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From Liberty Street: What's In a Word?

There has been much talk lately about whether the United States should take on the job of spreading democracy around the world. There has been almost no discussion about whether we know what democracy is. Yet, the latter is the far more vital issue.

In its stripped down definition, democracy means simply rule by a majority. That doesn't even approach the question of how that rule is to be administered. But almost everyone would acknowledge that an adequate version of democracy involves far more than simply doing what a majority wants -- even if what they want can be determined.

The word has connotations, especially here in America, which stretch out to include basic human rights, provisions that protect minorities against abuse, and a system of education and public information which allows citizens to know what's going on and to think intelligently about it.

When we take the full sense of the term into account we have to face the truth that there has not yet been a genuine democracy in the world because there has not yet been a polity with sufficient information and active-mindedness to establish one. Democracy is an ideal rather than an existing actuality. So when we talk about spreading it, we should be as concerned with spreading it here at home as we are in extending it to other people in the world.

It may be the case that the people of the United States, through the beneficent processes of their history, are closer to the ideal than the people of Iraq are. But how much closer none of us have the right to say. Certainly, we have no right to arrogance in the matter. And arrogance has been the principal policy of our government over the past several years. Come little children of the world, let us show you how it's done, has been the main message emerging from Washington in the 21st Century.  It's advice that can come only from fools.

American rhetoric has consistently linked democracy with freedom. Our nation is supposed to be based on the notion that freedom isn't possible except under a democratic system. Yet we haven't been much more active in defining freedom than we have in defining the system that's supposed to ensure it.

Franklin Roosevelt, in his State of the Union message for 1944, set forth the concept of positive, as well as negative freedom. And by positive freedom he meant existence within a governmental system which worked vigorously and effectively to make sure that all citizens had access to the fundamentals of life -- food, shelter, medical care, and education.  Mr. Roosevelt announced, "We have come to the clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence." Although political leaders still make occasional hints in that direction, it's hard to imagine a major figure being as forthright about it now as Roosevelt was sixty years ago. If FDR was right about our having come to a "clear realization," than we've just as clearly wandered away from it in the past couple decades.

When the current president of the United States talks about freedom and democracy, it's hard to know what he means, and hard to know  even if he knows what he means or has ever thought about it. If one watches his actions as well as listening to his rhetoric, the implication is that his definition of democracy is oligarchy, and his definition of freedom is national imperialism.

One would think a truly free people would want to know what their president means by words he throws around so frequently. But we have not heard anyone ask him. And maybe it's because few are curious.

Any vital human system -- whether it be political, educational, artistic, or economic --  that makes a claim of basing itself on principles will be continuously discussing them in an effort to make sure that current actions are consistent with lasting ideals. We are not having an active discussion in the United States about either freedom or democracy. And since we aren't, we can't say for sure whether we have either. And we certainly aren't justified in going around the world sticking our attenuated models of them down other people's throats at the point of a gun. At the least, the simple admission that neither freedom nor democracy is an uncomplicated, self-evident concept would be an encouraging invitation to the other people of the world to offer their own thoughts about an adequate definition.


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