair elections -- but you might want to keep your head down after the campaigning is done and the votes are counted.

Liberal democracies, on the other hand, at least in ideal form, mate elections with severe restrictions on what the winners of those elections can actually do. The emphasis isn't on ballots, but on preserving personal freedom within a framework of predictable and fairly administered laws. Reality often falls short of the ideal, of course, but it should be obvious that it's a lot more pleasant to live in a society where elections decide the selection of hobbled administrators who have limited leeway to change the world to suit their whims than it is to live in places where every cast of the ballot selects a new set of masters with the authority to re-shape the world.

You'll notice that I haven't cited the United States (or the U.K., Canada or France) as perfect examples of the good kind of democracy in action. That's because all of the traditional paragons of liberal democracy have drifted, to one extent or another, a little closer than I like to Hugo Chavez's concept of the system. Democracy everywhere seems to be getting a little more illiberal than it used to be. The governments we elect are increasingly willing to use their democratically acquired power to mold us into the preferred shape of the moment -- perhaps a bit more Christian, a tad thinner, an ounce more multicultural, a hair more patriotic, tobacco-free, of course ...

It doesn't matter what that shape is; when elections mean little more than that we get to pick our masters, it's time to stop celebrating democracy and start considering some serious limits on government, no matter how it's selected.

Otherwise, we'll one day find ourselves thankful that, for the moment, we barely escaped awarding absolute power to a comic-opera buffoon who is loved by the majority.

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Blogger Fred said...

I'll have to admit, though, to being somewhat surprised at the outcome here. As much as we've been told what a tyrant Chavez is, I would of expected some sort of skullduggery at the ballot box enabling Chavez to get what he wanted. That there didn't seem to be any, especially in a vote that close, seems to suggest Chavez is fairly honest, at least in regards wanting an accurate vote.

I'll give him credit for that.

December 4, 2007 7:41 AM  
Blogger Fred said...

"Fifty-one percent of a nation can establish a totalitarian regime, suppress minorities, and still remain democratic." -Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn

December 4, 2007 8:23 AM  
Blogger J.D. Tuccille said...

Good quote -- Kuehnelt-Leddihn warned about the threat to freedom posed by unrestrained democracy well before Talmon and Zakaria came to the issue (and de Tocqueville wrote on the matter even earlier). Current events seem to be proving all of them right.

December 4, 2007 8:35 AM  
Blogger Fred said...

I'm frequently asked about various forms of electoral reform for this country. While I may think some proposals might have some merit, instant runoff voting, for instance, I more and more tend to not be all that concerned.

Seems to me, as I've told others, the libertarian concern shouldn't be so much how our representatives are chosen, but what those representatives do to us after they're chosen.

December 4, 2007 9:57 AM  
Blogger OReally said...


The official count is not yet in. And the courts (packed with Chávez supports) could order a recount. Chávez has made some very interesting statements which have appeared in the press through out Latin America. Things like "I accept the results but it is only a temporary setback" and "When the official results are published I hope the opposition accepts them".

The fat lady has yet to sing on this one.

December 4, 2007 1:50 PM  
Blogger Fred said...

I hadn't heard that. Thanks for the heads up.

December 5, 2007 7:15 AM  
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^^ nice blog!! ^@^

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March 18, 2009 11:40 PM  

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