[First published October 21, 2005] In spite of the violence in Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan, Angola, and elsewhere, there is a cause for much optimism. World violence has been in sharp decline for over five years, and the march of democratization continues with about 119 [as of 2008] democracies now existing, and 8 [as of 2008] of them liberal democracies. In almost every country where elites have been persuaded of the value of socialism there is now talk of multiparty systems, democracy, and the free market. Even in the classical authoritarian systems, such as those in the Middle East, voices are heard for a free press, legislative power, and political parties.
Obviously, we are riding a democratic wave. The technology of the mass media has brought us all closer together (and who can forget watching the elections in Afghanistan and then Iraq) and in its universal availability and content it has carried implicitly the message of democracy and freedom. And freedom and the rule of law itself has become the most universally accepted political idea and human right, even enshrined in the UN Human Rights Convention
The components of this idea are clear in broad brush although the details, as always, are subject to academic dispute. These are political rights, such as to compete and choose one’s candidates for political power, equal and secret ballot, and freedom to organize and protest against office holders; and for liberal democracies, civil rights, such as freedom of religion, organization, and speech. Often we collectively refer to these rights by the term Rule of Law, a basic constitutional order that protects these rights and that lies above the whims of government, groups, and individuals.
But in our enthusiasm for the global movement toward democracy, we should ask ourselves why we support it. A century and more ago the answer would have been almost automatic, as it was for the writers of the American Constitution. It is a natural law, an inalienable right, and a self-evident principle that people should be free. But natural law is no longer intellectually popular and indeed the idea is now so strange that journalists cannot understand the references to it by conservative nominees to the American Supreme Court. They classify it along with such sayings as, “God wills it.”
A currently more respectable justification for democracy is that freedom is a fundamental human value and desire. People want to live their own lives, pursue their own interests as free from the meddling of others as possible. If such intrusion is necessary, they want to play a role in determining the who, what, and when of it. And since this is what people universally want it is what they should have. Although the non sequitur in this argument is glaring–one cannot derive a “should” from a “want” or “desire” alone–it at least can be made respectable by reference to the Social Contract Theory of justice. That is, if we argue that a just social system is one whose fundamental principles people would universally choose if they were blind to their selfish interests (if they had no knowledge of where they would end up in that system–rich or poor, tall or fat, black or white), then persuasive is the argument that people would choose as their first principle freedom under the Rule of Law.
But this approach to justifying democracy has been unsatisfactory to many. We live in a utilitarian age and it is hardly strange that the major justification for democracy should be in terms of its consequences. Particularly, that where people are free under law that is fair and equally applied to all, they are most happy. Of course, this utilitarian justification itself is subject to question. What is happiness? Although people prefer happiness to sadness, grief, and pain, do they really know what will make them happy?
The democrat argues that we really do not know what makes people happy in general and that this is something that only they can decide for themselves, and if for some issues it must be determined generally, as with regard to pollution or public education, it should be through publicly elected representatives under law. And the democratic individualist has argued further with their democratic socialist friends that the free market is a necessary mechanism through which individuals have the greatest choice as to what will make them happy, both in the relative diversity and cheapness of goods and in the creation and dissemination of wealth.
This utilitarian argument for democracy is what has now won the battle for the minds of men. Democracy, it is widely believed, assures the happiness of the greatest number because it provides freedom and wealth (through economic development). There is much to quibble about this, as can be seen in the arguments between various political parties, and I do not intend to get into these debates. But leaving these details aside, I think that we can accept this as the general argument of the American, Soviet, or Chinese democrat (even those who favor social democracy no longer mean full-scale socialism but now mean a free market qualified by government welfare, safety nets, regulation, and limited government ownership of basic services and production, such as in the public health sector).
But those who make this utilitarian argument for democracy have missed perhaps the strongest possible justification. Democracy preserves human life. In theory and fact, the more democratic two states, the less deadly violence between them; and if they are both democratic, lethal violence is precluded altogether. That is, democratic states do not make war on each other. Moreover, the less democratic two states, the more probable war between them. And also, the less democratic a state, the more likely will occur internal warfare.
This is not all. Perhaps least surprising is that the less democratic a government, the more likely that it will murder its own citizens in cold blood, independent of any foreign or domestic war.
Now, war is not the most deadly form of violence. Indeed, I have found that while about 37,000,000 people have been killed in battle in all foreign and domestic wars in the last century, government democide (genocide and mass murder) have killed about 175 million, most by far by totalitarian governments. There is no case of democratic governments murdering en masse their own citizens.
The point is this. If a utilitarian justification for democracy is to be given, then in addition to the happiness that follows from freedom and the from wealth produced by the free market, democracy preserves and extends human life. It does this through the life extending benefits of the market (as in food production). But most important, it does this through the reduction of deadly violence. Democracy is the successful institutionalization of the forces, culture, and techniques of non-violence.
This is also what we should be shouting from the roof tops. This is also what should be the substance of our utilitarian justification for democracy. Yes, freedom. Yes, development. Yes, happiness. But yes, also life for those saved from murder by their own governments and death from war.
Nothing is certain about the future, but this is true of all predictions based on past events, natural or social. Within this limitation think about this. By fact and theory, we appear to have within the power of democracy the opportunity to end war, genocide, and mass murder, and minimize revolutionary and civil violence. And the epochal movement of our times is toward universal democracy.
It is true that a few political leaders such as President George Bush and practitioners have already pointed out that democracies do not make war on each other. But this has not been a general understanding; virtually no journalists mention this in their analyses of democracy and contemporary trends. I have yet to hear or read about an expert, academic or otherwise, mentioning this in a media interview. Why is this?
First, until recent decades there has been an historic erosion of the tenets of classical liberalism and its faith in democracy and the free market. The pacific nature of democracy is a matter of insight and knowledge gained and lost among liberals. So long ago as 1795, in his virtually now forgotten Perpetual Peace, Immanuel Kant systematically articulated the positive role of republicanism in eliminating war. He proposed that constitutional republics should be established to assure universal peace. The essential idea was this: the more freedom people have to govern their own lives, the more government power is limited constitutionally, the more leaders are responsible through free elections to their people, then the more restrained the leaders will be in making war.
Through the writings of Kant, de Montesquieu, Thomas Paine, Jeremy Bentham, and John Stuart Mill, among others, it became an article of classical liberal faith in the 18th and 19th centuries that “Government on the old system,” as Paine wrote, “is an assumption of power, for the aggrandizement of itself; on the new [republican form of government as just established in the United States], a delegation of power for the common benefit of society. The former supports itself by keeping up a system of war; the latter promotes a system of peace, as the true means of enriching a nation.”
These liberals believed that there was a natural harmony of interests among nations, and that free trade would facilitate this harmony and promote peace. Most important, they were convinced that monarchical aristocracies had a stake in war. In contemporary terms, it was a game they played with the lives of the common folk. Empower the common people to make such decisions through their representatives, and they would generally oppose war.
In the 18th Century, classical liberals wrote about democracy and peace in the abstract, by hypothesis. Reason, the instrument for uncovering natural law, was their guide. Now we have the longer historical record, empirical research, and social theory to show that indeed, their reason and intuition were not misplaced.
Nonetheless, by the middle of the 20th century, this insight became almost completely ignored or forgotten. There are several reasons for this. First and foremost, the classical liberal view itself fell into disrepute among intellectuals and scholars. Essentially, classical liberals believed that the government that governs least governs best. Adam Smith’s An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations was their economic bible. And in current terms, they preached democratic capitalism. But beginning in the 19th century capitalism came under increasing attack by socialists. First, the socialist agreed with the classical liberal that the people had to be empowered, and that this would bring peace. But what the socialist saw when the liberal creed was enacted into law, especially in Britain, was that the bellicose aristocracies were replaced by bellicose capitalists. Democracies and their attendant free market appeared to foster exploitation, inequality, poverty, and to enable a very few to rule over the many. Most important here, capitalism was seen not just to promote, but to require colonialism and imperialism, and thereby war.
But what was to be done? Here the socialists divided essentially into the democratic socialists, state socialists, and Marxists. The democratic socialists argued that true democracy means that both the political and economic aspects of their lives must be under the people’s control, and this is done through a representative government and government ownership, control, and management of the economy. Elected representatives, who would oversee economic planners and managers, and above all be responsive to popular majorities, would thus replace the capitalist. With the aristocratic and capitalist interests in war thus eliminated, with the peace oriented worker and peasant democratically empowered, peace would be assured.
The state socialists, however, would simply replace representative institutions with some form of socialist dictatorship. This would assure the best implementation and progress of socialist egalitarianism, without interference by the bourgeoisie and other self-serving interests. Moreover, the people cannot be trusted to know their own interests, for they are easily blinded by pro-capitalist propaganda and manipulation. Burma today is an example of state socialism in practice.
While agreeing on much of the socialist analysis of capitalism, the Marxists added a deterministic, dialectical theory of history, a class analysis of societies, an economic theory of capitalism, and the necessity of the impoverishment of the worker and the inevitability of a communist revolution. However, the Marxists disagreed with the socialists on the ends. Never far from the anarchists, the Marxists, especially the Marxist-Leninists of our century, looked at the socialist state that would come into being with the overthrow of capitalism as nothing more than an intermediary dictatorship of the proletariat through which the transition to the final stage of communism would be prepared. And stripped of its feudal or capitalist exploiters, and thus its agents of war, communism would mean enlightened cooperation among all people as each works according to his ability and receives according to his need. The state then would wither away, and the masses would live in true, everlasting peace and freedom.
Regardless of the brand of socialism from which the critique of capitalism ensued, the protracted 19th century socialist assault on capitalism had a profound effect on liberalism and especially the theory of war and peace. Falling into disrepute, its program seen as utopian or special pleading for capitalists, pure classical liberalism mutated among western intellectuals into a reform or welfare liberalism that is hardly different today from the programs and views of the early socialists. And this modern liberalism, or “liberalism” as it is now called, has been heavily influenced by the socialist view of war; and became widely influential in scholarly research on international relations, and thus war and peace. It must be recognized that such research was largely the preserve of the social sciences, and an overwhelming number of social scientists were by the mid-20th century modern liberals or socialists in their outlook.
But what happened to the idea that individual freedom promotes nonviolence? With the protracted socialist attack on the classical liberal’s fundamental belief in capitalism, coupled with the apparent excesses of capitalism, such as sweat shops, robber barons, monopolies, depressions, and political corruption, classical liberalism eventually lost the heart and minds of Western intellectuals. And with this defeat went its fundamental truth about democracy promoting peace. Interestingly, in the last decade there has been a resurgence of classical liberalism. Former President Ronald Reagan and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher exemplify this, and their often-expressed views on the positive role of free institutions for peace are straight out of classical liberalism. This renewal, however, has yet to have much influence on the media, professionals, or social scientists.
This is not to say that most democrats view capitalist political-economic systems as the cause of war, as asserted by hard-line socialists. Many who think and write about these matters generally view capitalism as one cause among several. They have moved to a middle position: both capitalism and socialism can be a source of peace or war, depending on the circumstances. In either case, neither is a general factor in war.
Now, capitalism and democracy is not the same thing. Democratic socialist systems exist, as in Sweden and Denmark, as do authoritarian capitalist systems like Chile, and Taiwan, or South Korea of a decade ago. Why then has the peace-making effects of democratic freedoms been tossed out with capitalism? As mentioned, these freedoms were part of an ideology emphasizing capitalism–as the ideology retreated, so did its belief in the positive role of freedom in peace. But there are other factors at work here that are at least as important.
One of these factors causing many to reject democracy’s peacefulness is a misreading of history. It was believed that democracies not only do go to war, but they can be very aggressive. Americans could easily note their American-Indian Wars, Mexican-American and Spanish American wars, and of course the Civil War And even if one argues that the United States was dragged into both World Wars, there are the invasions of Grenada, Panama, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Then, of course, there is Great Britain, which between 1850 and 1941 fought twenty wars, more than any other state. France, also a democracy for most of this period, fought the next most at eighteen. The United States fought seven. These three nations alone fought 63 percent of all the wars during these ninety-two years. Of course, Britain did not become a true democracy until 1884 with the extension of the franchise to agricultural workers, but she was afterwards still involved in numerous European and colonial wars. The historical record of democracies thus appeared no better than that of other regimes; and the classical liberal belief in the peacefulness of democracies seemed nothing more than bad theory or misplaced faith.
But all other types of regimes seemed equally bellicose. The supposed peacefulness of socialist systems was belied by the aggressiveness of its two major totalitarian variants, that of the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany; and other types of regimes, whether authoritarian dictatorships like Japan before World War II, or absolute monarchies like czarist Russia before World War I, appeared no less warlike. The verdict was and largely still is an easy one–all types of political, or politico-economic, systems make war; none is especially pacific. Clearly articulated in Kenneth Waltz’s widely read Man, the State and War, this critique is today the consensus view of American academics and intellectuals. Among students of international relations, it is the major alternative belief to that of the inherent bellicosity of capitalist systems.
How could it be missed that democracies do not make war on each other and are generally more peaceful? For one there has been an unfortunate tendency to focus on the many wars of a few democracies while ignoring the many wars of many nondemocracies. Moreover, to the disadvantage of democracies, there is an inclination to treat all wars equally, such that the American invasion of Grenada, the Falklands War, and World War II, are each counted as one war.
Still, how could it be missed that democracies do not make war on each other? The problem is that many who write and speak about these issues do not ordinarily think dyadically. They think of nations as developed or undeveloped, strong or weak, democratic or undemocratic, large or small, belligerent or not. That is, they think monadically.
Like so much in life, this is a matter of perspective. A shift in focus to bilateral relations shows that when two nations are stable democracies, no wars occur between them. Even going back to the classical Greek democracies, the democratic guilds and principalities of the Middle Ages, the democratic Swiss forest states, or the democratic city-states of Italy, there was no full-scale war between those that were democratic in institutions and spirit; nor has research by political scientists uncovered any wars between stable democracies in the 19th or 20th centuries. And this still holds true today, even though the number of democratic states has grown to at least 117, 88 of them liberal democracies, or about 44 percent of the world’s population.
Just consider that in a world where contiguous nations often use violence to settle their differences or at least have armed borders between them, the United States and Canada have had for generations a long, completely unarmed border. Even in Europe, the historical cauldron of war, once all Western European nations became democratic they no longer have armed against each other. Indeed, the expectation of war among them became zero. That all this should be missed shows how powerfully misleading an improper historical perspective or model can be.
There is one more factor at work in the rejection of the classical liberal view of democracy and peace. Beginning with the First World War and accelerated by the second, there has been a strong antipathy among intellectuals to any hint of nationalism. Nationalism was seen by many non-socialists as a fundamental cause of war, or at least of the total national mobilization for war and ensuing total violence. Internationalism, rising above one’s nation, seeing humanity and its transcending interest as a whole, and furthering world government, became their intellectual ideal. Social scientists have almost universally shared this view. In fact, one of the attractions of socialism for many was its inherent internationalism, its rejection of the nation and patriotism as values.
Internationalists generally have refused to accept that any one nation is really better than another. After all, cultures and values are relative; one nation’s virtues are another’s evils. Best we treat all nations equally to better resolve conflicts among them. As Professor Hans Morgenthau pointed out in his popular and influential international relations text, Politics Among Nations, both the United States and Soviet Union should be condemned for the Cold War; it is their evangelistic, crusading belief in their own values that made the East-West conflict so difficult to resolve.
This two-partyism can be seen easily in reading the peace oriented literature. There is no victim or aggressor, no right or wrong nation, but only two parties to a conflict (when this two-partyism did break down, it was usually in terms of American, or Western “imperialist, aggression”). Consequently, to accept that the freedoms espoused by the United States and its democratic allies lead to peace, and that the totalitarian socialism that was fostered by the Soviet Union and China lead to violence and war, is to take sides. It is to be nationalistic. And this for many internationalists was ipso facto wrong.
There is another psychological force toward two-partyism that should not be underestimated. The statement that democracy fosters peace seems not only nationalistic, but also inherently ideological. After all, freedom was one of the flags in the “ideological Cold War.” No matter that this was an observational and historical statement. To accept it appeared not only to take sides; but what is worse, to be a right wing, cold warrior.
Finally, the peace that the classical liberals had in mind involved not only the absence of war between nations, but also harmonious international relations. They, like our contemporaries, had no conception of the degree to which governments could and would massacre their own people. After all, presumably, mankind had progressed since the bloody Albigensian Crusade in France, Inquisition in Spain, and witch hunts throughout Europe.
Today, we can extend the idea of peace through democracy to cover freedom from government genocide and mass murder. But to do so requires overcoming incredible mass ignorance even about the megamurders for which authoritarian and totalitarian governments have been responsible. Of course, everyone knows about the Nazi genocide. And most consider the near 6,000,000 Jews murdered as a monstrous crime against humanity by Hitler and his Nazi gang of racists. Few know that they also murdered in cold blood an additional near 14,000,000 Poles, Gypsies, Byelorussians, Ukrainians, Russians, Yugoslavs, Czechs, Frenchmen, and others. Few outside of the Soviet Union know about Stalin’s horrors, that he killed people by the tens of millions (I calculate about 43,000,000). Even fewer realize that under the communist regime in China more tens of millions were killed (as shown in Table 1). And virtually no one except Armenians seems to remember the Armenian genocide by Turkey, the Pakistan genocide and mass murder; except Bengalis; and the Japanese atrocities during the Sino-Japanese and Pacific Wars, except the Chinese and Koreans. And now, virtually no one remembers anymore the mass murder of about 10 million Chinese by their Nationalist regime. It is understandable, then, that the global magnitude of murder by governments in this century is almost universally unknown, that it might exceed an absolutely incredible 150,944,000 men, women, and children killed, or more than four times all this century’s battle deaths in all its domestic and international wars. Of course, it must then be unknown that virtually no democratic citizens are among this utterly fantastic number.
Is it any wonder, then, that in this time of democracy’s victory there has been little gleeful shouting about one terribly important value of democracy–the victory of democracy over violent political death, over war, revolution, genocide, and mass murder.
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How can we justify democracy, aside from the standard philosophical argument that freedom is a natural right and democracy is the best way of assuring that? Not widely known are the utilitarian and empirical arguments for democratic freedom: democracies don’t war against each other, they have the least foreign and domestic violence, they don’t murder their own citizens, the don’t have famines, and they enrich their people. Related article (here.