Democracy vs the Rule of Law

Tunisia is providing a hopeful example of how countries can transition to freer societies for the general good. In the following Washington Post Op-Ed David Ignatius provides an excellent account of the process followed and still underway there. From Tunisia-Hopeful Signs/2014/01/24/ It contrasts sharply with the sadly confused and muddled account of “democratic transition” in Egypt presented by Michael Dunn and Thomas Carothers of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in the Post three days earlier. Egypt’s Evolving Governance is no Democratic Transition.  They speak of democracy and human rights as if they are the same thing.

Literally democracy means rule of the majority. In fact, the majority of Egyptians voting in the first free elections in memory chose Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi as their President who proceeded to rule on behalf of Egypt’s majority religious group in disregard for the interests of minority Christians and other groups. That is democracy in its literal sense. Modern democracies, however, are not pure in that the majority is limited in what it may do in order to protect the rights of minorities. From an imaginary “veil of ignorance” the citizens of most modern democracies have written into their constitutions limitations on what they may do even when in the majority. The rule of just laws is more important than, and often in conflict with, democracy.

The bigger government gets the more it’s necessarily uniform treatment of all tends to reduce the freedom of individual citizens to behave differently. The United States from its beginning favored individual freedom over state authority and thus struck a balance between the two that imposed more limits on the role of government than had existed up to that time. Every special interest that gains government favor becomes an entrenched interest that is very difficult to reverse (farm subsidies and defense contractors leap to mind). Keeping government limited to what is really important is a never-ending but critical battle.

About wcoats

I specialize in advising central banks on monetary policy and the development of the capacity to formulate and implement monetary policy.  I joined the International Monetary Fund in 2003 from which I retired in 2003 as Assistant Director of the Monetary and Financial Systems Department. While at the IMF I led or participated in missions to the central banks of over twenty countries (including Afghanistan, Bosnia, Croatia, Egypt, Iraq, Israel, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Kosovo, Kyrgystan, Moldova, Serbia, Turkey, West Bank and Gaza Strip, and Zimbabwe) and was seconded as a visiting economist to the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (1979-80), and to the World Bank's World Development Report team in 1989.  After retirement from the IMF I was a member of the Board of the Cayman Islands Monetary Authority from 2003-10 and of the editorial board of the Cayman Financial Review from 2010-2017.  Prior to joining the IMF I was Assistant Prof of Economics at UVa from 1970-75.  I am currently a fellow of Johns Hopkins Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, Institute for Applied Economics, Global Health, and the Study of Business Enterprise.  In March 2019 Central Banking Journal awarded me for my “Outstanding Contribution for Capacity Building.”  My most recent book is One Currency for Bosnia: Creating the Central Bank of Bosnia and Herzegovina. I have a BA in Economics from the UC Berkeley and a PhD in Economics from the University of Chicago. My dissertation committee was chaired by Milton Friedman and included Robert J. Gordon.
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