Month: January 2014

Liberalism in Jordan

by Nathan Shapiro

Viewing the Arab nations’ struggle in the post-colonial era, and seeing them in constant conflict with modernity, is distressing to those familiar with history, for this land was the hearth of human civilization.

A vast majority of Arabs live in illiberal societies.  These societies lack the guaranteed human rights, civil rights, and access to services fundamental to the success of Europe, North America, and much of East Asia excluding China.  Some Arab nations have powerful governments with a clear structure that provides the country with the rule of law, even if the rulers are oppressive.  Yet some Arab countries even lack the governmental framework necessary to provide the rule of law, resulting in chaos and all too often, violence.

One Arab country has stood apart from its neighbors.  The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan is the most liberal Arab country.  While it is an imperfect liberalism, Jordanians enjoy more freedoms and basic rights than their Arab counterparts.

It is important not to give Jordan too much credit.  Jordan’s King Abdullah II puts on a good show for the Western world.  With his easy smile, he wears suits, not the traditional desert garments other Arab royals wear.  He has been a guest on the “Daily Show with Jon Stewart” multiple times, and is famous for his love of Star Trek.  While still a prince, he made an appearance on an episode of a “Star Trek: Voyager” episode.  It is easy to be taken in by the seemingly westernized king.  It is easy to assume that such a king would be an enlightened ruler and be a liberalizing force for good in his country.  To some extent this assumption is accurate, for Jordan is the most liberal of the Arab countries.  Yet this is a low bar and Jordan has a long way to go before achieving true liberalism.  Freedom House ranked Jordan as “not free,”  political rights and civil liberties are highly restricted, and the press is not free.  Jordan is not a democracy.   Instead it is a near absolute monarchy with a powerful executive branch and weak legislative branch.

Despite these strikes against it, Jordan is a model, albeit an imperfect model, for liberalization in the Arab world.  The World Bank classifies Jordan as an “upper-middle income” country.  For a country with essentially no natural resources like Jordan, this is a major achievement and is a sign of a strong and well-functioning civil society.  Unlike the oil-rich Arab nations, Jordan has had to develop a viable economy.  The World Bank has praised the government’s efforts in education.

Jordan has developed what the World Bank describes as a “knowledge-based economy” with a solid research and development infrastructure.  Women enjoy a high level of  “gender parity” in Jordan, something unusual for the region.  Jordan has been especially successful in the medical field.  The Kingdom has a large medical tourism industry that generates over $1 billion per year in revenue.

A strong civil society and an educated middle class are needed to begin the process of liberalization.  While dictators, King Abdullah II and his father King Hussein deserve credit for planting the seeds of liberalism.


It’s Not Democracy You Want…It’s Liberalism

by Nathan Shapiro

In the United States there is a near universal belief that democracy is the optimal form of government.  Among a population often disgruntled with government, people cling to the word “democracy” as a source of liberty, freedom, and prosperity.  In truth democracy does nothing to secure liberty, freedom or prosperity.

Democracy describes the process by which the government is chosen, not the way the government is run.  The American diplomat Richard Holbrook understood this well.  Speaking about Bosnia he said “Suppose the election was declared free and fair,” he would go on to ask the question [what if those elected were] “racists, fascists, separatists, who are publicly opposed to [peace and reintegration]. That is the dilemma.”

We live in an era where democracy is trendy and democratization is rampant.  Yet liberty, freedom, and prosperity are all too rare.  Take the case of India, a country home to millions of slaves.  While slavery is technically illegal in India, local elected government officials routinely protect the institution of slavery.  Yet India is constantly praised for being “the world’s largest democracy.”  It is true.  India is a democracy.  All it takes to be a democracy is for a country to hold elections.  What India is not, is a liberal democracy.

The scenario Holbrook imagined was an autocratic democracy.  This concept is unimaginable to most Americans because what we think of as democracy is American democracy, which is liberal democracy.  In the classical sense of the term, the United States has a rich liberal tradition that continues to this day.  I would argue that having a liberal government is more important than having a democratic government.  The word “liberal” comes from the old French word liberté, which referred to man’s freedom.

Dictatorships are by definition thought of as illiberal, but this should not be the case.  It is possible for a liberal dictatorship, or a liberal autocracy to exist.  Imagine for a moment that the universally beloved Fred Rogers, better known as Mister Rogers, somehow became the absolute dictator of a country.  There would be no elections but the country would be one big happy “neighborhood” because the ruler truly loved all his people and wanted what was best for them.  Mister Rogers would not deny anybody his or her freedom; the only thing they would lack was the right to vote.

Fareed Zakaria has used Hong Kong as a real-life example of a liberal autocracy.  The people of Hong Kong thrived under British rule, and enjoyed economic and civil liberties.  However, the people of Hong Kong were ruled by the British half a world away.

I am not advocating liberal autocracy in the United States or anywhere in the world.  It is best for the people to have a say in how their government is run.  Yet democracy is just part of the equation.  As Fareed Zakaria has pointed out, historically liberalism leads to democracy, not the other way around.  Hence, our focuses should not be on the democratization of the world, rather the liberalization of the world.  When liberalism is achieved, democracy will follow.