Sunday, August 02, 2009

"We make a great mistake, sir, when we suppose that all people are capable of self-government"

As we have seen, John C. Calhoun’s views on whether other peoples were “fit for self-government” included a pronounced racial component. But if we try to put that aside, we can see that he raised, in his January 4, 1848 speech, issues that continue to resonate today:
We make a great mistake, sir, when we suppose that all people are capable of self-government. We are anxious to force free governments on all; and I see that it has been urged in a very respectable quarter, that it is the mission of this country to spread civil and religious liberty over all the world, and especially over this continent. It is a very great mistake. None but people advanced to a very high state of moral and intellectual improvement are capable, in a civilized state, of maintaining free Government; and amongst those who were so purified, very few, indeed, have had the good fortune of forming a constitution capable of endurance. It is a remarkable fact in the history of man, that scarcely ever have free popular institutions been formed by wisdom alone that have endured.

Is it realistic, for example, to expect that we can drag a clannish, pre-modern society like Afghanistan five hundred or one thousand years into the future in a matter of years and inculcate in its people with democratic values that would persist after foreign troops were withdrawn? I was reminded of this 2002 article on the Hoover Institution site evaluating that possibility:
The Western ideal for representative democracy involves free, multiparty elections and maintenance of civil liberties. As Aristotle realized, and as the evidence from a large number of countries demonstrates, democracy is almost never sustained in a country that has income and education levels as low as those in Afghanistan. Nevertheless, Washington always recommends democracy, even to the poorest nations, and the results have included such failures as the new Congo and Haiti.

Freedom House’s latest ratings place Afghanistan in the lowest categories for electoral rights and civil liberties. This lack of democracy corresponds to the predictions that I would make from the country’s economic and social conditions. Given where Afghanistan is today, my statistical analysis implies that the chance a midrange democracy – characteristic at present of countries such as Turkey and Indonesia – will exist five years from now is less than 1 percent.

A major factor undermining the building of democracy in Afghanistan is low primary school attainment. In 1995, adults had an average of 0.8 years of formal schooling. Only Mali and Niger were lower among the 113 countries for which I have data. Even worse from the standpoint of democracy is the unequal treatment of males and females. In Afghanistan, adult males averaged 1.3 years of primary schooling, whereas females had only 0.3. The male-female ratio of 4.3 is the highest for the 104 countries for which I have these data.

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