Thursday, May 08, 2008

Pirate Treasure: Why oil and democracy don't mix

In Wednesday's column, Thomas Friedman quotes Stanford professor Larry Diamond:
There are 23 countries in the world that derive at least 60 percent of their exports from oil and gas and not a single one is a real democracy.
Why should this be? Remember just before the Iraq invasion when neo-cons were assuring us that Iraq's oil wealth would be an advantage in its transition to democracy?

Understanding why it wasn't -- and won't be in the future -- tells us something important about democracy: You can settle your differences by voting only after your society has established an overwhelming consensus on all the issues worth killing and dying for.

One of those issues is the legitimacy of the property system: Who owns what? Why should I recognize that any particular bit of wealth is yours and not mine? The answer to that question hangs not only on the homogeneity of a country's culture, but on the kind of property that country has.

Legitimate Property vs. Pirate Treasure.
Some kinds of property are easy to legitimize. If you kill the elk and drag it home, nobody's going to complain when the choicest cut goes to you. To give a more modern example, the Homestead Act was hardly legitimate in the eyes of the Native Americans whose land was being carved up, but among voting white citizens it made good sense: If you cleared the land, lived on it, and farmed it, it was obviously yours and not mine.

Wages paid voluntarily by an employer are legitimate: "The laborer is worthy of his hire," says the Bible. If you took the dangerous voyage to the other side of the world and brought back a shipload of Chinese silk -- that was your silk, not mine.

Laws are needed to regulate such property, but not to establish its legitimacy. The legitimacy of the property justifies the law, not the other way around.

Virtue can legitimize wealth. If we all benefit from people of great skill -- doctors, say, or inventors -- it's easy to justify them having more than the rest of us, at least up to a point. An ancient king who kept his country at peace, dispensed wise judgments, and avoided wasteful displays of luxury could own more than his subjects with little resentment. Similarly, if the owner of the local mill paid livable wages, cared about the safety of his workers, and donated generously to local charities, poorer neighbors might even defend his disproportionate wealth against those who proposed to divide it up.

But other kinds of wealth are like the buried treasure of long-dead pirates: They don't naturally and legitimately seem to belong to anyone. If you can find the pirate treasure and hang onto it long enough to spend it, it's yours. But if someone can take it from you, it's theirs.

Natural resource wealth is inherently suspect because, as the Bible puts it, "The Earth is the Lord's, and the fullness thereof." But the effort to find and extract the resource can legitimize its ownership. The gold of the 49ers was a little like the elk that a hunter dragged back to camp. But the diamonds of Cecil Rhodes -- pulled out of African land by African labor -- looks much more like pirate treasure.

Today, the wealth of the House of Saud is entirely pirate treasure. The oil was found by foreigners, can be pumped out of the ground at minimal expense, and is sold at a vast profit. What effort or virtue marks this profit as belonging to the al-Sauds? If I'm a lesser Saudi prince, or if I have a bloodline just as ancient and distinguished as the al-Sauds, or even if I'm just a Bedouin tribesman whose ancestors crisscrossed the sites of the oil wells for centuries -- why doesn't that wealth belong to me? The main reason, as far as I can see, is that the Saudi king has the guns to enforce his claim. If I had the guns, my claim would be every bit as legitimate.

Democracy and Consensus. If you believe, as President Bush apparently does, that the essence of democracy is to have a constitution and hold elections, then all this talk about the legitimacy of property has no bearing on whether or not a country will succeed as a democracy. But in the real world a democracy stands or falls on this question: After you have your constitutionally sanctioned election, why does the loser accept his loss?

Think about what happened in America after the 2000 election. More people voted for Gore than for Bush, but Bush became president. Many Gore supporters came out of that election believing that Bush won by refusing to count legally cast votes. Others believed that Bush's brother misused his position as governor of Florida to disenfranchise people who had a legal right to vote, and that those votes would have made Gore president. Still others believed that the Electoral College itself was illegitimate, and that Gore should have been president by virtue of winning the popular vote.

In many countries, that situation would have led to general strikes, riots, and maybe even civil war. In the United States, the Supreme Court's ruling ended the dispute. The decision was accepted even by those who believed that the Court was practicing politics rather than law. No strikes. No riots. No government-in-exile.

Conversely, Bush did not begin his administration as many rulers with weak claims do: by rounding up his opponents and having them shot. No newspapers were shut down. The Democrats were allowed to run candidates in subsequent elections. And Gore himself remained free and prospered greatly under the new administration.

We sometimes forget how remarkable this was.

Why did it happen? Or, more accurately, why did the civil war fail to happen? Fundamentally, the answer comes down to this: In America we have a broad consensus that covers all the issues worth getting yourself killed for. Losing an election doesn't mean that the rich suddenly become poor or the free become slaves. Bush defeating Gore didn't mean that Democrats would lose their land or be herded into camps or have to watch their daughters be raped by the victorious Republicans.

In some countries that is what an election means. And they don't stay democracies long, no matter what their constitutions say.

Democracy and Pirate Treasure.
The great anarchist Emma Goldman said: "If voting could change the system, it would be against the law." That's an overstatement, but she was on to an important truth: Some things are too important to decide by vote. They're so important that the losers won't be able to accept their loss. They'll risk killing and being killed, because the alternative seems worse.

You can't, for example, vote on a genocide. If I lose, will my people voluntarily line up to be slaughtered? I certainly hope not. Our enemies may have proved that they outnumber us, but we'll grab our guns and take our chances in battle. Democracy is over.

Property may not seem as important as life, but history has shown again and again that people will die for it.

At the fringes, maybe not: A court may move your property line a few feet, and even if you think it's wrong, you're not going to take up arms. An election may change the tax rate on your income without sending you to the barricades. But the kind of change Goldman was talking about -- a fundamental redistribution of property and a redefinition of the meaning of property -- was going to be met with violence. Voting about it would never be enough.

The more consensus a society has about its property and wealth -- the more general agreement there is about who owns what and why -- the easier it will be for that country to become a democracy. But if a nation's wealth is predominantly pirate treasure whose ownership is defined and established only by force, then no set of documents can turn it into a democracy. Presidents and prime ministers will see no reason why that treasure shouldn't be theirs, and the people who have the treasure now will spend it on guns rather than surrender it to whoever got the most votes. Democracy will last until the rich lose an election -- or just fear losing an election -- and then it will be over.

Japan and Iraq.
Whenever critics pointed out the hopelessness of establishing an Iraqi democracy by force, the neocons would point to Japan. On February 26, 2003, President Bush asserted:
There was a time when many said that the cultures of Japan and Germany were incapable of sustaining democratic values. Well, they were wrong. Some say the same of Iraq today. They are mistaken. The nation of Iraq -- with its proud heritage, abundant resources and skilled and educated people -- is fully capable of moving toward democracy and living in freedom.
Japan had no Western heritage and no democratic history. And yet after we defeated the Japanese in war, we could write a new constitution for them, and preside over the establishment of a democracy that has lasted half a century and seems likely to continue into the far future. Why couldn't we do the same in Iraq?

I wish I could make every neo-con read Neal Stephenson's novel Cryptonomicon, which revolves around the search for a vast horde of gold that the Japanese hid in the Philippines during the war. (As in much of Stephenson's work, the true meaning of money and wealth is a constant background meditation.)

Near the end of the novel, two of its protagonists finally meet: the American computer hacker Randy Waterhouse and the elderly Japanese industrialist Goto Dengo. The best thing that ever happened to Japan, Dengo claims, was to lose all its gold. Real wealth, he says, is in the heads and hands of the people, in their intelligence and the work they do. He points to Tokyo: "Fifty years ago it was flames. Now it is lights! Do you understand?"

Democracy could take hold in Japan because it started with nothing. The wealth it built in the heads and hands of its people was easy to legitimize and hard to steal. But in Iraq, in much of the Middle East, and in failed post-colonial African democracies like mineral-rich Zimbabwe, the national wealth is buried in the ground and belongs as easily to one person as another.

Until this wealth is rooted in some consensus of legitimacy, it will be battled over. And an electoral victory will only herald a more violent struggle.