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4.10.04 Democracy and freedom

We are "bringing democracy" to Irag. Freedom! And they are fighting us tooth and nail. What's up with that?

We tend to view elections as the main event of democracy. But elections are basically just a sign that society is stable and has enough legal infrastructure to allow non-violent transitions in leadership.

Half the people in the United States never vote. For them voting is not the proud democratic moment we want the Iraqis and Afghanis to have. I sense that most non-voters don't think it will make any difference to their lives. Their world will be the same no matter who is in charge.

"Life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness" hits closer to home. You don't really care who is in charge as long as you have electricity and food on the table. You don't care who is in charge as long as they aren't sending the secret police to pound on your door at midnight to administer a little torture and as long as they aren't disappearing your children. In the Ashcroft world we are even tolerating a little of that -- as long as it's the guy down the street and not us.

And fundamentalists don't care about "free elections." The Shiites don't want to be oppressed by the Sunnis, but they want their strong man in charge by whatever means. That's why all these ethnic groups want their own territories. They don't want to dialogue, they don't want to trust one another, they don't want "the people" to "choose." They want their own guys telling them how to lead their lives according to the rules and customs they've honored for centuries.

"Freedom" is vastly over-rated. People don't fight for abstract "freedom." They fight for the lives of the people they love, for very personal liberties, and for their pursuit of happiness. In fact, no one really likes too much freedom. They hate making decisions. How many weeks of paralysis start with this conversation?

"Where do you want to go on vacation, dear?"

"Anywhere you want, darling."

I once had the misguided pleasure of overseeing the development of "self-managed teams." What a disaster. We didn't give people clear limits, clear rules. "You know the job best, you decide how to do it," we said. We vastly overestimated people's interest in their work. They didn't want to figure out a damn thing. They wanted to be told what their job was, do it, and get home to their families where they had enough decisions to make, thank you very much. As someone who loves formulating her own work, this was a real eye-opener to me. People want to feel satisfaction in their work but they damn well don't want to have to make it up as they go along. They want clear rules for how to keep their paychecks coming.

There is a new book on the market -- "The Paradox of Choice" by Barry Schwartz. Based on research in psychology and social economics, he makes the case that unlimited choice can produce real suffering. The more choice we have, the more paralyzed we become. Shoppers who are offered samples of 6 different jams are more likely to buy one than when they are offered samples of 24 different jams. Students who are offered 6 topics to write on for extra credit are more likely to pick one and do it than students who get to choose from 30 topics.

I've experienced that phenomenon buying beads. A store with a few nice choices is successful in getting my money. Bazaars filled with hundreds of cheap, gorgeous necklaces completely overwhelm me. Jim seems to have a much better capacity in these situations to slice and dice the territory to hone in on a manageable set of choices.

I wish this pointed to an easy answer in Iraq. We can't just hand the country over to a fractious band of idiots on June 30 saying, "Okay, it's all yours! You're free! Hold some elections! You can figure it out!"

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