Libya will need social virtues to nurture a democratic society



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October 31, 2011

Likely the first thing the new government in Libya will do will be to attempt to implement some form of democracy. Achieving that goal in a nation run for 42 years by a psychotic tyrant will be much more difficult than establishing new institutions with good procedures.

Psychosis at the top infects the entire society, creating a fearful populace and leaving people dependent on secretly whispered rumours rather than the free flow of information. A long history of decisions being made by cronyism and corruption has been established. Political opposition in such a situation is defined not by putting flowers in the gun barrels of tanks, but by taking up arms and killing thousands of people. There is no place for the reasoned, thoughtful consideration of alternatives.

Now, all that needs to change for the Libyan people to have a decent crack at a peaceful and just society. Don't be optimistic about it happening soon.

In the West, we tend to believe democracy is a set of institutions marked by a separation of powers between legislators and the courts, recognition of human rights, universal suffrage and the rule of law. None of that works, however, if criminals or politicians murder the judges, human rights are honoured with lips more than actions, ballot boxes are stuffed, and there is widespread patronage and corruption.

Good government, in short, is at least as much a factor of democratic habits as it is of democratic institutions. A virtuous citizenry, more than the right set of laws, is the foundation for democratic practice.

Virtue is taught, first of all, in the home. But if home life is marred by unemployment, addictions, brutality, ignorance, or laziness and lack of responsibility, it is unlikely virtue will be taught. The exceptional child will learn virtue despite such circumstances; most will not.

A virtuous society emphasizes honest work, widespread quality education and equal opportunity. In the course of history, few societies have had all those features. Virtue may sometimes flourish amidst poverty and disease – although if those factors run rampant, they too destroy the fabric of society - but it cannot withstand entitlement and ignorance.

A truly good society is rare. It requires an education system that lifts people up, something approaching full employment, and a well-founded belief that excellence is rewarded and vice punished. It also requires democratic institutions.

We wish Libya well as it reconstructs. The international community likely has something to offer in helping Libya build good institutions and good schools. However, the fate of the nation will depend on the ability and desire of Libyans themselves to build a country where everyone has both the opportunity and the duty to contribute.