The Problem Is That We Should Not Care About "Democracy", We Should Care About Protection of Individual Rights

Perhaps this is yet another negative legacy of Woodrow Wilson and his "Making the world safe for democracy" meme.  We talk all the time about allying with and siding with and protecting democracies, but all "democracy" really means in practice (at least today) is that the country has some sort of nominal election process.  Elections are fine, they are less bad than most other ways of selecting government officials, but what we really should care about is that a country protects individuals rights, has free markets, and a rule of law.  If a county has those things, I am not sure I care particularly if they vote or pick leaders by randomly selecting folks from the phone book.

You can see this problem at work here, :

Most democratic governments – including the United States – condemned the attempted recent military coup against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and welcomed its failure, citing the need to respect Turkey’s “democratic” institutions. But in the aftermath, Erdogan took the opportunity to persecute his political opponents on a large scale, including firing thousands of judges who might constrain his authoritarian tendencies. Erdogan’s government was also severely undermining civil liberties long before the coup, even going so far as to pass a law criminalizing “insults” to the president, under which hundreds of people have been prosecuted. Erdogan’s own commitment own commitment to democracy is questionable, at best. He famously once called democracy a tram that “[y]ou ride it until you arrive at your destination, then you step off.”

This raises the question of whether the coup attempt against Erdogan might have been justified. More generally, is it ever justified to forcibly overthrow a democratic government? In this 2013 post, written after the successful military coup against Egypt’s radical Islamist government, I argued that the answer is sometimes “yes.” There should be a strong presumption against forcibly removing a democratic regime. But that presumption might be overcome if the government in question poses a grave threat to human rights, or is likely to destroy democracy itself by shutting down future political competition.

While we can argue if Erdogan is "committed" to democracy, I think it is pretty clear that he is not committed to the protection of individual rights.

What we need is a new alliance not to protect the world for democracy -- that word may originally have meant what I want it to mean but now it seems possible to just check the democracy box merely by having some kind of voting.  We need a new (much smaller than the UN) alliance to make the world safe for, what?  We need a name.  What do we call a country with strong protections of individual rights, free markets, and the rule of law?

Postscript:  yes, there are snarky answers to the last question, such as "increasingly rare" and "net here anymore".


  1. J_W_W:

    As far as I know, we are the only country with a founding document that lays out what the government cannot do. And they are furiously trying to completely destroy this feature.

  2. Andrew_M_Garland:

    We want the world to be safe for "Constitutional Republics". That is the name you are looking for, Coyote. And the constitution must limit the government and protect individual rights from any majority. (+1 to J_W_W).

    Erdogan is not a democratically elected leader. He banned most opposition parties in his last election.

    Constitutional Republics are rare and unstable. Politicians and the poorer majority both want to enable the government to plunder the resources of the "society" for their own benefit. The result is Argentina, bad for both the rich and the poor, but great for the politicians and the national police. The poor don't understand this, and so they vote for their eventual increased poverty. No words in a constitution can protect individuals when the vast public doesn't understand their importance.

    Rome did not fall in a few years, or 30 years, but in 300 years. That is depressing, because it shows a steady pressure to enable and coarsen the state. The progression to collapse is slow enough to fool people that nothing much is changing along the way. Venezuela had a faster decline. What will stop the decline of the US?

  3. CraigNCowartEsq:

    The Constitution of Liberty by Friedrich Hayek. (1960)

  4. kidmugsy:

    "What do we call a country with strong protections of individual rights, free markets, and the rule of law?" They all used to be called liberal democracies. But you naughty Americans have reversed that use of "liberal".

  5. Daniel Nylen:

    Democracies do not necessarily lead to protection of individual rights. It did for a period of time with largely WASPs of English heritage and background of individual rights. Democracy in the middle east equals sharia law and few rights for women. Democracy in most of Africa equals one vote one time and then tyranny or civil war. India had a short English background but resulted in democracy, but not a good grounding in individual rights--hence its socialism and castes. Too bad we are rapidly falling into the democracy and not the individual rights countries.

  6. Bryan Townsend:

    "What do we call a country with strong protections of individual rights, free markets, and the rule of law?"


  7. TruthisaPeskyThing:

    In my classes, I call such countries "Constitutional Republics." The word Republic gets across the idea that elected representatives govern the nation. The Word Constitution implies that the powers of the governing body are limited, and the constitution protects individual rights, free markets, and the rule of law. Of course individual and property rights must be well-defined and enforced.

  8. TruthisaPeskyThing:

    You are so right. I have stopped using the term liberal -- because the everyday use of the word is contrary to what the word originally meant and what it should mean. I use the term "left-wing" for what the media calls "liberal."

  9. Agammamon:

    German Democratic Republic
    Democratic People's Republic of Korea
    Democratic Republic of the Congo
    People's Democratic Republic of Algeria
    Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste
    Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia
    Federal Democratic Republic of Nepal
    Lao People's Democratic Republic
    Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka
    Democratic Republic of São Tomé and Príncipe
    Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic

    Democracy is just how we choose our tyrants together.

  10. Roy_Lofquist:

    "A society in which men and women are governed by belief in an enduring moral order, by a strong sense of right and wrong, by personal convictions about justice and honor, will be a good society—whatever political machinery it may utilize; while a society in which men and women are morally adrift, ignorant of norms, and intent chiefly upon gratification of appetites, will be a bad society—no matter how many people vote and no matter how liberal its formal constitution may be."

    --Russell Kirk

  11. Matthew Slyfield:

    "but what we really should care about is that a country protects individuals rights, has free markets, and a rule of law."

    We really should try to secure those things for ourselves before we worry about others having them.

  12. Gil G:

    But then Republics aren't so brilliant either.

  13. Gil G:

    A lot of womens' rights appeared in the 20th century- i.e., after the Libertarian Era died down.

  14. J K Brown:

    We should keep this observation in mind regarding democracy and individual liberty

    "We will therefore conclude with the perhaps unforeseen result, that democracy, when crowned with power, seeks rather what it considers the well-being of the community than the liberty of the individual."

    The Ethics of Democracy, F.J. Stimson, Scribner's Magazine, 1886

  15. J K Brown:

    Such a country used to be called part of the Anglosphere. But sadly, it applies less and less to Anglosphere countries of late.

    I did read a post somewhere that related a reader who had been in the foreign service used the term "markets and enterprises" instead of the provocative "capitalism", but that doesn't seem complete enough.

    Sadly, in all the constitutions of recent, even those like Iraq's deeply influenced by US legal "experts", few recognize the people as sovereign, giving preference to the parliament as sovereign. Nor do they incorporate the genius of the US constitution:

    "And if to the Mother Country is due the invention of the Constitution as a bulwark of the people against the Executive, to our forefathers belongs the glory of protecting the people against the Legislative as well; and against the usurpations of any Government or law, even of their own making, on that irreducible minimum which time has shown to be necessary to the English-American people for freedom as they understand it. Give them less than this and they will fight."

    So really "constitutional republic" does not avoid the hijinks we see with "democracy" now

  16. OttoMaddox:

    The Romans didn't have social media like we do now.

  17. Agammamon:

    ". . . after the Libertarian Era died down."

    Hahahahahahahahahaha! What 'Libertarian Era'?

  18. John Say:

    Liberal means valuing individual liberty.
    That term was coopted by 20th century progressives after they had turned the term progressive into an insult, so they have done the same to the term liberal

    The left has alway sought to destroy the meaning of words. Their ideology does nto stand up to scrutiny if words are used with their ordinary meaning.

  19. John Say:

    The objective of the form of government is supposed to be the preservation of individual liberty and the protection of individual rights,
    The value of a form lies in its ability to do so. If a monarchy best did so it would be the prefered form of govenrment.
    The inadequacy of democracies and republics to fullfill their purpose does not make some alternative better.

    Regardless, it is important to grasp that democracy - even the will of the majority is a means, not an end.

  20. John Say:

    I value free markets - and the rule of law.
    But these are subsets of individual liberty.
    Free markets is merely one form of individual liberty in action.

    The rule of law is merely the framework necescary for individual liberty.

    Both are important,n but individual liberty is foundational.

    You can not have morality of any kind without individual liberty,

  21. John Say:

    The movement for women's rights - as well as negro rights began near the start of the 19th century.

    It was accomplished by progressives as a tradeoff for greater federal taxing power.

  22. John Say:

    The 19th century was a period of far smaller government and far faster improvement in standard of living.

  23. John Say:

    We want the world to be safe for individuals.
    Constitutional republics are hopefully a means to that end. Not the end itself.

  24. Dan Wendlick:

    I've seen the argument that Hong Kong under the British Mandate, at least after WW II, largely met the definition of undemocratic (Governor appointed by British) yet devoted to the principles of both individual liberty and rule of law.

  25. joe - the political scientist:

    Consider all the progressives that applaud the free elections in other countries but decry the unfair elections in the USA

    Carter endorsing the free elections in Venuzala & Palestine
    Hillary & Obama endorsing the free election in Egypt that brought forth the muslim brotherhood

  26. Daniel Nylen:

    Women's rights??? You obviously don't understand the concept of individual rights.

  27. CC:

    One of the reasons that England became the banking center of Europe way back in the 1500s-1600s was that in the rest of Europe when a king got in debt from a war or other spending, he just took money out of the banks (or borrowed it and did not repay it). In England the king was more constrained--the rule of law. Money was safe in London banks.
    The lack of rule of law includes many things that can inhibit the economy:
    Greece: property titles are scrambled up due to historical legacies such that it is almost impossible to sell your land without a huge headache. A drain on the economy.
    Much of Europe: the subsurface is owned not by the individual owning the surface land, but by the government. This has helped stall fracking there.
    India: even more than many places, you need permission to do any business and the government there has been reluctant to grant such permission (almost like they just moved there from Calif)
    Europe: "hate speech" can encompass even statements about valid political issues such as whether too many immigrants are being allowed in. Bridget Bardot in Italy has been arrested multiple times for this.
    In the US: business cannot know what is illegal in many cases, and regulations are even contradictory (ban the box vs liability, for example). And then draconian fines can accrue for minor violations or even paperwork mistakes.

  28. rambler:


  29. kidmugsy:

    This was the key man:

    It must help, I should think, if your appointed governors all come from a liberal democracy themselves.

  30. ErikTheRed:

    "Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard." - H. L. Mencken

  31. ErikTheRed:

    It stopped working before the ink was dry. Yes, a "constitutional republic" would work if everyone was smart and honest and set aside their personal petty wants and needs and just got with the program. Guess what? You could say the same thing about communism. People don't work that way, they've never worked that way in history, and until Orwellian mind-control exists they're never going to work that way (and I hope that never happens, although we've already got a sizable percentage of kids on psychoactive drugs because they can't sit still through their mandatory 16,000-hour socialist indoctrination program so I'm not sure how far off we are).

    “But whether the Constitution really be one thing, or another, this much is certain - that it has either authorized such a government as we have had, or has been powerless to prevent it. In either case it is unfit to exist.” - Lysander Spooner, back in the mid 19th century well before even the New Deal....

  32. ErikTheRed:

    Sadly, most people are willing to conflate forcing people to agree with their morality with people actually being moral, which is problematic on more levels than I can count.

  33. ErikTheRed:

    "Democracy is the most vile form of government... democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention: have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property: and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths." - James Madison

  34. progenitive:

    That's the phrase that came to my mind. It does not, as you say, in and of itself, ensure free markets and individual liberties.

  35. Gil G:

    Equal rights is a scam to oppress the White Man and have bigger government - gotcha.

  36. Q46:

    "What do we call a country with strong protections of individual rights, free markets, and the rule of law?"

    One that has no Government.

    Governments is the vehicle for elites who are power and control freaks who run it in their own interest.

    Any Country with the three things mentioned needs no Government, free markets are pure democracy - the enemy to these things is Government which via its legislature weakens and overwrites those Common and Natural Laws which protect the People from tyranny.

  37. John Say:

    Typical progressive - misrepresent (lie) and pretend it is the truth.

    This is what those "oppressive white men" had to say.

    "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government,"

    What Progressive Margret Sanger said
    "We don’t want the word to go out that we want to exterminate the Negro population,"

    "It is better for all the world if, instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind. . . . Three generations of imbeciles are enough."
    Progressive Oliver Wendell Holmes

    “It was a menace to society itself that the negroes should thus of a sudden be set free and left without tutelage or restraint.”
    Progrssive Woodrow Wilson

    In 1945, FDRt joked to Josef Stalin about giving all of America's Jews to the king of Saudi Arabia as a gift.

    This is progressivism.

  38. Kpar:

    "Progs" is still accurate and timely...

  39. Kpar:

    Sadly, the nature of Man makes government a necessary evil. That said, government should be as small and restricted as possible.

    The US Constitution, as it was written, was the noblest and most successful attempt to achieve that. Unfortunately, the grasping, the manipulative, and the corrupt, have been assaulting it since the founding, and have been VERY successful since the early XXth Century.

    A return to Original Principles would be a good thing.

  40. jdgalt:

    This is why I will not call any leftist "liberal" or "progressive". Those are the adjectives of liberty and progress, and they're dead set against both.

  41. hcunn:

    The abortive coup leaders probably were supporters of Gulen (as Erdogan has charged), but I suspect Erdogan's Intelligence services had intercepted and taken control of their links to Gulen. Whether Erdogan's operatives sparked the coup themselves or merely warned him it was coming, he was totally prepared, with purge lists made out long in advance. The Army shunned the coup; Erdogan has has twelve years to replace secularist Kemalist commanders with people he trusted.

    .Any residual military Kemalists had no love for the Gulenists, whose network in the security services helped Erdogan to frame Kemalists in the Ergenekon witchhunt and give them long prison sentences.

  42. hcunn:

    There is a widespread assumption that Obama is a patsy for Islamist-leaning tyrants, but another explanation here is that our Intelligence services warned him that this coup was a hoax and trap set up by Erdogan's people. Obama was merely being prudent to dissociate us from it.