Free Markets, Free People
Trust me when I say I’d love to see the next government in Egypt be a democratic and modern one dedicated to freedom and liberty. But I don’t find myself to be particularly cynical when I say I don’t think that will happen at all.
Let’s start with Richard Cohen’s points as a good foundation for why I believe that:
Egypt’s problems are immense. It has a population it cannot support, a standard of living that is stagnant and a self-image as leader of the (Sunni) Arab world that does not, really, correspond to reality. It also lacks the civic and political institutions that are necessary for democracy. The next Egyptian government – or the one after – might well be composed of Islamists. In that case, the peace with Israel will be abrogated and the mob currently in the streets will roar its approval.
It not only lacks the civic and political institutions necessary for democracy, it has no history or tradition of democracy. Given all of that, I’m constantly amazed by those who see what they choose to interpret as “people’s revolutions” in places like Egypt as precursors to a sunny day in the bright light of democracy and freedom.
David Larison points to something Jeane Kirkpatrick once said decades ago after Iran fell to the Ayatollahs.
Although most governments in the world are, as they always have been, autocracies of one kind or another, no idea holds greater sway in the mind of educated Americans than the belief that it is possible to democratize governments, anytime, anywhere, under any circumstances. This notion is belied by an enormous body of evidence based on the experience of dozens of countries which have attempted with more or less (usually less) success to move from autocratic to democratic government. Many of the wisest political scientists of this and previous centuries agree that democratic institutions are especially difficult to establish and maintain-because they make heavy demands on all portions of a population and because they depend on complex social, cultural, and economic conditions.
As legitimate as the grievances against the Egyptian government are, it is entirely possible that whatever comes after Mubarak and his allies could be dramatically worse. We seem to forget that political change can also be change significantly for the worse, and that empowering a dispossessed majority can lead to economic catastrophe, ethnic and/or religious violence, and contribute to an overall decline in the public’s welfare.
Exactly. And for examples of the point, we once again turn to Jean Kirkpatrick:
In Iran and Nicaragua (as previously in Vietnam, Cuba, and China) Washington overestimated the political diversity of the opposition–especially the strength of “moderates” and “democrats” in the opposition movement; underestimated the strength and intransigence of radicals in the movement….
Many of us simply cannot see past the fact that history doesn’t much support the contention that something “good”, as in a government that will be good for its citizens and a friend to the US, will emerge in Egypt or countries like Egypt. One of the results of oppression and repression are the withering and finally death of democratic institutions – if any even existed to begin with.
And the promise of “free and open elections?” As common and predictable as sunrise. Free and open elections only guarantee you’ll see them once. After that, you’re more likely to see Venezuela, Zimbabwe and Lebanon than you are Canada, the United States and the UK.
It is having those “free and open elections” the second time, and the third, and fourth, etc. that develop the institutions we’re talking about. Holding an election after the overthrow of a government doesn’t make what follows a democracy anymore than writing a Constitution means anyone will live by it or uphold it.
Dictatorships in countries with no democratic traditions or institutions usually beget a dictatorship of a different form when the current strongman is overthrown. And even if the revolution makes an attempt at democratic progress, it usually gets subverted and taken over by the country’s next oppressor as soon as he and his followers gather enough power.
Obviously everyone would like to believe there can be exceptions to the rule and certainly it would be in our, Israel and the region’s best interests if that’s the case in Egypt. But that’s not what we should expect, and it damn sure isn’t that for we should be preparing. Instead, it appears we’re in the middle of repeating our own disastrous history of dealing with such problems. Here’s Kirkpatrick again, talking about Iran – see if you’re feeling a little déjà vu as you read it:
The emissary’s recommendations are presented in the context of a growing clamor for American disengagement on grounds that continued involvement confirms our status as an agent of imperialism, racism, and reaction; is inconsistent with support for human rights; alienates us from the “forces of democracy”; and threatens to put the U.S. once more on the side of history’s “losers.” This chorus is supplemented daily by interviews with returning missionaries and “reasonable” rebels.
As the situation worsens, the President assures the world that the U.S. desires only that the “people choose their own form of government”; he blocks delivery of all arms to the government and undertakes negotiations to establish a “broadly based” coalition headed by a “moderate” critic of the regime who, once elevated, will move quickly to seek a “political” settlement to the conflict.
Dean Baker, over at HuffPo, headlines a post: “Debts Should be Honored, Except When the Money Is Owed to Working People” and says:
It seems to be the lesson that our nation’s leaders are trying to pound home to us. According to the New York Times, members of Congress are secretly running around in closets and back alleys working up a law allowing states to declare bankruptcy.
According to the article, a main goal of state bankruptcy is to allow states to default on their pension obligations. This means that states will be able to tell workers, including those already retired, that they are out of luck. Teachers, highway patrol officers and other government employees, some of whom worked decades for the government, will be told that their contracts no longer mean anything. They will not get the pensions that they were expecting.
I beg to differ. It seems that “lesson” was already taught with the specially done bankruptcies of GM and Chrysler where the bond holders were screwed in favor of unions and government.
But nevertheless, the simple reality of the situation in the states is this – they overpromised something for which they haven’t the revenue to fulfill. What would Baker have them do except restructure that debt so it is both affordable and something they can manage? The fact that a state promised something it hasn’t the means to produce doesn’t make what it promises sacrosanct. Especially if the means for fulfilling it is more debt or much higher taxes for those who aren’t affected by the problem.
This is the general story of public pensions. Public sector workers are often better situated than their private sector counterparts, in that they even have pensions. But study after study shows that these workers paid for their pensions with lower wages than their private sector counterparts. It is tragic that so many private sector workers cannot count on a secure retirement, but it won’t help them to make workers in the public sector equally insecure.
What’s even more tragic is the fact that Baker and the left can’t see that state governments have badly managed those retirement funds just as the federal government has with Social Security. It isn’t just the states who are in trouble – they’re just having to face the reality of their mismanagement first. Facing the reality on a national level is coming in a few years. And it won’t be pretty. In the meantime, this is the reality states must deal with, and unlike the federal government they can’t create money out of thin air with the click of a mouse.
Additionally he notes that many in the private sector “cannot count on a secure retirement”, yet we don’t see him whining about ensuring they’re covered. You know, tough beans and all, folks, but the public sector folks vote Democratic.
So Baker is left with an essentially emotional argument to try to shame the right (who somehow became the bad guys here) into going into even more massive debt at a state level to pay workers what they are “due.” Well, since I had nothing to do with the states making promises they couldn’t keep, I feel no obligation to bail them out when their promises are found to be empty. Baker’s cry that the right believes people should pay debts and that right-wing lawmakers conspired to rewrite bankruptcy laws to make it harder but now want to help facilitate state bankruptcies is facile at best.
As mentioned, state pension plans have been in trouble for years – even in good economic times. Warnings and calls to do something have essentially fallen on deaf ears as politicians preferred to kick the can down the road (just as they have done with Social Security). Now, at least for a number of states, that road has come to a dead end. While it may be emotionally satisfying to argue that the right wants people to pay their debts and charge them with hypocrisy, it should also be understood that the rewriting of bankruptcy laws was intended to take the action from being a first choice for those who used existing law to shirk paying debt when they probably could, to a law that was a available to those who had done all they could to pay their debt and found it impossible because they hadn’t the means to do so.
Whether he likes it or not, that’s where many states are at this point.
Of course Baker doesn’t offer a solution (although I think it is pretty well implied), just a whine. The reason he doesn’t offer a solution is the solution is obvious – even if he doesn’t like it. Restructuring the debt may reduce the pension amounts paid, but it doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll be eliminated altogether. As for what people were promised (and planned their lives around) vs. what they get, they need to look to their state leadership for answers – not taxpayers.