The utopian idea that people “deserve” democracy
I see to my consternation that Anatoly (Natan) Sharansky, a hero of our time, is using the same dumbed-down “Everyone deserves freedom” rhetoric that President Bush and the neoconservatives have aggressively adopted as their credo over the last couple of years. In an interview with Daniel Pipes’s website, Sharansky said:
[T]he current fight pits the world of freedom against the world of terror. I have told President Bush that the two greatest speeches of my lifetime were Ronald Reagan’s speech casting the Soviet Union as an evil empire and the president’s own speech on June 24, 2002, when he said that Palestinians deserve to live in freedom and that only with freedom would the Middle East enjoy security.Sharansky’s idealism is admirable, his enthusiasm is infectious, and the rightness of his desire to see a decent civilization take root in the Mideast cannot be denied. But unfortunately the language he uses to convey his ideas is a vulgar corruption of the language of the American tradition that he is invoking. Neither the Declaration of Independence nor any other Founding document says that people “deserve” or “are entitled” to freedom and democracy. Such phrases make it sound as though people had already earned these goods and were waiting for Federal Express to deliver them.
According to the natural rights teaching of classical liberalism, people have the natural right not to have their lives, liberty, and property taken from them by force, but—of course—if they want to keep their lives, liberty, and property they must be prepared to defend them, by force if necessary. By the same token, people are not entitled to a government that can protect their natural rights. They must create and maintain such a government.
Is it really necessary to explain these things to a man who served nine years in prison for opposing Soviet totatitarianism, and who is today a citizen of a country surrounded by its mortal enemies? Sadly these fundamental understandings are being washed away by the sloppy democratist rhetoric used by Bush and his followers, and now by Sharansky as well.
The entitlement schtick, moreover, doesn’t stop at freedom and democracy; it extends to the entire panoply of civilization. Here’s Bush’s statement about the Mideast on June 24, 2002, which Sharansky calls one of the two greatest speeches he has heard in his life. Addressing the Palestinians, Bush said: “You deserve democracy and the rule of law. You deserve an open society and a thriving economy. You deserve a life of hope for your children.”
Once again, is it necessary to point out that human beings do not simply deserve these things? They have to earn them, by producing the private and public conditions that will allow for their existence, namely a functioning, civilized society, with everything that that entails. Do headhunters on a Pacific island “deserve” the rule of law? Do the residents of a West African shanty town “deserve” a thriving economy? Do people who kill political dissidents and converts from the majority religion “deserve” an open society? Do people who encourage their children to become suicide bombers “deserve” a life of hope for their children? Of course we feel bad for the good people who are stuck in such backward societies and who long for something better. But that doesn’t mean that they are entitled to something better, any more than I am entitled to a Rolls Royce, my own Pacific Island, or a seat in the U.S. Senate.
It is deeply worrying that intelligent people such as Sharansky—and, worse, the neoconservatives, since as Americans they ought to have a superior grasp of these things—have so distorted our fundamental political principles, as well as the rudiments of moral reason upon which true freedom is based.