In the world today there is a movement towards freedom and in some parts of the Arab world some people are seeking to overthrow existing governments in order to secure what is sometimes described as freedom and at other times what is described as democracy. But freedom is not democracy and democracy does not always ensure freedom.
Democracy is simply one way of creating government. It might be the least bad way do doing this but there are many democratic processes and many ways of electing governments. No single method electing governments is fair. At best one method may simply be slightly fairer but democracy involves choosing a government from a limited number of choices and for a period of time.
Once any government is elected and achieves control of government it becomes (usually) immovable for the term of office for which the constitution provides. In the United States that term is four years. In the United Kingdom that term is for five years, but the Prime Minister has the right to curtail the five year term at any time and seek a new election.
There are checks and balances in both constitutions but those checks and balances rely on undemocratically appointed bodies. It is very difficult for voters to curtail the power of governments once the government is elected. Voters usually have no alternative but to wait for the term to expire. Very few governments have sufficient sense of honour or ethics to quit when it is clear that the electors no longer want them.
Those politicians who operate in democracies inevitably appeal to mass taste and mass prejudices, although they try to appeal to mass beliefs and ideas. Ideas can be genuinely and sincerely held, but democracies can enact laws and introduce procedures as tyrannous as any autocracy.
An elected government does not mean that the people governed are free. When it comes to freedom there are many definitions. Franklin D Roosevelt claimed there were four freedoms, freedom of speech and expression, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear. Walt Disney added another freedom – freedom to make a lot of money, or as he expressed it differently.
I hold that there is only one freedom. That is the freedom to believe in an idea and express that idea, to communicate it. Freedom of speech must inevitably be concerned with the communication of ideas; otherwise we get bogged down in spurious arguments that freedom of speech permits you to shout “fire” in a crowded theatre.
Freedom from hunger and fear are not really freedoms at all. To be free from hunger requires those who are free from it to be charitable towards those who are not free from hunger. Freedom of worship is simply freedom to communicate ideas. Freedom from fear is not possible in a dangerous world where some are endeavouring to manipulate our behaviour and beliefs by terror and others are seeking to use the threat of terror as a means of manipulating us.
So as the Arab Spring comes into being we must be careful to understand what people want. Do they want to be free or do they want the ability to change their governments? It is possible that most people simply want to become more prosperous. There is nothing wrong with that but we must be careful not to misunderstand what people are asking for.