In twelve recent posts, I have listed the Twelve Advantages of Democracy. Those advantages, taken together, are my answer to the Why Democracy? question. They are powerful advantages, the reasons people take to the streets and risk their lives for the blessing of living under democratic order, as currently in Iran.

There is a divide between regimes that are (more or less) democratic and those that are (more or less) autocratic. The difference is not in perfection or beauty. Democracy is often messy and always unfinished. Autocratic regimes can be impressive in strength and performance. But there is a difference for the people who live under the respective regimes.

If your country is democratic, you are

  • less at risk of tyranny
  • more likely to possess rights
  • more likely to enjoy autonomy
  • more likely to be protected by rule of law
  • more likely to experience political equality
  • more likely to handle citizenship duties
  • more likely to benefit from effective governance
  • more likely to live in an environment of prosperity
  • less at risk of suffering poverty
  • more likely to live in peace
  • more likely to experience managed disagreement
  • more likely to enjoy a culture of tolerance.

These are real, practical and tangible advantages of real democracy as we know it. There is nothing abstract or theoretical about it; this is the way things play out for real men, women, children and families in today’s world. If you live under an autocratic regime, the risks and likelihoods all fall differently. You are then more at risk of tyranny, and so on. If you have a choice, your best bet by far is democracy.

Still, the advantages are only probabilities, not certainties. Democracy does not guarantee any of it. The theoretician Alexis de Tocqueville, for example, observing American democracy in the 1830s, warned of possible “soft despotism,” a kind of tyranny under a surface of democratic forms. The Greek philosopher Aristotle warned, as have many others, of the danger of mob rule. In his city of Athens, the world’s first democracy only lasted about two hundred years.

Today’s democracies are not always impressive. In Britain, the home of the Westminster Model, rather than effective governance we are in a long run of misrule. In the United States, the home of the American Constitution, the ability to managed disagreement and tolerance is going lost.

None of that negates the advantages of democracy. It only suggests that we are not alert enough to what democracy does for us to stand guard over the democracies we have. If we allow them to wither, as in Athens, we will soon enough know what we have lost.

For more detailed analysis, see How Democracies Live.


The twelfth advantage of democracy: tolerance of imperfection. The case for democracy is not perfection. It is more modest: democracy is likely to be the better form of rule for most people. To be democratic is to accept the imperfect. It is because we humans and our communities are messy that we need the cumbersome democratic way of managing our affairs. The tolerance of imperfection is an extension of people’s tolerance of each other. Democracy is never finished but always in the making, and will so forever remain. The vibrant democracy is not the finished one, but the one in which shortcomings are acknowledged and the imperative of continuous reform recognised. Only dictatorships can aspire to perfection. The philosopher Karl Popper, in The Open Society and its Enemies, argued that it is the idea of perfection that causes ideologically determined regimes to go tyrannical, since the next logical step after certainty is that ends justify means. Democracy is built on tolerance, on the recognition, in the words of Immanuel Kant (as paraphrased by Isaiah Berlin) that “out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made.” That which gives the spirit of democracy its majesty, is tolerance of the imperfect in the human condition.

For more detailed analysis, see How Democracies Live.


The eleventh advantage of democracy: management of disagreement. Democracy is, among other things, a way of living with disagreement without repression and of forging cooperation out of conflict.

In autocratic systems, the social good is defined from above and a duty of obedience is imposed downwards. Autocratic governance depends on a pretence of agreement and therefore the repression of disagreement.

Democratic governance is grounded in an acceptance of disagreement and an ideal of cooperation without repression. To get on in society, we need agreed upon (more or less) goals and procedures on many matters, some of which are controversial. There is no such thing as a public policy that is the preferred policy of everyone, and there is no such thing as a public policy that does not come with costs to someone. In a democracy, ideally, everyone is entitled to state their views and fight for their interests. At some point, however, a shared position needs to be found somewhere in the landscape of disagreement. That can be done democratically, for example by voting in a national assembly, or in a general election or a referendum. Some citizens will unavoidably be disappointed in what becomes the shared position, since it will not be their preferred position. The ingenuity of democracy is that since everyone has had a say in the process leading up to joint decisions, or the opportunity thereto, there is a good chance that everyone should be able to, even if grudgingly, accept the outcome, even when it is not their preferred outcome.

Some thinkers have taken the impossibility of agreement to be an argument against democracy – how can public policies reflect the will of citizens if citizens cannot agree? But that is logic turned upside down. It is because of the impossibility of agreement that we need democratic ways to find acceptable policies. If we could just add what each of us prefer into a single best choice, we could leave public policy to computer programmers. But, as the political theorist Albert Weale has shown, there is no such thing as “the will of the people.” We will different things and the quest for the true will is futile. The political tug-of-war is not to find out what the people want, but to find a reasonable balance of opinion in the many things people want. In democracies we do not agree, we muddle through with the help of acceptable compromises.

For more detailed analysis, see How Democracies Live.

On democracy and obedience, see Nation of Devils.


The tenth advantage of democracy: peace. Democratic countries do not fight wars against each other. This is true today, was true in all of the twentieth century, and was true in the nineteenth century in that countries with then democracy-like institutions did not fight each other. A more democratic world would promise to be also a more peaceful world.

The observation that countries in which governments are under some form of popular check are less likely to be warring, was first made by the German philosopher Immanuel Kant in a publication of 1795 entitled Zum ewigen Frieden (Perpetual Peace). Here he not only proposed the equivalent of a UN Charter in which countries commit themselves to peaceful coexistence. He also recommended that countries should adopt republican constitutions since that would make them less prone to war.

The peaceful inclination in democratic governments is due partly to the distribution of power in the population. Since the glories of war accrue mainly to élites and the costs of war fall disproportionately on the populace, élites may incline more to war where they are not answerable to the populace and be more restrained from war where they are under popular control. Other reasons may be that democratic leaders and citizens learn the art of compromise, that they see people in other democratic countries as similar to themselves, and that their communality encourages a habit of peaceful negotiations and treaties.

The danger of war under non-democratic government is currently in evidence in Russia and China. Once Putin had dictatorial control at home, he felt able to go to war against Ukraine. Xi Jinping has ratcheted up war rhetoric against Taiwan (and annexed territory in the South China Sea) as as he has tightened his dictatorial grip in the mainland and Hong Kong.

A qualification: Democratic countries have not in the same way been able or willing to avoid war with non-democratic countries. They have fought wars of more or less defence against non-democratic aggressors, as in the Second World War. But they have also fought wars of aggression in self-interest, as for example the many and violent colonial wars that for example Britain and France engaged in during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, including Britain’s atrocious Opium Wars of state sponsored drug running against China.

For more detailed analysis, see How Democracies Live.


The ninth advantage of democracy: poverty. In a democratic system, there is less risk than otherwise of citizens being left behind in poverty. There are two reasons. First, the country is more likely to be prosperous, and with more prosperity there is likely to be less poverty. Second, it is more likely that there are antipoverty policies in place. The reason for that is that even the poor have a share of political power. Competing political parties and élites need the votes of the poor, as they need other votes, and must therefore to some degree satisfy the interests and demands of the poor and those in risk of poverty. If you have the vote, someone in government is likely to take an interest in you. If you have the right to stand up for your interests, you are less at risk of your interests being disregarded.

For more detailed analysis, see How Democracies Live.

On democracy and redistribution, see The Possibility of Politics and What Democracy is For.


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.


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.


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.


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?


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.