Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Middle East, America, and the Culture of Liberty

By Tim Dunkin

For months now, the Middle East has been wracked by one convulsing revolution after another against tyrants, dictators, and monarchs. The list of countries that have or are attempting to overthrow their rulers in this region continues to grow – Yemen, Tunisia, Algeria, Jordan, Bahrain, Egypt, and now Libya. There is talk of “democracy in the air,” as Western commentators look at the situation and assume that it heralds a new dawn for this oft-benighted region of the world, one in which peace, freedom, and cute furry puppies will be the new inheritance of its inhabitants.

I must admit – I don’t share these sanguine assessments.

Sure, there is no doubt that in some of these countries, steps will be made towards more democratic forms of government. In others, such as Egypt, we merely saw the military government using the protests as a vehicle for removing one unelected President-for-life with another. Nevertheless, there does appear to be a movement across the region towards more popular involvement and control over their own governments.

The mistake, however, is in assuming that this will bring greater “liberty.”

One of the most common errors that is made by Western observers, leftists and conservatives alike, is to assume that “democracy = liberty.” It does not. In fact, democracy can be one of the greatest enemies of true liberty, as our Founders well knew. If (or rather, when) democracy becomes a vehicle by which the majority can enforce its will onto a powerless minority, it becomes a scourge to mankind.

This is why our Founders established this nation as a republic, rather than as a democracy. In a republic, you have the right balance between the principle of order and human freedom of action. Go too far in one direction, and you certainly have law and order – but at the price of a dictatorship. Go too far the other way, and you have for the 51% who can vote themselves power and goodies at the expense of the other 49%. In a federal republican form, with its divided power and subsidiary authorities in a representational system, you maintain the ordered liberty necessary for good society and true freedom.

Democracy doesn’t maintain that. So, while democracy may come to many countries in the Muslim Middle East, it will be a democracy that is subverted and used by the forces of evil. We are already seeing, for instance, the Muslim Brotherhood (the spiritual ancestor of al-Qaeda) organize itself as a guiding force in several of the places where the mob is getting the upper hand. Can we really say that a democracy that leads to theocracy is “liberty”? Of course not.

So no, I find it difficult to get too excited about the prospects of Muslim democracy – not that I think the form can’t be put into place, but rather that it won’t lead to the sparkling secular freedom of cell phones and liberated women that many Westerners seem to assume will come into being.

Or, to put it more bluntly, you can lead a horse to the ballot box, but you can’t make him vote to respect the natural liberties of others.

This is because the Muslim Middle East, and the Muslim world in general, has no culture of liberty, and never has. By this, I mean that the Muslim world does not have several key elements that are necessary for truly representative, truly free society to function successfully.

Liberty essentially requires two things to exist for very long. The first of these is a set of what I call “freedom values.” Freedom values are those offshoots of Lockean commonwealthianism that allow human beings to exist together in civil society without killing, enslaving, or otherwise oppressing each other.

One of these freedom values is the respect for the individual. A free society views the individual citizen as a being worthy of independent value and existence. A person in a free society is not considered a cog in some impersonal apparatus greater than his or herself, whose only value, as such, exists in what they can be made to give to the system. He or she is not owned, by whatever name this ownership is given, by the state, as they are in communism, socialism, and fascism. In the same way, he or she is not owned by a man-made theocratic system.

Instead, the individual is free to think, act, create, and enjoy as he or she sees fit and is able to the best of their abilities. The individual is able to “valuate” himself by using his God-given abilities to better both himself and those around him. It is this truth that makes capitalism work. It is this truth that gives a free society the prosperity that comes when each of us have the liberty to create and make things for ourselves and other (enlightened self-interest) that make us more productive, allow our lives to be longer, allow us to specialize our labor so that more of us can do different things that interest us and for which we have a more natural ability to improve and perfect. It is this truth that that brings about real learning and progress, as the mind is unshackled to think, to explore, and to investigate.

This leads to the second freedom value, which is the voluntary society. Flowing from the respect for the individual is the understanding that we must respect others as individuals as well. Others are as deserving of consideration as we ourselves are. The natural outflowing of this should be a desire to help those who are genuinely less fortunate than ourselves. However, complementary to this is that we will refrain from using the force and power of the police state to make others do so. This is where the concept of the voluntary society comes into play. As charity and concern move us, we join together with like minds to fulfill roles that many today think only the welfare state is able to fill.

However, as de Tocqueville noted, in early America, our people were forever coming together in voluntary associations for various purposes, religious, philanthropic, and otherwise. We don’t need a welfare state, and we showed that we didn’t for the first century and a half of our national existence. The voluntary society concept is what enables a nation to walk the line between heartlessly allowing the truly needy (and note, I am not talking about the able-bodied lazy here) to freeze and starve in our streets, and ensnaring us all in a nanny state that inevitably will result when government “do-gooders” are given the power to force us all to take one for the team.

And that is why the voluntary society is a freedom value – it works to replace the role of government with the role of individuals, something which usually runs in the opposite direction. It rolls back the scope and influence of the government, and returns it to the hands of the people themselves. Further, when we do decide to help someone else out, we get to have a say in where that help goes, on what terms, and in what way. If you don’t want your money going to feed a perfectly able-bodied homeless guy’s crack cocaine habit, you can certainly keep that from happening in a voluntary society – whereas this is not the case with the money taken from you at gunpoint by the government and handed out as a check through a faceless, unaccountable bureaucracy. The voluntary society allows your charity to be truly virtuous, because it is truly voluntary.

The third freedom value is that of the rule of law. What we conservatives need to understand is that fundamentally, “law” itself is not the enemy of liberty. In fact, law is a buttress of liberty. The rule of law is what makes us all of equal social value and worth. The rule of law says that the same rules apply to all of us evenly. This takes maturity. It takes political and social maturity to be willing to apply the same standard to yourself that you would apply to someone else.

The rule of men, on the other hand, allows for all kinds of evils and perversions. It can take the form of tyranny, in which one person or a small oligarchy get to rule society through their own whims – a situation in which they and their lackeys certainly do not operate under the same rules that the common man does. It can also take the form of rule by bureaucrat and administrator (the form usually preferred by today’s more sophisticated statists). In such cases, people are usually unaware or unable to abide by all the rules that are made, but which generally do not apply to the upper echelons of the social democratic state apparatus. As such, the people do not know or cannot fulfill their obligations before the law, but nevertheless are held to them by members of the hierarchy who are not under these same obligations.

The rule of law, however, alleviates this. When we all know the law, and the law is the servant of the people, happiness will follow. The rule of law is what enables us, for instance, to be secure in our property. It is what enables us to have the expectation that a contract we enter into will be respected, regardless of who we made it with. It is what enables us to be secure in enjoying the use of our natural liberties – I can say, worship, or print what I want, and you can’t tell me that I can’t. And vice versa. I have to respect your rights, and you have to respect mine. I can’t step in and toss you in jail for something, just because I’m the Second Assistant Vice-Director of some faceless bureau and you happened to offend me.

This leads to the fourth and final freedom value I want to talk about here, which is that of social toleration. By this, I don’t mean the “toleration” that those on the Left talk about, which typically means giving special preference to perverts or criminals over people who just want to live their own lives in peace. Rather, social toleration refers to the willingness to allow others to exercise the same rights and liberties that you yourself would want to be able to exercise, so long as we are not doing harm to one another. Social toleration means that we may not like each others’ religion, politics, or whatever else, we may even try to convert each other by arguments and reason, but ultimately, we have to respect the fact that at the end of the day, you can make your choice, and I can make mine. As free individuals who can make voluntary choices and whose rights are protected the same as anyone else’s, we have the liberty to determine our own contribution to the fabric of the greater society around us.

The Muslim world, from its inception through to today, has precious little of these four ingredients. The submission of the individual to the theocratic shari’a system negates the ability of the individual Muslims who live in such societies to think or act independently of the imams and ayatollahs. Because of the fatalism inherent in Islam, true voluntary society is virtually unknown – the well-known zakat, the donation of 2.5% of a Muslim’s wealth as a religious obligation, is more akin to socialism than it is to true charity, and is often used to fund jihad rather than help the poor (something which is allowed by the ahadith and the sunnat, the sets of Islamic traditions and examples of Mohammed that regulate the lives of Muslims). In Islam, there is no true concept of the rule of law – there is only the rule of rules determined by the personal interpretation of various religious authorities who have power in a particular area or within a certain community. And of course, it is well-known that there is no social toleration in traditional, fundamentalist Muslim societies towards just about anybody – women, religious minorities, intellectuals, or other dissenters.

Without these four elements, there is no reason to think that these various Muslim countries currently undergoing revolution will see the establishment of liberal democracies. Instead, in the event of successful revolutions, we will most likely see transitional democratic governments which will last only so long as it takes for the radical Muslim groups to manage to get themselves elected by a majority of the gullible people who will be voting in these elections.

But what of America, and by extension, the West? Well, let’s face it – the future of true liberty doesn’t look too bright here, either.

Above, I said that liberty required two things to exist for very long. The first was the freedom values. The second of these two things is a firm, grounded basis in the Judeo-Christian principles that enable a free people to exercise the self-government necessary to both possess and maintain freedom.

It is this Judeo-Christian substratum that enables the four freedom values I listed above to exist, and without it, you won’t really have them for very long.

I’m sure there are some who think this is ridiculous, and who perhaps even think that Christianity is antithetical to freedom. To these folks, I would simply say this – your shiny little secular society has spectacularly failed to maintain true liberty for Americans and those in other Western nations. Indeed, to the extent that secularism has advanced in the West, we have seen true liberty recede into the background. The evidence is all around us, plain for all to see. You want to complain about the past inquisitions and crusades of “Christianity” falsely so called? Well, secular humanism killed more people in one century than “religion” did in the previous nineteen. And today, as our western nations move away from our Christian roots, the power, scope, and extent of the welfare state, the bureaucrat state, the nanny state has increased and continues to increase. Look at Europe – as that continent becomes more and more secular, it has become increasingly socialistic and nannyish, bureaucratic and bullying. The same is happening in America, as well.

It’s simple, really, to see why the Judeo-Christian worldview is vitally necessary to have these freedom values. Take the respect for the individual. The Christian worldview understands that each one of us is a unique creation of God, who is loved by that same God, and for whom God made the ultimate sacrifice in sending His own Son to save. We all were made in the image of God. We all have worth and value that is intrinsic to each one of us. As valuable individuals, we can claim the heritage of our natural liberties given to us a by a God who intended for us to enjoy them.

The Christian worldview flatly rejects the notion that we are soulless, materialist conglomerations of random atoms that have no ultimate meaning to our existence. Yet, this is all the secular humanist can really say about us. No single one of us really means anything, in and of ourselves. We are all just blips of matter who appear, disappear, and are then forgotten. This is why secular humanism, inevitably, ends up subjugating the individual to the state. Which of us knows or cares about any of the individual diodes that operate inside the computers we use – at least until the diode “acts up” and needs to “have something done about it”? So also the humanist, if he is to be rational and self-consistent, can only see each of us as cogs in some ongoing “progess” machine which isn’t really progressing. This is the way every aggressively secular humanist regime – the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, Maoist China, and the rest – has dealt with its own people.

The same, then, can be said for the other freedom values as well. A voluntary society? This has nearly always been driven by Christian charity and the desire to help our neighbor. The secularist alternatives are either Objectivist libertarianism, where you just really don’t give a rip who dies on your doorstep (since we all know philanthropy is just a guilt-trip to get Randian supermen to allow somebody else to make claims upon them), or else mega-state socialism (including, by the way, that perversion of Christianity known as “the social gospel”) where you’re forced to contribute.

The rule of law? What can be a firmer basis for the rule of law than the conviction that we will all – great or small, rich or poor, white or black, tall or short – stand before the same God, and give account of ourselves according to the same judgments from the same eternal laws of God? Christianity is the great equalizer, when it comes to equality before the law. The king and the pauper will each be judged by the same Word. The decisions I make in life will face the same impartial standard as those made by anyone else. Likewise, we each share the same birthright of the same natural liberties, regardless of who we are. They are there to possess and use, if we are able and willing to do so.

What about social toleration? True Christianity, as we see it found in the New Testament, is the reason why we even have this. We have religious liberty, for instance, because Virginian Baptists prevailed upon James Madison and Thomas Jefferson to include it into the Bill of Rights to our Constitution. This, again, is because of the fact that we are each going to be held accountable for our own choices. Granted, a lot of intolerance has been done in the name of “Christianity,” but one must ask the critic where he or she finds inquisitions, forced conversion, or crusades in the New Testament (actually, you won’t really even find them in the Old Testament, despite peoples’ erroneous perceptions, but that involves some arguments more involved than I wish to get into at present). The fact is you won’t. The fact that we’re all going to be judged for what we do presupposes that we also have the liberty to make our own choices. Those choices will have eternal consequences – but they are our own choices to make. As a result, you and I cannot force another to make a decision about anything. Our standing before God demands that we grant each other the charity of social toleration.

Each of these, however, requires the self-government and self-restraint that only comes with that Judeo-Christian worldview. It doesn’t come with libertarianism, nor does it come with socialism, nor does it come with Islamism. Only the influence of true religion, the kind that has an impact on the actions of those in the society in which it pervades, can prepare the ground for the seed of liberty to be planted.

In short, all of this is why Adams famously said,

We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge, or gallantry, would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

The problem for America and the West, as I alluded, is that the increasing radical secularism of our societies is removing this underpinning that makes liberty possible. As our people abrogate their self-government, they increasingly need to be other-governed, just to maintain a semblance of order. As our people lose their sense of self-worth and self-value in the image of God, they are increasingly becoming criminals and shiftless bums who expect the rest of society to give them everything that they could get for themselves. And even those who do still work for a living have decided to let the government expand into the areas where the voluntary society rightfully belongs. In short, we are giving away our liberty and allowing the government to expand into every area of our life as we lose our grip on our own foundational worldview and basis. We’re chiseling out the mortar, and wondering why the bricks are falling out.

We need to understand that just as Islam is not conducive to freedom, neither is secularism and humanism. Both, in their own ways, neglect the principal ingredients for true freedom. Islam subjects its victims to the capricious will of a distant, uncaring moon god. Secular humanism tells people to throw off all restraints to their behavior – which simply means the state is going to have to step in, sooner or later, and impose those restrains from without.

All the time, I will see supposed fellow-travelers in the anti-jihad movement who seem to assume that the only path to freedom is to get rid of all religion and “liberate” Muslims to a wild life of the grossest hedonism. Muslims, they think, will only be free when they are just as uninhibited about running around naked on a beach while participating in drunken homosexual orgies as many Westerners are. Frankly, I think these folks are just as bad, in the long run, as the jihadis themselves. Thinking that hedonism is synonymous with freedom is pure idiocy. It ignores fundamental realities about the way the world works. The Muslim world will be no better off if Pakistan were to morph into Sixpackistan.

Ultimately, though, we need to be worried about maintaining liberty here. As our Founders knew, liberty is the handmaid of the biblical religion that values the worth of man as a creation in God’s own image, and values the fact that each of us have to deal with God individually, and that these dealings will have moral, ethical, and eternal consequences. Only when we get serious about turning back to our roots, to the self-government and self-control that obviates the “need” for the government to control us instead, will we have true liberty again.