Another View of Tunisia

On Saturday, inspired by Fareed Zakaria's writings on "illiberal democracy," I expressed concerns about the prospect of quick elections in Tunisia, a country that has not had a free press, an independent judiciary, or other elements of liberalism. Khelil Bouarrouj, a Tunisian-American libertarian, thinks I am overly pessimistic. Here's what he wrote me:
While Tunisia has never been a true democracy, the largely educated middle class in the nation is well-learned when it comes to the principles of a free society. The regime's authoritarianism does not speak for the courageous Tunisian lawyers, activists and students; along with the general professional class. Tunisians know what a free press looks like. They've seen it around the world when they travel and social networks have served as a dissident channel. And let me add without hyperbole that on Saturday Tunisians awoke to a free press. The usually propagandistic state television changed its logo (which was a regime ensign) and became a voice for free debate with call-ins from average Tunisians. The private media was hosting panel discussions and it was stunning: people have shaken off the fear, and educated journalists and other civil society individuals were openly debating and discussing a whole host of issues. The newspapers that were published that morning ceased with self-censorship, and their coverage and editorials became free forums. A casual reader and observer of the press/media would conclude that it is dominated by a liberal social class with strong democratic values and articulation. In short, the past absence of an institutionalized free press does not mean that Tunisians do not understand the merit of free debate and differing voices. They always have and needed only the opportunity to breathe, which they have now seized. This lesson, I believe, applies to democracy as well. The fact is that liberal social norms have been ingrained in Tunisian culture: a secular state, equal rights for women, higher education, religious tolerance, etc. I do not state this as a patriot, who has certainly been emotionally moved in recent days, but as an observer who has numerous family and friends in the nation and been engaged in countless political discussions. The images of the protesters themselves tell a story. Unlike in other Arab nations, the opposition was not uncouth Islamists but a liberal middle class and students. The demonstrations at colleges had Arab youth spell out the word freedom (which was widely evoked during the month), and this was not just a slogan but a genuinely understood ideal. The nation is ready to be a true democracy and truly entrench democratic values. The cultural ethos is already democratic and this is what led to the protests, defining their voice and even the demand that the transition government adhere to the very letter of the constitution. After the president fled, the prime minister took over but Tunisian lawyers immediately declared it unconstitutional (as it was), along with buzzing messages on Facebook by the newly energized populace, and within hours the premier handed power to the speaker of the parliament according to the constitution. The high court has declared that elections shall be held in 60 days per the constitution as well. Tunisians wanted to start off right with respect for the rule of law. And that's just it: this nation has been democratic at heart; the recipe for democracy if you will, and the rule of law is understood, respected by Tunisians and had been upheld even under the past regime with the obvious exception of the corrupt and now dethroned ruling elite. Tunisians precisely threw them out because of their repressive rule and flagrant abuse of the law. And the fact is that the people are so committed to a free, democratic Tunisia and the rule of law that they did not acquiesce to an unconstitutional transfer of power, even though they had achieved their main objective of expelling the president and the premier was going to reign solely as a temporary president until elections are held. Again: people wanted to start a new dawn without compromise on the rule of law. It is no trivial matter that even in the excitement and shock of victory people still thought about the constitutional provision and demanded it be respected. One may have believed that the people would have been elated and surfeit to achieve a monumental victory, unprecedented in the Arab world for a popular revolt to bring down an Arab tyrant, and not bothered with a provision, which would appear to be minor in context of the historic day and new beginning, and which is ultimately inconsequential since the caretaker would leave after elections. But they were not, and that speaks volumes. I have been glued to Facebook updates, the best pulse of the nation right now, and after the premier assumed power Tunisians immediately noted that this is unconstitutional and began to demand his removal. Tunisians wanted the constitution to be respected from Day One and it was the people who made it happen, again. On Facebook, the sentiment is unanimous: a clean break with the ruling party, respect for the rule of law, free and fair elections, and upholding the constitution. After such a dear victory, the widely heard pronouncement is that the people will not be complacent and are ready and willing to eagerly guard their rights and see to it that a democracy worthy of its name will be planted in Tunisia. After Friday, the Tunisia people have earned with great sacrifice their freedom, and the people are determined that their God-given rights shall not slip an inch and are closely watching the transition as the proverbial vanguards of liberty, and the people will see to it that their hope will be made concrete. The nation is ready and while no democracy is perfect and all democracies are often in a state of oscillation, Tunisia is the best bet and hope for the Arab world's first real liberal democracy. And I believe it will be a model for the rest of the region.

Posted on January 17, 2011  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Democracy in Tunisia?

In the wake of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali's abdication in Tunisia on Friday, both President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton stressed the need for quick elections in a country that has never known democracy, freedom of the press, or the rule of law:
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton . . .  reacted Friday to Ben Ali's departure with a statement condemning government violence against protesters and calling for free elections. "We look to the Tunisian government to build a stronger foundation for Tunisia's future with economic, social and political reforms," she said. . . . President Obama condemned the use of violence against the protesters and urged the government to hold elections that "reflect the true will and aspirations" of Tunisians.
I'm reminded of Fareed Zakaria's concerns about the blithe promotion of elections in his article "The Rise of Illiberal Democracy" (pdf; later expanded into a book, The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad):
...for almost a century in the West, democracy has meant liberal democracy—a political system marked not only by free and fair elections, but also by the rule of law, a separation of powers, and the protection of basic liberties of speech, assembly, religion, and property. In fact, this latter bundle of freedoms—what might be termed constitutional liberalism—is theoretically different and historically distinct from democracy. As the political scientist Philippe Schmitter has pointed out, “Liberalism, either as a conception of political liberty, or as a doctrine about economic policy, may have coincided with the rise of democracy. But it has never been immutably or unambiguously linked to its practice.” Today the two strands of liberal democracy, interwoven in the Western political fabric, are coming apart in the rest of the world. Democracy is flourishing; constitutional liberalism is not.... Constitutional liberalism, on the other hand, is not about the procedures for selecting government, but rather government’s goals. It refers to the tradition, deep in Western history, that seeks to protect an individual’s autonomy and dignity against coercion, whatever the source—state, church, or society. The term marries two closely connected ideas. It is liberal because it draws on the philosophical strain, beginning with the Greeks, that emphasizes individual liberty. It is constitutional because it rests on the tradition, beginning with the Romans, of the rule of law.... Since 1945 Western governments have, for the most part, embodied both democracy and constitutional liberalism. Thus it is difficult to imagine the two apart, in the form of either illiberal democracy or liberal autocracy. In fact both have existed in the past and persist in the present. Until the twentieth century, most countries in Western Europe were liberal autocracies or, at best, semi-democracies. The franchise was tightly restricted, and elected legislatures had little power.... Only in the late 1940s did most Western countries become full-fledged democracies, with universal adult suffrage. But one hundred years earlier, by the late 1840s, most of them had adopted important aspects of constitutional liberalism—the rule of law, private property rights, and increasingly, separated powers and free speech and assembly. For much of modern history, what characterized governments in Europe and North America, and differentiated them from those around the world, was not democracy but constitutional liberalism. The “Western model” is best symbolized not by the mass plebiscite but the impartial judge.... It is odd that the United States is so often the advocate of elections and plebiscitary democracy abroad. What is distinctive about the American system is not how democratic it is but rather how undemocratic it is, placing as it does multiple constraints on electoral majorities.... While it is easy to impose elections on a country, it is more difficult to push constitutional liberalism on a society. The process of genuine liberalization and democratization is gradual and long-term, in which an election is only one step. Without appropriate preparation, it might even be a false step.... Today, in the face of a spreading virus of illiberalism, the most useful role that the international community, and most importantly the United States, can play is—instead of searching for new lands to democratize and new places to hold elections—to consolidate democracy where it has taken root and to encourage the gradual development of constitutional liberalism across the globe. Democracy without constitutional liberalism is not simply inadequate, but dangerous, bringing with it the erosion of liberty, the abuse of power, ethnic divisions, and even war.
Let's hope that the new leaders and the newly active citizens of Tunisia focus on developing freedom of the press, civil liberties, the rule of law, and constitutional limits on the power of government--including economic policies (pdf) more conducive to growth and progress--even as they move toward holding elections.

Posted on January 15, 2011  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Inflation Is Here

"Faced with rising international food prices," Steven Mufson writes in the Washington Post, "governments around the world are cooking up measures to protect domestic supplies and keep a lid on prices at home." Instead of export bans, subsidies, and price controls, governments might better consider the role of their central banks in creating money out of thin air and causing price inflation. Cato senior fellow Gerald P. O'Driscoll, Jr., made that point at the blog ThinkMarkets:
“Prices Soar on Crop Woes” reads the headline in today’s Wall Street Journal. Global output of key crops such as corn, soybeans and wheat is down, and their prices are up, respectively, 94%, 51% and 80% from June lows. Today’s PPI report has wholesale prices up 1.1% in December after rising 0.8% in November. The Journal reminds us that in 2008 high food prices sparked riots around the world. Meanwhile Fed officials tell us they don’t expect inflation.  It is not an issue of expecting inflation, but of observing it here and now.  The Fed prefers, of course, to look at “core” inflation rates, which are much lower. A former Fed colleague explained to me the central bank does so on the theory that people do not need to drive to work and can stop eating. In our global economy, easy US monetary policy has thus far mainly affected commodity prices (including now food), real-estate in Asia and now broader price measures in Asia. It is implausible that the US would remain unaffected. Food, energy and clothing prices are all rising. I don’t think many households are presently gripped with a fear of deflation. In the Mises/Hayek theory of economic fluctuations, the transmission of monetary shocks works through producer prices and incomes, and only later consumer prices. No measure of consumer prices, and certainly not a subset of consumer prices, is an adequate gauge of inflation.
(For another take on rising food prices, you can read the views of Paul Krugman and Lester Brown, who say that at last -- at last! -- we really are running into those "binding resource constraints" that Brown has been predicting for his entire life and that will finally require us to start living at Chinese levels.)

Posted on January 15, 2011  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Non-Taxpayers for a Tax Hike

Advocates of limited government often worry about how to maintain republican government and freedom if a substantial portion of the population don't pay taxes and are net beneficiaries of government largesse. Lately, it seems like a lot of the advocates of bigger government and higher taxes don't pay their own taxes -- like Tom Daschle, Timothy GeithnerEleanor Holmes NortonCharles RangelAl Franken, Governor David Paterson’s top aideDemocratic National Convention staffers, Al Sharpton, and so on. Now the Washington Post has found another one:
Since joining the D.C. Council two years ago, Michael A. Brown has become the chief advocate for raising taxes on the city's wealthiest residents, arguing that those who earn at least $250,000 a year are not paying their share. Yet Brown and his wife have failed to pay the property taxes on a Chevy Chase home assessed at $1.4 million, according to public records. Brown, who earns more than $300,000 a year, owes the District $14,263 for property taxes, the records show.
I guess it's easy to support higher taxes if you don't intend to pay them. But I suggest that Brown bite the bullet, recruit Daschle, Franken, Norton, and their colleagues, and form a new organization:
Non-Taxpayers for a Tax Hike

Posted on January 14, 2011  Posted to Cato@Liberty

George W. McDonnell

Virginia governor Bob McDonnell must be a Bush Republican. The Washington Post reports today:
Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell plans a massive spending campaign that he said would unclog state roads, award thousands more college degrees and spur job creation, part of an aggressive legislative agenda he is expected to roll out this week. McDonnell (R) will press lawmakers to approve a series of statewide projects he said would be paid in part through Virginia's $403 million budget surplus, $337 million in higher-than-expected tax revenue, and $192 million generated through cuts and savings.... He plans to borrow nearly $3 billion over the next three years.
That doesn't sound like the agenda of a Reagan Republican or a Tea Party Republican. It sounds a lot like the program of George W. Bush, the biggest-spending president between LBJ and, well, the president who followed Bush. Of course, McDonnell might also be called a George Allen Republican. Allen, who served as governor of Virginia from 1994 through 1997, has a reputation as a staunch conservative. But he earned a grade of 40 on the Cato Institute's Fiscal Policy Report Card. McDonnell seems to be headed for a similar grade.

Posted on January 9, 2011  Posted to Cato@Liberty

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