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The apparent failure of the Egyptian Revolution makes me wonder how feasible it is to transform a dictatorship into a government that provides more freedom for its citizens in a short period of time.  Most revolutions in authoritarian nations have merely resulted in a new type of authoritarianism.  Why is this so?

There have only been a handful of “successful revolutions”, with the American Revolution normally being near the top of the list.  But why did the American Revolution succeed, where others failed?

The answer is actually simpler than one might think.  The American Revolution succeeded because most of the protections and freedoms that Americans demanded, were already won and/or expected in the English system of governance.  Moreover, the realities of the American frontier tended to naturally create more freedom from centralized governmental power.  As a result, by 1776, American colonists already had considerably greater freedom than their English counterparts.

The liberties Americans demanded in the revolution were merely the ones they already had gained, but that the English Crown unrealistically wanted to take away after the fact.  In this sense, the American Revolution wasn’t trying to create something radically new (though it seemed that way to Europe), but merely trying to preserve what was already there.  It was a revolution, but it was not “revolutionary”.

Contrast this to the French Revolution.  France had a more centralized government than Great Britain, and the French Revolution’s goal seemed to be to create a society with more liberty and equality.  Instead, it ended up with more centralized power and militarism under Napoleon.  But remember, that was basically where France started out.  The ideology changed, but many aspects of French government stayed the same.

The Russian Revolution came in a society with a high degree of authoritarianism and centralization.    Whatever one thinks of communism, at its core, the ideology behind it seemed to promote a decentralized (if completely unrealistic) society.  And yet, the end result was more authoritarianism, except under a new ideology.  Indeed, Communist ideology was merely molded to fit Russian authoritarianism, in spite of the seeming incompatibility between the two.

Maybe this says that truly radical change is rare or even impossible.  That true change is very incremental.  That freedoms can only be won slowly over time.  And that revolutions tend to only succeed when they are “preservationist” rather than “revolutionary”.  But it’s a disheartening conclusion, for how does a nation gradually win freedoms if an authoritarian regime prevents it from doing so?

What’s the Best Path to Freedom? 

If there is a “best path” to freedom, it would seem to be most dramatically showcased by Chile in the past forty years.  In 1973, the Socialist Allende government was overthrown in a military coup, led by Augusto Pinochet.  Pinochet’s first few years were marked by rampant human rights violations.

The interesting thing about Chile, however, is that free market reforms were introduced over the 80’s, and this has lead to greater demands for political and social freedoms.  Today, Chile is generally considered one of the freer nations in South America.

There might be a few other success stories around the world, but it’s difficult to think of too many that have been more dramatic than Chile.  For Chile, it was greater trade and economic liberalization that created less poverty and greater wealth.  Greater wealth then led to more demands for greater political and social freedoms.

So why have market reforms and economic liberalization tended to increase demands for other freedoms?  My thought is that this is similar to Abraham Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs“.  People living in poverty are more concerned about putting a roof over their head, feeding their family, and basic survival, then they are about political and social freedoms.   Market reforms tend to empower individuals and lead to greater wealth; and greater wealth tends to create greater demands for higher freedoms.

If there is a path from authoritarianism to freedom, it’s been most dramatically showcased to us by Chile.

Is All Hope Lost in Egypt?

I’m not sure how things will turn out in Egypt.  To be sure, the Egyptian Revolution may largely be the result of a wealthier society having greater demands for freedoms.  It’s true that Egypt has liberalized to some extent, as well, over the past few decades.

But what Egypt may be showcasing is that it’s very difficult to implement these freedoms merely by changing “the boss”.   I hope that Egypt succeeds (as well as Libya and Tunisia) in the coming decades, because it would provide a great example to the entire Middle East, but it’s not clear to me that the revolutionary path will be what provides the success.   Ultimately, freedom will likely only come with more economic liberalization and free market reforms, and it’s unclear that the current regime is dedicated to that.