Hamas, Palestine, and the Economics of Democracy--Posner
President Bush has suggested that spreading democracy is the surest antidote to Islamist terrorism. He can draw on a literature that finds that democracies very rarely go to war with each other, although a conspicuous exception is the U.S. Civil War, since both the Union and the Confederacy were democracies.
Hamas, which has just won a majority in the parliament of the Palestinian proto-state, is a political party that has an armed terrorist wing and is pledged to the destruction of Israel. Can that surprising outcome of what appears to have been a genuinely free election be squared with the belief that democracy is the best antidote to war and terrorism?
The first thing to note is that one democratic election is not the equivalent of democracy. When Hitler in 1933 was asked by President Hindenburg to form a government, the processes of democracy appeared to be working. The Nazi Party was the largest party in the Reichstag; it was natural to invite its leader to form a government. Within months, Germany was a dictatorship. So the fact that Hamas has won power fairly and squarely does not necessarily portend the continuation of Palestinian democracy.
But suppose Palestine remains democratic. What can we look forward to? I don't think the question is answerable if democracy is analyzed realistically. The great economist Joseph Schumpeter sketched in his 1942 book Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy what has come to be called the theory of "elite" or "procedural" or "competitive" democracy. In this concept, which I have elaborated in my book Law, Pragmatism, and Democracy (2003), and which seems to me descriptive of most modern democracies, including that of the United States, there is a governing class, consisting of people who compete for political office, and a citizen mass. The governing class corresponds to the selling side of an economic market, and the citizen mass to the consuming side. Instead of competing for sales, however, the members of the governing class compete for votes. The voters are largely ignorant of policy, just as consumers are ignorant of the inner workings of the products they buy. But the power of the electorate to turn elected officials out of office at the next election gives the officials an incentive to adopt policies that do not outrage public opinion and to administer the policies with some minimum of honesty and competence. It was Fatah's dramatic failure along these dimensions that opened the way to Hamas's surprisingly strong electoral showing. Hamas cleverly coupled armed resistance to Israel with the provision of social welfare services managed more efficiently and honestly than the services provided by the notoriously corrupt official Palestinian government, controlled by Fatah.
In troubled times, such as afflicted Germany in the early 1930s and Palestine today, democratic elections provide opportunities for radical parties that provide an alternative to discredited policies of incumbent officials. The worse the incumbent party, the better even an extremist challenger looks. The German example suggests that moderation of a radical party when it takes power is not inevitable. The party may continue its radical policies and even use its initial popularity to destroy democracy. Hitler and Mussolini took power in a more or less orderly democratic fashion and Lenin by a coup, but in all three cases the consequence of the seizure of power by a radical party was the opposite of moderation. Hitler and Mussolini remained popular until their policies failed dramatically; there is no theoretical or empirical basis for supposing that popular majorities in all societies are bound to favor more enlightened policies than a dictator or oligarchy would.
How then to explain the empirical regularity that democracies rarely war with each other, and the concomitant hope that if Palestine were democratic it would stop trying to destroy Israel? The answer lies in considering what is required for democracy to take root rather than to make a rapid transition to dictatorship. Democracy is unstable unless anchored by legally protected liberties, including freedom of speech, freedom from arbitrary arrest, and property rights. The liberties in turn tend to be unstable without a measure of democracy. When there are no liberties, a one-sided election can result in a quick extinction of democracy, because there is nothing to prevent the winner from calling an end to the electoral game in order to perpetuate his control. When there is no democracy, rulers are not effectively checked, and corruption and other abuses flourish. The combination of democracy and liberty, as in the U.S. Constitution, provides an auspicious framework for prosperity, resulting eventually in dominance of the society by a large middle class. Middle-class people don't have much taste for offensive wars or violence in general. They are not specialized to such activities, which benefit primarily monarchs and aristocrats (who internalize martial values), impoverished adventurers, and (closely related to the adventurers) political and religious fanatics. (This is in general, not in every case; the Germany that Hitler took over was a middle-class republic, democratic though imperfectly so.) As Samuel Johnson said, people are rarely so innocently engaged as when trying to make money, since in a well-ordered society they can do that only through trade, which wars disrupt.
So democracy itself is not a panacea for the world's political ills and dangers. But if the Palestinians are able to develop a genuinely republican government and move rapidly toward embourgeoisement, there is some hope for the eventual emergence of a peaceful Palestinian state.
There is another point, special to the Palestinian situation, that provides a further ray of hope. With Hamas in power, its members are paradoxically much more vulnerable to Israeli military power than they were when Fatah was in power. The Hamas leaders then were scattered and hidden and efforts to fight them risked killing innocent civilians and discrediting the Palestinian government, with which Israel was trying to make peace. Given Fatah's inability to suppress Hamas, Israel could not crush Hamas by bombing the government buildings occupied by Fatah. Once Hamas is the government, however, further violence toward Israel by Hamas members can be met appropriately by massive military force directed against the organs and leaders of the government. This threat may cause Hamas to avoid attacks on Israel. Hamas's victory may be the best thing that has happened to Israel in years.