Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Democracy or Dictatorship? Rating Your Government

Democracies and dictatorships have distinct preferences. Know the difference, and you can see where your government is headed.

One could…and we should…identify a set of clear distinctions between democratic and authoritarian methods. Today’s news gives an example of one of the most basic such distinctions: democracies aspire to precise legal charges, while authoritarian regimes aspire to the vaguest possible charges. Precise charges are falsifiable (i.e., the guilty get convicted, the innocent set free) and lead to respect for the law. Vague charges make it easy for the dictator to punish his political enemies. Camus called it "une anarchie bureaucratisee." The greatest indictment of vague charges is Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago; for samples see the numerous Solzhenitsyn posts here.

The relevant news item today concerns the conviction on charges of “incitement” against a Palestinian civil rights worker for protesting Israel’s wall, which Israel conveniently constructed not in Israel but, when preferred, in Palestinian land. This conviction was such an outrageous example of undemocratic behavior that even the normally supine supporter of Zionism the European Union felt it necessary to protest.

The Palestinian civil rights worker was also convicted for “organizing demonstrations,” another key mark of authoritarianism. Demonstrations are a core weapon for peaceful political participation, hence the abhorrence with which they are viewed by all dictators.

It is important, by the way, to point out that this occurred in Israel; otherwise, a reader could easily become confused, for the facts seem indistinguishable from so many similar cases that have occurred in Iran over the last year.

In sum, two key distinctions between democracies and dictatorships are here identified:

  • In democracies, legal charges are precise; in dictatorships, legal charges are vague.
  • In democracies, demonstrations are encouraged; in dictatorships, demonstrations are repressed.

That is the theory. How well does your government score in practice?

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