Monday, March 01, 2004

The Problem with Overnight Democracy

There's plenty of rejoicing in some quarters over Aristide's departure from Haiti, but I'm not one of those who'll be whooping it up now that he's gone. It isn't that I'm some sort of Aristide partisan - to the contrary, I think he was a corrupt and arrogant individual whose downfall was due entirely to his own shortcomings - but that I can't see how the opposition that worked to overthrow him could possibly do any better at the helm of affairs. When I look at the Haitian political landscape, I see not a trace of what might shape up to be decent leadership on the horizon. If all that is achieved by Aristide's departure is that a new gang of killers and drug barons gets to run Haiti, one might as well have left the man in power for all the good that will result.

The fundamental underlying problem in Haiti, as I see it, is that its citizens have no real conception of what a liberal constitutional order is like. Sure, they've absorbed the mantra that getting to vote every 4-5 years is important, but there's a whole lot more to the Anglo-Saxon political tradition than regular elections; in fact, I'd say elections are a relatively minor aspect of what makes the political institutions of countries like America, Australia, Britain and Canada admirable. A liberal political order, to my mind, is primarily about a few things - freedom of speech and the press; an independent and fairly impartial judiciary; an understanding that laws should be changed only after serious deliberation, and must be obeyed by all, regardless of station; a preference for resorting to legal and political measures to settle disputes, instead of taking up arms at the first opportunity; and finally, a willingness to abide by the outcomes of these measures with good grace, even when the outcome is not at all what one might have wished it to be. None of this has anything to do with one-man-one-vote per se, and it is entirely possible that all of them can be absent even as the right to vote is scrupulously respected.

For a stark illustration of what I'm getting at, who can dispute that the Britain of 1850, in which no more than 5 out of 100 adults could vote, was a far freer place in reality than Haiti is today? Who will dispute that Her Majesty's subjects in 1980s Hong Kong, despite their lack of voting rights, enjoyed a great deal more freedom than the enfranchized citizens of Haiti, Venezuela and dozens of other benighted nations have ever known? In mistaking outward forms such as the power to vote for the substance of liberal constitutionalism, we commit as grave an error as the leader who thinks the answer to his nation's fiscal woes is simply "print more money!" It takes a long time, on the order of several decades, for the liberal mindset to permeate the bones of a people to the very marrow, and until it does I think it a waste of time to expect anything much to come of elections.

The British Empire, for all its faults (and there were many), got more than a few things right, and the process of granting representative government to the dominions was one of them. It is by no means an accident that virtually every single stable democracy in existence which began as a colony happens to have been ruled once by the British; when we look at the record of all of Britain's former colonial possessions, it is also clear that those former colonies that have known the most stability have been just those colonies over which the British ruled the longest, and in which the handing over of power was most drawn out.* The so-called "White Dominions" were all settled in great measure by native-born British citizens who had grown up immersed in the liberal norms of their home country, and yet even so Westminster, wisely, thought it less than prudent to extend full governing powers to them immediately. Not until after World War 2 could one really say that Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa had truly gained full independence from the motherland, and even today there are republicans in the first three countries who will argue that theirs remain less than fully independent nations, in as far as their prime ministers still owe titular allegiance to Queen Elizabeth II.

A closer examination of the history of one of the dominion states bears out the very gradual manner in which the mother country handed over the reigns of government to its subjects in the colonies. Although the Cape Colony, the nucleus of what would one day become South Africa, was made a Crown Colony in 1806, and although as a settler colony it had long enjoyed a decent judiciary, freedom of speech, and the expectation of a receptive ear towards settlers' complaints from the Colonial Office in London, it was only granted "representative government" (in the form of an all-appointed upper house of life members, and a Legislative Assembly elected by a property-based franchise) in 1854, while "responsible government", with independence in all but economic and foreign affairs, only followed in 1872. Even when responsible government had been granted, prime ministers could still be removed by the Governor, as actually occurred in 1878, when John Molteno was sacked by Governor Bartle Frere, and replaced by Gordon Sprigg. Although it would not be exercised again in the future, the power of the Governor (later Governor-General) to dismiss prime ministers would only really lapse when South Africa became a republic in 1961. Indeed, the Governor-Generals of Australia, Canada and New Zealand still retain all the powers of the Crown in reserve, including the power to dismiss prime ministers - as Australia's Prime Minister Gough Whitlam was to discover in 1975.

"How does all of this apply to the Haitian situation?" one might well ask, to which my answer would be that if elections are held as planned in 2 years, and all powers are subsequently handed over to the winner, Haiti will once again plunge into the sort of violent chaos that will require yet another foreign intervention to bring to an end. The workings of democracy have taken states with far more promising foundations well over a century to master, and to expect, as Americans seem to, that all one needs to do is put up a few ballot boxes, hand out voting tickets, tally the results and then pack up for home, is to take optimism to foolish extremes. If America, Canada, France and the rest of the major powers are serious about putting an end to instability in Haiti once and for all, then they would do well to learn from the history of the British Empire and America itself: start by turning Haiti into a United Nations trusteeship (if only to avoid accusations of blatant imperialism), with at least a 30 year tutelage period in mind to ensure that an entire generation grows up knowing nothing other than life under the rule of law, then only gradually entrust more sovereignty to the Haitians themselves, standing ready at all times to take back powers that are being flagrantly abused. Begin with a franchise limited to those who pay taxes and have some property to their own names, to ensure that the voters have some stake in a stable order, and are immune to the siren song of populists promising something for nothing. The temptation to repeat the mistake Britain made with its African colonies by trying to rush the independence process should be strongly resisted. Only through this sort of stern external guidance can the people of Haiti be made to understand that problems can be solved other than through violence and that politics need not be a life-and-death, all-or-nothing struggle. Another benefit of foreign oversight would be that foreigners would feel more confident about investing in Haiti, and an economy based on more than just overseas remittances, drug smuggling and denuding the country's topsoil would have a chance to take root.

Many will call this colonialism (as if that were so dirty a word that merely saying it was enough to irreparably tarnish an idea), but I can only point out that Haitians have had 200 years to govern themselves, and have proven utterly incapable of doing so. If they expect the world to come to their aid whenever they mess up their own affairs, they should also expect that the world might some day take a keener interest in their affairs than a better-run country would be expected to tolerate. Frankly, I'd expect that many Haitians would actually welcome the chance to be taken under the protection of a well-run government - their propensity to flee to Canada and the United States is a strong indicator that this is indeed the case.

*This most emphatically includes the United States of America, some of whose constituent states had enjoyed well over 150 years of British oversight by the declaration of independence in 1776.