Lessons in the power of democracy

The global experiment in expanding freedom isn’t over. What does the world need to learn? One idea that’s surfacing: the importance of responsibility.

Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters
Commuters navigate a Tokyo railway station on July 3, 2020. Japan’s collective spirit fuels widespread adoption of pandemic precautions.

It is safe to say that 250 years ago, the world needed to learn a lot about freedom. New ideas were already percolating among Enlightenment thinkers. Yes, a monarchy could maintain order. But was it the best humans could do? Could societies be built on individual liberties, or would that unleash chaos? 

Today, that answer is largely settled. Democratic experiments from America to New Zealand have proved that functioning societies can be built on individual liberties. Not only do they not inevitably descend into chaos, but they are also much better at expanding wealth and human rights.

So what does the world need to learn today? Certainly, the global experiment in expanding freedom isn’t over – it will never be over. And there isn’t just one answer to the question. But one idea is coming to the surface for deeper consideration: Call it responsibility.

Across much of the world, the response to the pandemic has been characterized by something less than resounding success. Europe drove down cases, but they are spiking again. The United States has followed the same trajectory with worse results. But one part of the world stands out. Not only have Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan significantly stopped the spread of the pandemic, but “bars and restaurants are bustling, subway trains are packed and live concerts and spectator sports have resumed,” notes a recent Wall Street Journal article.

Why has Asia been more successful? In a word: sacrifice. Francesco Wu, an Italian Chinese restaurant owner who grew up in Italy, tells the Journal: “Here we are used to having so many liberties – and that’s a great thing. But we are not as used to discipline, to self-sacrifice.”

Governments in Japan and South Korea have not forced citizens to give up liberties. Rather, they are carrying out the collective will of the people. Citizens have voluntarily curbed their own individual liberties – have used them – in service to a larger goal. And it has worked.

This points to larger lessons. Take the West’s face-off with China. The challenge of China – like the Soviet Union before it – is not really the threat of communism. China is not truly communist anymore. The challenge is whether collectivism can defeat individualism. China is showing the power of collective action through its pseudo-communist free-market hybrid. It can act more decisively and more strategically because it does not need to worry about individual liberties.

But China’s collective action is compelled. Asia’s pandemic response shows the power of collective action when it is an expression of genuine unity, gained through mutual responsibility, love, and self-sacrifice. In seminal books like “Bowling Alone” and “Our Kids,” sociologist Robert Putnam has demonstrated that the same principle has enriched the United States. He outlines the tremendous power of social capital – of what happens when people invest in their neighbors and communities.

Expanding those circles is democracy’s next challenge. And that hidden power is always waiting to be unleashed. As author Marilynne Robinson said in The New York Review, “the basis of democracy is the willingness to assume well about other people.”

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