Isolationism Redux

2007-12-07

As I noted last week, the term "isolationism" is a smear for what is better termed non-interventionism or, in more colloquial terms, minding your own business. Yesterday the Independent Institute published an interesting article on the same topic by James L. Payne entitled Does Nation Building Work? Payne's conclusion is that it doesn't work very well (details here):

The record shows that of the 51 times the United States and Great Britain attempted nation-building by force over the past 150 years, they left behind an enduring democracy in only 14 cases, or 27 percent of the time.

Why doesn't interventionist nation-building work? (Even vaunted success stories like Germany cannot be attributed to Anglosphere intervention.) Payne provides some clues (details here), which are consistent with my hard-won understanding of historical change:

What accounts for so much failure at nation-building? At bottom, the answer is that policymakers have overlooked the first, necessary requirement for democracy, which is a low level of political violence. They have focused secondary aspects—drafting constitutions, holding elections, building schools, and promoting women’s rights—without realizing that none of this matters if participants are disposed to kill each other to get what they want.

A study of the evolution of democracy in places like England, Holland, or France shows that democracy was not consciously constructed and deliberately adopted. It came about by default as political leaders gradually grew nonviolent. Opposition groups ceased resorting to revolution to overthrow incumbents, and incumbents stopped putting critics and opponents in jail. As force dropped out of the picture, participants moved to the obvious nonviolent alternatives for settling disputes: counting heads (elections), and acceding to the decisions of courts, councils, and legislatures. That’s what we call democracy.

In other words, democracy isn’t a system you teach people or impose on them. It is what happens automatically when participants aren’t violent.

Those who advocate interventionism try to artificially produce free societies, whereas historical experience shows that freedom emerges organically. Perhaps there are ways that those in the Anglosphere and other free parts of the world can nudge along the emergence of freedom in places that are less free, but I doubt that invading those places is the right approach. And I think it is the responsibility of those who advocate interventionism to show how they serve the cause of freedom. Hint: good luck, it won't be easy, because the evidence is not on your side.


Peter Saint-Andre > Journal