from Forbes Magazine
December 15, 1997
Freedom versus democracy
by Thomas Sowell
THE ONLY TIME I have left a court room with more respect for the law than I had going in was in a court in Hong Kong, when it was under British colonial rule.
The case involved a Chinese laborer accused of theft, an accusation with considerable circumstantial evidence behind it. This case was presided over by a crusty old British judge, of upper-class demeanor and wearing the traditional white wig. He kept both lawyers on a short leash and let the witnesses know too that he had no tolerance for nonsense.
It would be hard to find two individuals more different in background and status than the Chinese laborer on trial and the British judge in charge of the case. Yet race and class were not destiny, despite the current dogmas of our intelligentsias. What was clear from the outset was that the judge was determined to see that this man got a fair trial—no more and no less. In the end, the laborer was acquitted.
One need only look around the world today, much less back through the pages of history, to see how rare and precious something as basic as a fair trial has been. Whether or how long such trials will exist in Hong Kong under the Communists is another question, and a very painful one.
Meanwhile, too many Western journalists continue to play the game of moral equivalence: There was no democracy in Hong Kong under the British, they say, and there is no democracy there now. Some hark back to the evils of 19th century imperialism that led to Britain’s acquiring Hong Kong in the first place. There seems to be much less interest in 20th century totalitarianism in China that sent so many refugees fleeing to Hong Kong, among other places.
Democracy and freedom are too often confounded. Britain itself did not have anything close to democracy until the Reform Act of 1832. But it had freedom long before that.
The fundamentals of freedom—limited government, separation of powers, an independent judiciary, free speech, jury trials—existed in Britain for many generations before the franchise was extended to most males. The whole spirit, and many of the phrases, of the Constitution of the United States derive from British law and government.
Just as freedom can exist without democracy, so democracy can crush freedom. During the Reconstruction era after the Civil War, blacks in the South had many rights that they lost when the occupying Union army was withdrawn and democratically elected state governments took over, ushering in the Jim Crow era.
Today, the confusion between freedom and democracy leads far too many Americans, including those in high places, to seek to spread democracy around the world—in complete disregard of the circumstances of the particular countries. In some respects, we may be more dangerous to our friends than to our enemies, when we pressure them to set up at least the trappings of democracy.
Both freedom and democracy have prerequisites. When those prerequisites do not exist, democracy especially can be a house of cards.
Whether in Eastern Europe and the Balkans between the two World Wars or in Africa in the postwar era, many newly created democratic governments collapsed into authoritarianism or worse. It is much easier to imitate the outward institutional forms of Western democracy than to synthesize the centuries of traditions that make those institutions work.
Our insistence on at least a charade of democracy is dangerous in another way—to ourselves. Relations among nations, especially among the great powers, are not matters of personal friendship or international social work. Their primary goal is, or should be, the safety of the American people in a world that has always been dangerous, long before the Cold War came and went.
We cannot go around the world acting like a common scold, however good that makes us feel or however well it plays politically at home. Nuclear proliferation is far more important than “human rights” pronouncements—and how much cooperation we get in trying to deal with dangerous threats like this may depend on how much political capital we have squandered by insulting other countries whose help we need.
The British were very wise to have given Hong Kong freedom. But they may also have been wise in not attempting to experiment with democracy, where the traditions needed for it simply did not exist.
Dr. Thomas Sowell is an economist and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution in Stanford, Calif.
© 1997 Forbes Inc.