Wednesday, January 21, 2004

Imposing freedom on foreigners

Mark Dorroh

There is a body of foreign affairs theory which questions the wisdom of imposing western-style institutions on other nations. Their argument against our (armed) encouragement of representative republics in places like Iraq is that these are cultures historically ill-equipped to handle all the choices afforded individual citizens by republican democracy.

One interesting thing about such arguments is their historical resonance, especially here in the American south. It wasn't so long ago that voting rights were being denied American citizens of color because a lot of white folks thought Negroes had a culture which had not equipped them to handle the choices afforded individual citizens in the voting booth.

The idea that only certain kinds of people can "handle" freedom has, at its heart, the racist notion that only we of European descent have sufficient historical ties to representative governmental institutions to be able to hire our own leaders and run our own economies.

While it is true that cultures go through stages of development, start small, grow great, then eventually become querulous old geezers, whining about the Good Old Days That Never Were (i.e. - modern France, Germany, Belgium, etc.), free enterprise economies and democratic government serve human needs that transcend geography, history and race.

Or to put it another way, people are people, and we all want basically the same things. Beyond food, clothing and shelter, we all desire a reasonable degree of comfort and security and a better life for our kids. No matter what your cultural tradition or ethnic derivation, those are your primary goals, shared with every other person on the planet.

Still, there are those who would discourage free economies and universal suffrage in some parts of the world, on the theory that some cultures don't adapt well to "western values."

The same people who make this argument usually also believe government is a more equitable distributor of wealth than the natural process of individuals making choices about where they'll work and where they'll spend the money they earn.

Historically speaking, the reverse is true. Governments devoted to income redistribution have never truly served the people they were set up to serve.

The worker's paradise of the U.S.S.R. was a mug's game by which a small number of party members took what they wanted from everyone else, then doled out what was left to the workers who actually produced it. Ranking party members got Black Sea dachas, everybody else got to stand in line for shoes.

The reason socialist economies have been so unsuccessful is that properly-functioning political and economic systems must be based on recognition of how individuals actually behave.

Capitalism and its political equivalent, democracy, recognize that people are, by their nature, self-interested. Rather than try to deny or change that, the democratic capitalist revels in it. Our nation accordingly has a system that protects the right to accumulate capital, lend it, tend it, and grow wealthy while helping finance everybody else's hopes and dreams.

The reason America is so rich and powerful is because free enterprise encourages each of us to perform to the best work we can do in exchange for the best wage we can get someone to pay us. It makes the companies we work for compete for our labor by offering better wages and benefits than alternative employers. And all that self-interested encouragement to do good work, plus market competition, helps customers get the best products and services for their money.

Compare the relative lack of poverty in America to the near-universal poverty in Cuba. There, some of the world's hardest-working people are trapped in a basket-case socialist economy. Back in the 1990s, Fidel Castro's own grandson was spotted by a reporter, playing in a rock band with an American dollar bill glued to the front of his guitar.

Some cynics think greedy corporations are exporting all our jobs to Mexico and China, but if that's so, why are there thousands of people, every single day, bending heaven and earth to get into America, legally or otherwise, just for the opportunity to work at whatever jobs remain?

There's an old Cuban joke about the Castro regime. It goes, "The revolution has had three great successes; health care, race relations and sports. And three great failures; breakfast, lunch and dinner."

Soviet workers used to say, "We pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us." May such jokes never apply to the U.S.A. So long as government's control over our economy remains minimal, they never will.

And yes, Virginia, people from other cultures, even those with no indigenous traditions of self-rule or market-driven economics, can prosper from our example. Because people are people, no matter where you go. We all crave freedom and wealth, and regardless of what you might have heard, that's a good thing.

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