WHY DEMOCRACY? EIGHTH ADVANTAGE

The eighth advantage of democracy: prosperity. Democracies are prosperous countries and prosperous countries are democracies. In Europe, the progress in prosperity under democratic stewardship after the Second World War was simply monumental and beyond anything anyone could have imagined at the beginning of the period. No similar progress occurred for any population on the other side of the Iron Curtain. More recently, democratisation has been followed by increasing prosperity in Spain, Portugal, Greece, and in the countries of Central Europe.

China is sometimes thought of as the great economic success story of our time. But that is a myth. China’s economy is very big and China therefore has much clout, but that bigness is blinding and tends to be confused for performance. China’s economic growth has been typical and not exceptional by the standards of East Asia and its modernisation all considered, including in social and political terms, has fallen way short of that of neighbouring Japan, South Korea and Taiwan.

Are democratic countries prosperous because of democracy? We cannot say for certain, but there are good reasons to think that democracy is conducive to prosperity. In some cases, the time sequence is in favour of this hypothesis. The new democracies in Europe have grown to prosperity after they became democracies. South Korea and Taiwan took off in development under autocratic regimes but went on to grow economically to the level of high-income after having transformed politically to democracy, possibly avoiding “the middle income trap” thanks to the good luck of modernising politically in time. That is a strong hypothesis because democracy makes for a society of open information and exchange, which again is the fuel of entrepreneurship and productivity.

Some of the reasons we should expect democracy to encourage prosperity are the following: Citizens are more likely to feel secure under regimes of protection and predictability and therefore more confident in enterprise. They have freedom of movement and can follow the productivity in labour markets, and, again, free access to information and deliberation. They are more likely to have the protection of safety-nets to fall back on and therefore more able to take on economic risk. There is rule of law, including property and employment law, and therefore more security in job and enterprise and less susceptibility to corruption and gangster rule. Governance is more likely to be effective and therefore more likely to deliver infrastructural and other forms of support. Democratic polities co-exist with market economies and market economies have proved to be more efficient than command or monopolistic economies.

For more detailed analysis, see How Democracies Live.

On China’s economy, see The Perfect Dictatorship.

On South Korea’s transition to democracy and prosperity, see The Korean State and Social Policy.

WHY DEMOCRACY? SEVENTH ADVANTAGE

The seventh advantage of democracy: effectiveness. Strangely enough, and sometimes contrary to appearances, democratic government is generally the more effective government. One might think autocratic governments have the advantage that they can just get on with things without having to face dissatisfied NIMBY citizens (NIMBY: not-in-my-back-yard) or succumb to the short-termism of the next election. But democratic governments have effectiveness advantages of their own. They have an interest in delivery since citizens hold power over them. Autocratic governments may be able to get on with it, but that assumes that they are intent to deliver for citizens in the first place. Why should we assume that they are, when they are not under the pressure of people power? Democratic ones have it going for them of ruling by consent. That is helpful for them to get their policies accepted, since they are policies agreed upon through due process. And they have it going for them that they are meritocratic. Position is attained through competition. Political competition works out so that less motivated and qualified candidates do not prevail. Citizens can thereby have some confidence in their representatives and the policies they enact. To be sure, it does not always work out in real competitions that that the most qualified candidates win. Sometimes, far from it, often because the competition has been corrupted. But often, elected representatives are probably better at their jobs than critical citizens are prone to acknowledging. In autocratic systems, political position is attained by selection from above. Here, the most important qualification is usually obedience upwards and trustworthiness in the maintenance of autocracy.    

The best available evidence on effectiveness in government is in the World Bank’s “Worldwide Governance Indicators.” The highest scores are for the countries of North America, Western Europe and Oceania, all democracies. There are no non-democracies in the top range of this indicator (with the exception of the city-state of Singapore). In East Asia, the high-scoring countries are Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, while China, the darling of democracy’s detractors, is in the middle range, in a group of countries that includes, for example, India, Kazakhstan, South Africa, Argentina and Mexico. The other indicators in the World Bank’s analysis are “voice and accountability, political stability and absence of violence, regulatory quality, rule of law, control of corruption.” There is a high level of correlation between these indicators and government effectiveness, suggesting that it is the institutional solidity which is a feature of democratic systems that gives these systems the edge in effectiveness.

For more detailed analysis, see How Democracies Live.

On redistribution and disincentives, see The Possibility of Politics.

WHY DEMOCRACY? SIXTH ADVANTAGE

The sixth advantage of democracy: citizenship. With rights come responsibilities, such as the duty to respect the rights of others. There is no freedom for me that does not acknowledge your freedom. Your right to promote your interests is tempered by your duty to accept that I have equally valid interests. Democratic citizens have a duty to contribute some participation to the polity, to make themselves informed and to make their views and interests known. They are expected to participate in elections (although in most democracies this duty is moral rather than legal), and obliged to (reasonably) oblige their governments. In democracy, duties are the flip-side of rights. In autocracy, there is the servitude of duties without rights. It is the dialectic of rights and duties that makes for grown-up citizenship.

For more detailed analysis, see How Democracies Live.

On democracy and obedience, see Nation of Devils.

WHY DEMOCRACY? FIFTH ADVANTAGE

The fifth advantage of democracy: equality. At the ballot box, every citizen is equal: rich and poor, capitalist and worker, black and white, man and woman. Each has a vote, and no more influence than sits in the vote, and all votes count the same. Then and there, for a moment, power is equalised. The logic of equality is commanding. To the degree that there is political equality, the agenda of public policy is likely to reflect the balance of opinion and of interests in citizenry. To the degree there is political inequality, special interests will be able to distort the agenda of public policy.

But there is an uneasy coexistence of political equality and economic inequality. Near to a century ago, Justice Louis Brandies of the United States Supreme Court warned, dramatically: “We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.” That was at a time of economic crisis combined with extremes of inequality in wealth, much as our own time. But it turned out he was wrong. Democracy in America survived, much thanks to political responses in the policies of the New Deal to excesses of economic inequality. Economic inequality is a strong force in society, but so is political equality.

Could economic inequality reduce political equality to irrelevance? It would seem that the answer in the first instance is, no. Where democracy is established and has taken hold, the fact of economic inequality does not in itself turn political equality into an empty shell of formality. There are still equal rights and equality before the law. However, it would also seem that economic inequality combined with other conditions could make political equality redundant. In an elegant book on economics and politics titled Equality and Efficiency: The Big Tradeoff, published in 1975, the economist Arthur Okun gave the relevant condition the name of “transgression.” Economic inequality is not necessarily a threat to political equality by its mere existence, but becomes a threat if economic power is allowed to transgress from markets into politics.

The crude mechanism of transgression is corruption. If money is allowed to buy policies, political equality is reduced to a pretence. The sophisticated mechanism of transgression, however, is to use economic power to usurp political power in ways that may not be technically corrupt or illegal but which nevertheless destroy the impact of political equality. The increasing sway of private money in American politics is of this kind.

For more detailed analysis, see How Democracies Live.

On democracy and equality/inequality, see What Democracy Is For.

On the danger to democracy in America, see Is American Democracy Headed for Extinction?

WHY DEMOCRACY? FOURTH ADVANTAGE

The fourth advantage of democracy: rule of law. In democracies, the law prevails. Governments cannot do what is not authorised in law. Retribution cannot be brought down upon citizens that is not sanctioned in known law and managed through due process. People do not live in fear that someone will come knocking in the night and take them away. Property has legal protection and cannot be expropriated except by due process and with compensation. Contract is regulated by law. Public policy, policing, surveillance, land management, punishment – none of these are at the discretion of the governors. Citizens have protection and predictability in life and business. In short, there is rule of law.

Under autocracy, the rulers are above the law, not the law above the rulers. There may be rule by law, but not rule of law. One reason a regime needs to be autocratic is that it cannot prevail with rule of law.  

Rule of law is not impossible in political systems that are not democratic. Hong Kong has until recently benefitted from a rule of law regime, including with an independent judiciary and freedoms of speech, information and assembly. That, however, proved intolerable to the autocrats in Beijing. Since Hong Kong liberties were not embedded in robust democratic institutions, they could be wiped out the moment the men in Beijing decided to take control. But rule of law without democracy, if not impossible, it is very unlikely and unlikely to prevail. Democracy without rule of law, on the other hand, is not possible.

For more detailed analysis, see How Democracies Live.

On China and Hong Kong, see The Perfect Dictatorship.

On democratic quality, see What Democracy Is For.

WHY DEMOCRACY? THIRD ADVANTAGE

The third advantage of democracy: autonomy. Democracy is premised on liberty. Autocratic regimes may allow people a good deal of choice in their daily lives (as can be seen in the case of China’s autocracy), but they cannot allow them the autonomy of political liberty, basic human rights, free access to information and the freedom of assembly. Autocracy denies people these freedoms because they may use them to form networks or associations that may enable them to stand up to the dictators. What democracy allows is finally the social existence of the autonomous citizen.

This is well known to heroic women and men who stand up to autocracy. The Chinese activist for human rights and democracy, and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, Liu Xiaobo, died in prison on the 13th of July 2017, eight years into an eleven-year term. Not only a campaigner, he was also a formidable philosopher and ethicist. He knew more about freedom and its absence than most and his fight was obviously for the end of coercion. But in his philosophy, freedom was never about that alone. What makes freedom valuable, he argued, is that it enables the individual to aspire to that which has value, and that value in life is found in truth, civic responsibility and human dignity. Remarkably, for a man rotting alone in a Chinese prison, he was able to think of liberty as a necessary condition for a decent life, but not more than that, not the be-all and end-all of the alternative system to the one that was oppressing him and others.

For more detailed analysis, see How Democracies Live.

On autocracy in China, see The Perfect Dictatorship.

WHY DEMOCRACY? SECOND ADVANTAGE

The second advantage of democracy: rights. What enables the people to control their governments, is that they have rights. Under democratic constitutions, citizens have the right to life, the right to speak, the right of assembly, the right to discuss, the right to information, the right to criticise, the right to worship (or not to worship), the right to publish, the right to property, the right to fair trial, the right to vote. Furthermore, democratic constitutions impose on the state a duty to respect the rights of citizens and to maintain institutions dedicated to their protection, such as an independent judiciary. If a constitution does not enshrine basic rights and ensure institutions for their maintenance, it is not democratic. Under autocracy, governments have rights, not people, or at least power from above trumps rights from below.

For more detailed analysis, see How Democracies Live.

On the absence of rights under autocracy, see The Truth About China.

WHY DEMOCRACY? FIRST ADVANTAGE

Democracy has proved to come with striking advantages (for most people) compared to any known alternative form of government. The answer to the why-question is found in the identification of those advantages.

The first advantage of democracy: avoidance of tyranny. Writes Robert H. Dahl (in On Democracy): “Perhaps the most fundamental and persistent problem in politics is to avoid autocratic rule.” That tyranny is an endemic danger in government is abundantly clear from history, including the recent history of the twentieth century, and clear enough today when we look to, for example, China or Russia or Saudi Arabia. In all autocratic systems – absolutist monarchies, aristocracies, oligarchies, outright dictatorships – there is an overwhelming risk of tyranny.

In democracies, the combination of government above and safety below is possible. It’s ingenious: we get both protection and protection from the protectors. We can allow our governments to rule because we are not at their mercy.

Governments hold vast powers. Power corrupts. Government for the people will only happen if government power is under popular control. Without control, government becomes tyrannical. Look to Putin’s Russia. Controls from below undermined, resulting in tyranny from above. Benevolent autocracy is a myth.

For more detailed analysis, see How Democracies Live.

On the backslide to tyranny in Russia, see Putin Has Turned Russia into an Unapologetic Autocracy.

On tyranny, see The Perfect Dictatorship.

NEW ThatsDemocracy.com

This is to announce the return of ThatsDemocracy.com

I have just published How Democracies Live (Chicago University Press). I will draw on the book to discuss the whys and hows of democratic government.

In a series of initial posts, I will seek to answer the question “why democracy?” There are better ways, it is being suggested. Democracy is a mess. We need to take the detractors seriously and answer the why-question in some detail.

We who believe in democracy must speak in its defence. We should encourage confidence, reform and better democratic quality. That, briefly, is the mission of this blog.

We have seen the unthinkable: an attempted coup d’état against the democratic order in America. In China, the crackdown on liberty is hardening by the day. In Europe, Russia is waging a barbaric war on a people’s right to live in freedom. Be in no doubt, democracy is under attack.

ALL BRITONS SHOULD GET A VOTE IN A NEW SCOTS REFERENDUM

First published in The Times.

Does Scotland have a right to exit the United Kingdom? The founding text on the matter of secession is the American Declaration of Independence. Here it is stated “that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient Causes” and that the “Right to throw off such Government” arises as a result of “Abuses and Usurpations [and] a Design to reduce them under absolute Despotism.”

Does British rule over Scotland amount to abuses, usurpations or despotism? Not by any stretch of imagination, nor is anyone making such a claim. Scotland enjoys democratic rule on a line with the rest of the United Kingdom and also enjoys extensive devolved government. Some in Scotland may not like the British government and its policies, and may have good reasons for disliking it, but in terms of secession that amounts to no more than light and transient causes.

If we go by the principles of the American Declaration of Independence, then, Scotland does not have a unilateral right to secede from the United Kingdom.

However, there may be arguments in favour of Scottish independence. But if that were to prevail, it would have to be by agreement with the rest of the United Kingdom. That was accepted ahead of the first referendum when the right to hold the referendum was given by Parliament.

If Scottish politicians should be successful in their demand for a second referendum, the final question is who should participate in such a referendum? If there had been a unilateral right of secession, that would be the Scottish people.

But as no unilateral right exists, it cannot be up to Scotland alone. A basic democratic principle is that those who are affected by a decision have a right of say in the decision. A basic limitation of liberty is that you cannot do on your own what is to other people’s damage. If Scotland were to leave the Union, that would affect not only the Scots but also other Brits, who might well see the reduction of the Union as damaging the themselves.

If we go by basic principles of democracy and liberty, then, again in the absence of abuses and the like, no minority within a Union can claim a right on their own to change the constitution that affects everyone else. The democratic answer would be that the right to vote in such a referendum would be for not only the people of Scotland but for all the people of the United Kingdom.