Not All Coups are Bad Coups

by Benjamin Studebaker

Well, Egypt has gone and had a coup d’etat (and no matter what Barack Obama or the Egyptian generals say, that’s certainly what it was). I cannot really say it surprises me–I had long since identified Mohamed Morsi as a bumbler. The other day I also identified the reasons behind opposition to Morsi, and those too seemed rather predictable and reasonable. The bit I now find interesting is the reaction in much of the media in the developed world. Despite Morsi’s efforts to put Islam at the center of Egyptian law, many in the developed world object to the Egyptian coup. What’s most fascinating is that this defense of Morsi’s government is based not on any policies or public goods the commentators have identified as having resulted from it, but on purely procedural grounds.

Why do people living in the developed countries think Morsi should have stuck around? Because Morsi was elected democratically. In most developed countries, the governments are democratically elected, and most citizens in developed countries consider this to be a good thing. Insofar as Egypt’s system of government becomes more or less similar to the systems of government in developed countries, commentators in those countries perceive it to be correspondingly improving or deteriorating.

These commentators seem to be making the assumption that it is the democratic system that makes their countries successful. This assumption does not seem reasonable to me. Depending on your political views, you might see different policies as having been the source of your nation’s success (or lack thereof). Some people on the right point to low taxes, free trade, or deregulation of the economy. Some people on the left point to sound regulations, social welfare programs, or redistribution. Some people also point to the liberties common in many developed states–free speech, free press, and so on–as sources of intellectual and scientific advantage.

Whichever policies you think or effective or ineffective, the important thing is which policies we have and which we do not have. The mechanism by which we selects policies plays into this, but it is only instrumentally important. It is a means to an end, it is not the end. Democracy is a defensible system of government only to the extent that it can be argued that it produces outcomes that are equal to or better than the outcomes in other systems, both existent and hypothetical. The reason most developed states have chosen democracy as opposed to monarchism, communism, fascism, and so on is that democracy outperforms those alternatives most of the time. It produces more good outcomes.

If democracy produces really awful policies, it is no better than the systems it claims to improve upon. If say, the people in a given country regularly vote for racist parties, or religious fundamentalist parties, or parties with extremely underdeveloped conceptualizations of economics (like say, the libertarian parties), that country is unsuited to democracy. In the Egyptian case, the people chose a party and a leader that put an undue religious influence on his policy, privileging Egyptian Muslims that agreed with his interpretation of their faith over other Egyptian Muslims or Egyptians of altogether different or absent religious affiliation.

If a party in a European country were to attempt to place a particular interpretation of Christianity at the center of its country’s laws, the appropriate response might go well beyond waiting until the next election to attempt to change the government, particularly if a large majority were in favor of such laws. In this kind of case, more democracy is most likely to perpetuate the bad policy rather than eliminate it. It may well be worthwhile in such a case to resort to changing the political system so as to prevent popular but deeply misguided ideas from becoming the law of the land.

Such is what has happened in the Egyptian case–a majority of the Egyptian people seek to tyrannically impose their religious views on the remainder of that population, and democracy only aids and abets that tyranny. A coup in these kinds of cases is not anti-freedom, but pro-freedom. It preserves the country’s secularism.

We must remember that democracy and freedom are not synonymous. Almost no voter casts a decisive vote, and in every election, a very large number of people vote for an individual or party that fails to win. Sometimes this number actually constitutes a majority of the voting population, as in say the UK, in which the first past the post system ensures that the candidate with the most votes wins even when that total is far below 50%. It is the policies that we typically associate with modern democratic states that are important–the free speech, free press, free religion, fair trials, and so on. When the Egyptian democracy stopped upholding those liberties, it stopped being an instrument of their preservation or of Egyptian progress.

While the coup in Egypt is destabilizing and will cause difficulties for the country, one can certainly argue that those inconveniences are worthwhile if they prevent the annihilation of religious liberty in Egypt. Whether the coup leads to a new democratic civilian government, to a new autocrat, or to a new system of government as yet untried and untested, the preservation of religious liberty is a good thing. Morsi’s government was fundamentally not a good government, and Egypt could be better off without it, and hopefully it will be.

The Egyptian case speaks to a wider principle concerning coups and other kinds of governmental overthrow. It is sometimes acceptable, even a necessary moral obligation, to overthrow one’s government. This has nothing to do with the system of government itself, but the laws and policies which that government practices. If one believes that one’s government is responsible for bad laws and bad policies, and one believes that the only way to change those policies in any permanent meaningful way is to change the government’s structure, and one has in mind an alternative structure or system that one can credibly argue will achieve that task, it is perfectly acceptable–it is even good and just–for some segment of the population, whether large or small, to attempt to destroy the system that keeps them in chains.

The mere fact that sometimes, the system that keeps us in chains is the democratic system itself makes no difference. Democracy is not special, and it does not get a pass on the results it produces. It must be held to the same standard to which other systems of government are so often held. The Egyptian democracy was a moral failure, it appeared incapable of addressing its moral failure in a constructive way, and so the military destroyed it. Perhaps they’ll rebuild a new democracy, or perhaps they’ll try something different. As long as the new government doesn’t produce the bad policies of the previous government and doesn’t produce new horrors as not yet conceived, it will be an improvement over the government that came before.

Therefore, we must judge this Egyptian coup not on whether or not it violates an unreasonable attachment to democratic procedures, but on whether or not the new government it produces is in actuality superior to the government it replaced. We don’t know the answer to that question yet, because the new government has not yet formed. So let’s wait and see.