POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY: by James Q. WilsonNews Weekly
Democracy for all?
, April 8, 2000
"Today we wonder whether the whole world might become democratic. Acting on the belief that it can, our government has bent its energies toward encouraging the birth or growth of democracy in places around the globe from Haiti to Russia, from Kosovo to the People's Republic of China. In doing so, it has enjoyed a kind of sanction from the century just past, which was indeed marked by the growth of regimes resting on popular consent and a commitment to human freedom.
"That has hardly been the only salient characteristic of the age; the 20th century was also an era of mass murder, in which more than 170 million people were killed by their own governments. In some ways, in fact, it is easier to explain that phenomenon than to explain the increase in the number of democratic regimes. Living for most of their history in tiny villages, people have customarily viewed those in other villages as at best distant strangers and at worst mortal enemies. When agriculture and industry brought people together into large cities, the stage was set for dictatorial leaders, driven by power and ideology and aided by modern technology, to seize and maintain political control by destroying not only their personal rivals but entire populations who could be depicted as the enemies of the state. In the worst cases, this destruction has amounted to genocide.
"But if hostility and mass murder can, alas, be easily explained, democracy is an oddity. How do people who evolved in small, homogeneous villages become tolerant of those whom they do not know and who may differ from them in habits and religion? How can village government, based on tradition and consensus, be transformed into national government based on votes cast by strangers?
"Democratic government then cannot rest simply on written constitutions. Many Latin American nations have had constitutions similar to that of the United States but have practised not democracy but oligarchy. Religion may help foster tolerance, if people take the Golden Rule seriously. But we know that some religious people are fanatics and some agnostics tolerant. We also know that in some faiths, such as Islam, there is no separation between religious and secular law, and that the absence of this distinction tempts religious leaders to impose authoritarian rule on their followers.
"Voltaire once said that a nation with one church will have oppression; with two, civil war; with a hundred, freedom. Religious freedom strengthens political freedom, but religious freedom exists only after political freedom has been secured."James Q. Wilson, Commentary, March, 2000