Why democracy works in America, not in Egypt

The American Revolution succeeded because the American people, at the time of the American Revolution in 1776, had been governing themselves for nearly two centuries.

Even though nominally under British rule, the British government, for the most part, left us alone.

We set up our own local governing councils. The people of the colonies (later states) drafted their own Constitutions, which then became the model for the eventual federal Constitution.

At the time of the American Revolution, the people of the 13 colonies were the wealthiest people in the British Empire. Because of a respect for property rights and the Protestant work ethic that reigned in America, America had thriving businesses. We dominated ship-building, the rum trade, the tobacco trade, and were challenging the British government’s East India Tea Company (a government monopoly) for the world’s tea business.

Hence the British government’s crackdown on the American tea industry with a special tax on tea that led to the Boston Tea Party rebellion that then triggered the American Revolution.

So the American people (then British subjects) had a history of living as free people. We had been governing ourselves since 1620, the year the pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock and adopted the Mayflower Compact.

The American people were also well-read in the literature of liberty. Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations (the classic book on why capitalism works so well to create prosperity) was the most widely read book other than the Bible in the 13 colonies at the time of the American Revolution. The Americans were also heavily influenced by the writings of John Locke and William Blackstone.

America’s Declaration of Independence is really a summary of Locke’s theory of the Social Compact.

According to Locke, every person has a natural right, or God-given right, to life, liberty, and property. It is government’s job to secure these rights. Thomas Jefferson changed “property” to the “pursuit of happiness” in our Declaration of Independence because he was looking for a broader term that would include property.

Under Locke’s theory of the Social Compact, members of society agree to live under a shared system of laws. Government is instituted to make laws that protect these three natural rights — the right to life, liberty, and property. If a government does not properly protect these rights, we have a right and duty to overthrow that government.

Locke’s theory became the American idea. Locke’s theory was popularized by Thomas Paine in his pamphlet Common Sense.

The Mayflower Compact, adopted 156 year prior to the American Revolution, was the classic Lockean idea (though the Mayflower Compact predates Locke).

The point is, the American people had a 156-year tradition of living as free and independent people, governing themselves.

Heavily influenced also by the writings of William Blackstone, they had a deep respect for the “rule of law.”

So America had a tradition of being governed by the “rule of law,” not men, not kings. In America, the law applies equally to all, including to government officials.

This is why the American Revolution succeeded. Really, the American Revolution was not a revolution at all in the minds of Americans at that time.

The Declaration of Independence, in fact, makes the case that the Americans were acting in self-defense. They were defending their own governing councils and their own Constitutions that had been in place for a century or more.

Americans wanted to be free to continue to live as they had been living.

The American Revolution was not about creating a new kind of government. It was about defending a tradition of local government that had been in place in America for 156 years, since the signing of the Mayflower Compact in 1620 — a tradition that included regular elections, the secret ballot, rule of law, and an understanding that the purpose of government is to secure our God-given rights to “life, liberty, and property.”

There is no such tradition in Egypt.

In a place like Egypt, democracy is used as a weapon for one faction or the other to seize power. The losing side is then slaughtered. In a place like Egypt (and other Islamic countries where there is no respect for life, liberty, property, or law) we usually get one election, then tyranny.

The rebels in Egypt say they plan to try President Mohammed Morsi (the guy Obama backed) for the crime of “insulting the Presidency.” Of course, Morsi was no peach either. He jailed newspaper columnists for writing editorials he disagreed with.

To call Egypt a democracy simply because they gave the people a piece of paper to mark their choice for President is a joke. Whichever side wins an election in a place like Egypt just uses their power to kill off and jail the losing side.

The vote, of course, is only part of why the American system works. It’s really the last piece of the puzzle.

First, there must be a general respect for the rule of law and the God-given rights of individual citizens. The losing side in elections needs to feel secure that they won’t lose their life, liberty, or property if they lose an election.

This is why it was such folly to get rid of Hosni Mubarek, the Shaw of Iran, or even Saddam Hussein.

As brutal as Saddam Hussein was, he was actually a bulwark against terrorism. He hated al Qaeda as much as we do. He was also a counter to the much more dangerous Iran, which is why Ronald Reagan backed Iraq in its war with Iran in the 1980s.

The Shah, too, was very tough. But he brought Iran out of the Middle Ages and into the modern world. Iran had a modern capitalist economy thanks to the Shah. A well-educated strongman like the Shah is about the best we can hope for in countries like Iran, Iraq, and Syria — which have no tradition of liberty or democracy.

This is why it’s also a fool’s errand to intervene in Syria on behalf of the rebels against Bashar al-Assad. Yes, the Assad regime is dreadful by Western standards. But we’ll get something far worse if the rebels prevail. We’ll get Iran, Part Deux.

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