To be or not to be: Democratization and free markets in the Middle East

Just when you think the United States has turned the corner and moved beyond the idea that we can or should seek to dictate political and economic outcomes in other sovereign nation states, we come upon an article like one written by Hoover Institution senior fellow, Thomas Sowell, “Free market democracy isn’t the right ticket for some nations” ( January 7, 2003). Just as we start to believe that our intellectuals and academicians have understood the growing anger, and belligerence of smaller and economically depressed nations, and the bitterness of peoples of other nations who blame the United States for their plight, we come upon such articles. Just as we think that our government’s foreign policy in the region will be to encourage Middle East and North African governments to respond to their people’s centuries long cry for independence, democratization and free markets, we come upon an article, written by a senior fellow at one of our nation’s most presti! gious think tanks, that says ” 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,” Amy Chua (author of the book World on Fire, the topic of Sowell’s article), says these two things (can be) “an explosive mixture in some nations, particularly where some ethnic minority is dominant in a free market economy, while the majority population dominates politics through their votes.” In respect to the Middle East and North Africa, we recognize almost immediately, who this “ethnic minority” might be, as well as who the people are who will dominate the politics of the region if majority rule is established in place of the present less democratic forms of government. We also understand that free markets are not feared as much as free speech and the right to vote, since the groups at risk in this scenario acquired wealth, not in free markets, but in market! s that are government controlled. If free markets are really feared, its not because they lead to the enrichment of certain ethnic groups to the chagrin of others. That’s an outlandish supposition. If free markets are unwanted, it would most likely be because free markets are the only way to ensure that all peoples have equal access and opportunity for enrichment.

The article perhaps offers an unofficial explanation as to why the United States had traditionally opposed democratization in the region, and did nothing to encourage the economic independence or growth of Arab economies, denying the mostly Arab indigenous populations the opportunity to benefit from level playing fields where consumer demand drives markets. Presently peoples of this region do very little consuming, lots of production, and get paid very little in comparison to what products sell for in open Western markets. The domestic markets, even for farmers, is heavily controlled by government regulations. The majority of the people are not investors, or property owners, and they do not share in profits anywhere along the money chain, so “why” asks Chua, or Sowell’s theory, should they be allowed to vote?

Presently many of the economies of the Middle East are propped up by U.S. foreign aide, and UN aide, intended perhaps to keep the natives from becoming restless and from making demands, like participating as both investors and consumers, and not just labor, and sharing in the profits of global markets. Middle East government greed and corruption robbed the United States of such quietude and safety, and opened a flood gate of demands for democracy and free markets in that region. Now Sowell and Chua come along to warn us that should the people be granted the vote, they will impact the economic policies that have allowed certain “ethnic minorities” to become rich, and that has protected their wealth, while practically enslaving, and impoverishing majority indigenous populations. They also warn us that should these natives be given the right to free speech they will stir up trouble. Sowell writes, ” Perhaps Malaysia might be considered a democracy; it has an el! ected government but the glaring absence of free speech on racial issues keeps it from being a free society, which is what most people mean by democracy. 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.” He goes on to say that “the absence of free speech on racial matters in Malaysia means that there can be no Jesse Jackson.” “Maybe” he writes, ” the United States is secure enough to let irresponsible rabble-rousers run loose, but Malaysia certainly is not.”

Chua is touted by Sowell as an “authority on ethnic conflicts around the world,” which is no doubt true. Once you read the analysis of her thesis as presented by Sowell, one almost immediately recognizes that it might constitute an ideological argument for such conflicts on behalf of the threatened ethnic minority that is economically dominant. In other words, one can imagine that Sowell is explaining for us how, or the “reason” that such evils as the Rwanda massacre takes place. He writes, ” there were no major outbreaks of violence between the Hutu and Tutsi in Rwanda in the first half of the twentieth century. Then majority rule brought ethnic polarization and horrifying massacres.” No where is it mentioned that policies which cause wealth to be distributed according to “ethnic” background might be to blame for conflicts, or that certain privileged minorities, if they could resist bribery, corruption, humiliation and enslavement and other types of economi! c exploitation of other, less wealthy ethnic groups, could prevent such conflicts, even when economically disenfranchised majorities come to power. Sowell seems to suggest that it is not problematic that economic injustices and artificial manipulation of markets is the only way that such a situation can arise, where a specific ethnic group prospers in a nation, while the majority languishes in abject poverty. Nor does it seem to peak his conscience that the only way such an unfair and racist situation can be perpetuated, is by denying the majority their right to self determination. The only good thing about the article is that it completely guts the leftist arguments that capitalism and free markets breeds poverty and economic injustice, and that freedom and democracy are ineffectual charades, that pacify populations like opium pacifies junkies. If we do not accept anything that Sowell and Chua argue, we can at least garner from their arguments that the only way to end pover! ty and to bring justice and fairness to the Middle East and North Africa, is through democracy and free markets, which is exactly what the Founding Fathers of the United States fought for here, and what they pledged to fight for on behalf of others in the world, struggling to be free from economic, and political tyranny.

Certainly the private wealth of individuals must be protected from those who would instigate class warfare, or who would justify massacres of wealthy people, acting out Chua’s envisioned politics of the poor, should such come to power, simply because the rich belong to a certain ethnic group, or class of people. Yet, we should learn from the Russian revolution and other such attempts to punish and eradicate the wealthy class for injustices committed by perhaps only a few very greedy and racists people, that no one wins as a result of such evil and repulsive envy and ignorance. Evil cannot be eliminated by evil. The only way to prevent class revolutions and warfare, is to recognize the urgent need to institute economic and political reforms that level the playing field, and that allows equal access and opportunities for all peoples, regardless of race, religion, or ethnicity, so they can fairly compete for profits, and political power. Where historic injustic! es have created situations that bedevil opportunity and access as remedies, other extraordinary, yet temporary policies can and should be considered in an attempt to prevent crises brought about by the desperation and distress of peoples who have for far too long, paid the price for the privileges of peoples who have squandered wealth, and who have pursued evil rather than good, and who now argue that people should be forever denied their inalienable rights, along with free speech, if we are to hope for an end to, or an escape from the possibility of increased ethnic violence in the Middle East, North Africa and perhaps other parts of the underdeveloped world.

The good news is that U.S. foreign policy is clearly aimed at encouraging and delievering a new reality for the people of the Middle East and North Africa, and Secretary of State Colin Powell attested to this new apprach saying the U.S. is prepared to assist and encourage the people of the region to “raise strong leadership, and to find the balance between faith, an open political system, and an open economic system.”

The writer is the Founder and President of the National Association of Muslim American Women. The author is also head of the International Assoc. for Muslim Women and Children, an accredited NGO with the UN Division on the Rights of the Palestinians.