There Is No Such Thing As An “Illiberal Democracy”

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WASHINGTON“Giovinezza, giovinezza, primavera di bellezza, nel fascismo e’ la salvezza della nostra liberta'”. “Youth, youth, springtime of beauty, in fascism is the safeguard of our freedom”. This is the refrain of “Giovinezza”, “Youth”, the hymn of the Italian Fascist Party. In many ways, a beautiful and inspiring song. It is all about youth, national unity, shared purpose, fighting the good fight.

Fascism and liberty?

Of course, in hindsight, we notice a huge dissonance. How could  “fascism” become the safeguard of “freedom“? Fascism is the denial of freedom. It is totalitarian, it is about a faction that took power in Italy in 1922 outside of democratic methods. It is about the abolition of most individual freedoms, first and foremost the freedom to criticize the government and to organize any political opposition.

Of course, fascism and any other authoritarian look-alike offshoot amounts, among many other things, to the denial of freedom. But for more than 20 years “(Il “Ventennio”) the Italians were happily going to Fascist rallies, proudly singing “Giovinezza”. And many of them for sure really believed that Fascism was protecting their freedom.

What is democracy?

But how is this possible? How can we commingle freedom and autocracy as if they had anything in common? Well, this is possible when liberal democracy fails to reaffirm in a peaceful but authoritative fashion what real democracy is about.

Mussolini: The Man of Providence

And quite often this is not done. While Mussolini was ruling over Italy, many European conservatives admired him. They saw messy Italy finally organized. And, let’s not forget that under Mussolini “trains run on time”. Which is to say that for the perennially anarchical Italians a good dose of authoritarian government was a God send, right what the doctor ordered. (In fact the Catholic Church, a powerful moral authority, called Mussolini “The Man of Providence”. Think of that).

(Mussolini ruined his chances by getting into WWII along Hitler. Had he stayed on the sidelines, just like fellow dictator Francisco Franco did in Spain, he might have died of old age, as opposed to being executed by the Italian Resistance in the last days of the war.)

We still fail to make distinctions

But my point here is that this dangerous commingling of opposite concepts that belong to true liberal democratic principles and authoritarian government is not confined to the inter war period. No, it still goes on today. And, just as many decades ago, it is essentially unchallenged.

Autocracy disguised as democracy

Hugo Chavez run Venezuela, nominally a democracy, like a de facto autocrat. Under his rule, the state controlled oil production, the major source of economic wealth. He silenced the media and he persecuted his political opponents. All, of course, in the name of the greater good. You see, he was on the side of the historically dispossessed. Therefore, his strong-arm tactics against his opponents, (the old exploiters), were politically and morally justified, according to his many sincere followers. His successor, Nicolas Maduro, is continuing the same course of action.

Non democracies in Europe and at its periphery

And there is more. Look at Putin’s Russia. Or Viktor Orban’s Hungary. Of the two, contrary to what you may think, the most dangerous is the case of Hungary. In Hungary, now there is a Prime Minister who openly advocates “illiberal democracy” as a better alternative. But Hungary, unlike Russia, is a member of two “clubs of democracies”, the European Union and NATO, the North Atlantic Alliance.

Now, you may argue that we shouldn’t worry too much about what goes on in Hungary, a smallish, economically irrelevant country at the periphery of Europe.

Well, I strongly disagree. Hungary is a member (supposedly in good standing) of both the European Union and NATO, the security pact led by the United States. The European Union is a Union of real democracies. Likewise, NATO is an alliance that was created to protect the values of western democracies.

Democracy, not so good

And now we have this curious situation whereby the head of government of one of the members of both the EU and NATO advocates principles that are completely at odds with those ostensibly chosen and observed by all the others.

And yet, I haven’t heard of any serious initiative aimed at kicking Hungary out of the EU or out of NATO. And this negligence tells me that we have a much bigger problem is our hands.

Democracies, unsure of themselves

Simply stated, liberal democracy is unsure of itself. And for this reason it does not put up a fight against those –like Orban– who treat it as a flawed and ineffective model.

The fundamentals

The fact is that we have forgotten that liberal democracy is a lot more than just holding elections every few years. It rests on a set of great but complex ideas. The central idea is that the individual is sovereign and that his fundamental rights and prerogatives should be protected by a government that can claim legitimacy only if it acts with the consent of the governed.

Of course, individuals come together within an organized society. Through an orderly, agreeed upon process they decide the boundaries between the individual and the state, always keeping in mind that the “common good” is defined by the members of society and not by those who hold executive power.

No autocrats, please

In other words, in a liberal democracy we cannot have a Vladimir Putin or a Hugo Chavez coming along and saying: “I have been elected. I know what needs to be done, and I’ll do it. In order to make sure that I can advance national and social goals (as I see them), I shall get rid of all or most opponents”.

In a real democracy, the task of government is first of all to secure all the basic liberties of all citizens. And there is more. America’s Founding Fathers strongly believed that the condition of liberty was and is the essential ingredient for unleashing the full potential of all citizens. Through their ingenuity, their inventiveness and their creativity, free people would be able to build a prosperous society.

Delicate principles

Having said all that, it should become a little clearer that democracy rests upon critical but extremely delicate principles that can be easily distorted.

Indeed, it takes a great deal of shared maturity to establish reasonable and equitable boundaries between personal and societal interests. And the way we set these boundaries up will influence how we draw laws regulating property rights, contracts, taxation, corporations and a lot more.

Doing it right

Doing all this “right” is extremely difficult. But doing it right is the only way to prove the validity of the connection between a well-functioning liberal democracy and a prosperous economy.

A dysfunctional democracy rarely creates prosperity. And this allows many people to conclude that “traditional democracy does not deliver”. So we may as well look at variations on the basic model in order to improve efficiency. And here is how we get to Orban in Hungary, or Putin in Russia.

So, what do you prefer? An inefficient democracy (India), or an efficient autocracy, (China)?

Do we have what it takes?

It is not easy to answer this question. Ideally we want both: democracy and efficiency. But, in order to get there, we need to ascertain that we do indeed have the necessary preconditions within our society to structure a well-functioning liberal democracy.

My suggestion is to look at ourselves and what we really believe in. Liberal democracy is a complex, sophisticated and fragile instrument. In the hands of people who have not truly understood and embraced its principles, it becomes a mockery, or worse an abomination.

No such thing as “illiberal democracy”

Still, whatever else can be said, at least one thing should be clear. Those who claim to follow genuine liberal democratic principles should at least be able to say that “illiberal democracy” does not exist. There is no such thing. Period.

If the Hungarians really like Mr. Orban’s authoritarian ideas, so be it. But Hungary at that point would have to exit the EU and NATO, groupings of nations that welcome in their midst only genuine democracies.

All the others are not, repeat are not, welcome.

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