One of the cornerstones of the war on terrorism is the premise that promoting democracy is a long-run goal for creating a better world, one which will not breed so many terrorists. But a new book, “World on Fire” by Professor Amy Chua of the Yale law school, argues persuasively that democracy can be positively dangerous for some non-Western countries, especially when combined with a free market economy.
While democracy and free markets have been an extremely productive combination for many European and European offshoot societies, such as the United States and Australia, Professor Chua sees these two things as being like an explosive mixture in certain non-Western nations. More specifically, this combination is seen as dangerous in those countries where some ethnic minority is dominant in a free market economy, while the majority population dominates politics through their votes.
If this thesis sounds strange, try to make a list of countries that are non-Western and which enjoy the freedoms we speak of as democracy, as well as having a free market in which some minority group is dominant.
Merely making a list of countries that are both non-Western and democratic is enough of a challenge, and adding a free market shrinks that already short list. Now add the key proviso that some ethnic minority dominates the economy.
The Chinese minority is dominant in the economies of Indonesia and Malaysia, the Indian minority is dominant in Fiji, the Lebanese have been dominant in West Africa, and other groups in other places around the world. But these have seldom been democratic countries.
Perhaps Malaysia might be considered a democracy, since it has an elected government, but the glaring absence of free speech on racial issues in Malaysia keeps it from being a free society, which is what most people mean by democracy, even though that is not the original meaning of the word. It is doubtful whether Malaysia could survive if racial demagogues were free to stir up the Malay majority against the Chinese minority that is still a dominant force in the economy.
The absence of free speech on racial matters in Malaysia means that there can be no careers like those of Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton in the United States. Maybe the U.S. is secure enough to be able to afford to let irresponsible rabble-rousers run loose — or maybe someday we will discover that we are not — but Malaysia certainly is not.
Sri Lanka started coming apart within a decade of receiving its independence as a free, democratic nation in 1948. The Tamil minority was not as dominant in its economy as the Chinese minority in Malaysia and other Southeast Asian countries, but still Tamils were over-represented at the top in business, in the professions, and in education. That was enough to allow the Sinhalese majority to be mobilized politically against them by ambitious politicians.
Even though there had never been a single race riot between the Sinhalese majority and the Tamil minority during the first half of the 20th century, there were many in the second half, punctuated by unspeakable atrocities. Eventually Sri Lanka descended into outright civil war, in which this small island nation has suffered more deaths than the United States suffered during the Vietnam War.
Similarly, according to Professor Chua, an authority on ethnic conflicts around the world, there were no major outbreaks of violence between the Hutu and Tutsi in Rwanda in the first half of the 20th century. Then majority rule brought ethnic polarization and horrifying massacres.
What about counter-examples of free, democratic, free-market, non-Western societies where an ethnic minority is blatantly more successful in the economy than the majority population, but where the people live at peace with one another? You supply those examples. I can’t think of any.
Professor Chua’s thesis is especially important in an era when American foreign policy sometimes seems to be pressing our allies and others to become democracies with free markets — whether or not each country’s social conditions or cultural traditions provide the prerequisites for letting that particular combination be a blessing rather than a curse.