There is such a thing as the free world where citizens enjoy liberty, rule of law, and mutual trust. That world is now adrift in self-doubt. Democracies need to come together in defense of liberty, but they are not finding their voice. The European Union should lead but is divided and unable. America should lead but is retreating into narrow self-interest. The energy is on the side of assertive autocracy. That needs to be confronted, but who will do it?

First published in the Los Angeles Times. Read the article here.


British political thinking (or more likely English, as so often when something is said to be British) will have it that governments need to be strong in order to deliver. They must have a solid base and autonomy of action, and they must be in charge. It is the strength they have behind them that determines what they can get done.

Because of this prevailing view, Britain holds on to an election system in parliamentary elections – first-past-the-post in single representative constituencies – that is likely to preserve a near-to two party system and to produce a majority in Parliament behind one of the two major parties although none of them are likely to obtain a majority of votes. Smaller and aspiring parties call for a change in the election system towards proportional representation, but that is consistently blocked by agreement of the major parties. They obviously want to stick with what is to their advantage, but they justify that with the argument that the present system makes for governments that are able to govern.

Furthermore, because of the same prevailing view, British parliamentary democracy has been set up to work by rules that give the government control of Parliament’s agenda. It may sound strange to non-Brits, but in a system in which the sovereignty of Parliament is the Holy Grail, that sovereign Parliament is not in charge of its own agenda. The Leader of the House is a member of the Prime Minister’s cabinet and in charge of arranging work in Parliament according to the expediency of the government. The defence of this odd arrangement is that the government, to be able to deliver, must be free to get on with its business without having to deviate according to the whims of a Parliament that might decide on other priorities.

Other democracies work differently. In many of them, coalition or minority governments are the norm. Some, such as Germany and the United States, have detailed constitutional designs of checks-and-balances that deny their governments the autonomy that in the British view is essential. If we look to the record of effectiveness in different systems, it does not seem, to put it carefully, that Britain stands out in any advantageous way or that governments in muddled (through British eyes) systems do worse in delivery. Comparing the effectiveness of governance in Germany and Britain, for example, it’s clearly Germany One, Britain Nil.

But that does not sway the prevailing view in Britain that remains wedded to the theory that government delivery depends on government strength.

That theory may seem to get some support from other quarters. Today, many see dictatorial China as a system that has the edge in ability to deliver, and the Chinese leaders are not shy in promoting their brand of authoritarianism as superior to dithering democracy. Strong-man autocracy is making itself attractive not only in China but also in, for example, Russia, Turkey, and some of the new democracies in Europe where democratic culture is so far not strongly entrenched, such as in Hungary, the Czech Republic and Poland. In America, President Trump gives the impression of looking to his Chinese and Russian colleagues, Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin, with a mixture of admiration and envy.

Here again, the record does not give much support to the theory of government strength. The best evidence is in the World Bank’s “Worldwide Governance Indicators,” of which include “government effectiveness.” 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. In East Asia, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan all have high scores for government effectiveness, 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 reason the evidence is not in support of the theory of strength is that what matters for effectiveness in government, once a government is in position, is not how much force it has behind it but how it is able to deal with those who stand in front of it and on whose obedience and acquiescence it depends, from its own officials, via organisations of business and civil society, to the mass of ordinary citizens. It comes down not to muscle but to behaviour.

In Britain, we would be better off obeying evidence that theoretical doctrine. That should lead us to constitutional reform. British parliamentary democracy, contrary to the English illusion, does not do well in delivering for us. Such reform should include, first, new working arrangements in Parliament to give Parliament control of its own agenda, and second, a new election system of proportional representation.



(This is the final post for now under the WHY DEMOCRACY heading. To friends who follow this blog: all good wishes for the holidays and the New Year.)

Ideally, democratic governance is fair and effective and conducive to equality and human dignity. In fact, however, real democracies are always imperfect and fall short of the blueprint of ideal democracy. There are degrees of democracy, and some democracies are not very democratic at all. Democratic governance may sometimes feel tyrannical – the tyranny of the majority is a real predicament – theoretical rights are not always fully operational, freedoms get curtailed and the rule of law manipulated, and there are many shortcomings in equality and citizenship. Democratic governance can be frustratingly ineffective, prosperity may not be advancing or poverty retracting. Democracy is not incompatible with international aggression, nor with domestic repression. It does not always present itself to citizens as a recipe for dignity.

The claim for democracy, however, is not perfection. It is more modest: democracy is likely to be the better form of rule for most people since it has a range of advantages over any attainable alternative.

The unavoidable imperfection of democracy is itself a core principle in democratic thinking. There is no such thing as the perfect or ideal democracy. Democratic forms and practices differ from country to country, depending on historical experiences and contemporary circumstances. Democracy is never finished but always in the making, and will so forever remain. There may be forms of democracy not yet invented. The vibrant democracy is not the finished one, but the one in which shortcomings are acknowledged and the imperative of continuous betterment and reform recognised.

Only dictatorships can aspire to perfection. The philosopher Karl Popper, in The Open Society and its Enemies, argued that the idea of perfection is itself dictatorial, since the next logical step is then that ends justify means. Democracy is built on tolerance, of human differences and disagreements first of all. But also on the quirky shortcomings of the human animal and how we humans are honed from, in the words of the philosopher Isaiah Berlin, “the crooked timber of humanity.” That which gives the spirit of democracy its majesty, is tolerance of the imperfect in the human condition.


People have different interests and different outlooks. Conflict and disagreement is the normal state of affairs in social life. Democracy is, among other things, a way of managing disagreement and forging cooperation out of conflict.

In autocratic systems, the social good is defined from above and people have a duty of obedience to the ways and means that are imposed upon them. 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 goals and procedures on many matters, some of which are controversial, say the always contested business of taxation. 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 a cost to someone. In a democracy, ideally, everyone is entitled to state their views and to defend their interests vigorously. 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 debate and procedure leading up to joint decisions, or the opportunity thereto, everyone should be able to accept the outcome, even when it is not their preferred outcome. The access to discussion and deliberation is conducive to willing collaboration.

When this works, on the one hand society is able to get on with it and move forward, and on the other hand no one has been trampled on and humiliated. Democracy, then, is a method for peaceful resolution of conflict and for collaboration with dignity.


In today’s world, democracies are prosperous countries and prosperous countries are democracies. The established democratic countries of North America, Western Europe and Oceania are also the most democratic countries. In Europe, recent democratisation has been followed by increasing prosperity in Spain, Portugal, Greece and the countries of Central Europe. In Latin America, the democratic exceptions (until recently) of Costa Rica and Uruguay are also the region’s most prosperous countries. In Africa, Botswana is the most successful country both democratically and economically. In East Asia, it is the democratic countries of Japan, South Korea and Taiwan that have risen to the level of high-income countries.

The significant exception is India. Although economic growth is now very strong, India remains a democracy with widespread and oppressive poverty. It is a country that should have done better in prosperity. But within India, the rule still applies. Kerala is the leading state in both democracy and prosperity.

China is sometimes thought of as the great economic success story of our time. But except for the bigness of the economy, and its therefore clout in the world, China’s economic performance falls short of the standard in the region set by neighbouring Japan, South Korea and Taiwan.

Are democratic countries prosperous because of democracy? We cannot say for certain, it could be the other way around. But there are good reasons to think that democracy is conducive to prosperity. In some cases, the 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.

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 free access to information and deliberation and are therefore better positioned to entrepreneurship. 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 contract law, and therefore more security in enterprise and occupation 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.

Autocracy with prosperity is not inconceivable. The Chinese party-state defends autocracy with the claim that it is delivering prosperity for the population. There has been impressive economic growth in recent decades. However, what has been delivered so far is elevation to a level of middle-income. The promise of prosperity depends on China escaping the middle-income trap, which is yet to be seen. Furthermore, the party-state promises people prosperity on the condition that they surrender their freedom. Only democracy holds up the audacious promise of both prosperity and freedom.


In my experience, the most common judgement to democracy’s disadvantage is that autocracies deliver while democracies dither. That, however, is a myth which does not square with experience. Generally, democratic government is not only more fair but also more effective.

One might think autocratic governments have the advantage that they can just get on with it without having to face dissatisfied and possibly organising NIMBY citizens (NIMBY: not-in-my-back-yard) or succumb to the short-termism of pandering to the next election. The delivery of, for example, high speed rail and new airports and city subway networks in China in recent years is evidence of that advantage.

But democratic governments have advantages of their own over autocratic ones. Firstly, they have an interest in delivery since citizens hold power over them. Autocratic governments might possibly be able to get on with it, but that assumes that they are intent to deliver for citizens in the first place. Secondly, democratic governments have the advantage of ruling by consent, whereby they may tend to get their policies accepted, since they are policies agreed upon through reasonably fair process. The experience of effective rule in for example, Northern Europe and Scandinavia is evidence of these advantages.

And they have a third advantage: they are meritocratic. Political position is attained through intense competition. In representative democracies, citizens, in theory, elect representatives who are more qualified than themselves to govern. Political competition works out so that more qualified and motivated candidates prevail. Citizens can thereby have some confidence in their representatives and the policies they enact.

Of course, it does not always work out in real competitions that that the most qualified candidates win. Sometimes, far from it. But generally, elected representatives are probably better at their jobs than critical citizens are prone to granting them. 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 evidence on effectiveness in government is in the World Bank’s “Worldwide Governance Indicators,” with “government effectiveness” a main indicator. 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. In East Asia, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan all have high scores for government effectiveness, while China, the darling of democracy’s detractors, is in the middle range, in a group of countries including also, for example, India, Kazakhstan, South Africa, Argentina and Mexico.

The other main indicators in the project 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.

We are right today to be concerned about democratic delivery. We are in the aftermath of the most dramatic economic crash since 1929, with extremes of economic inequality and social polarisation in democratic-capitalist countries. Social groups that are on the losing side of globalisation have rather experienced abandonment than protection. However, the lesson from experience and evidence is solidly that more effective government is to be found in better democracy, not less democracy.


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 law and managed through due process. Basic rights have statutory protection. Private 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 and property management, punishment – none of these are at the discretion of governments. Citizens have protection and predictability in life and business.

Furthermore, rights and regulations are effective. There are institutional arrangements that secure that the law prevails and that not even governments and ministers are above the law. Primary among these arrangements is an independent judiciary.

In short, there is rule of law.

Autocratic governance can be regulated by law. In China, the most sophisticated autocracy ever invented, both public policy and civil life have in recent years been increasingly regulated by law. That is an improvement for citizens in that there is less unpredictability. But in this and other autocratic systems, what results is at best rule by law, not rule of law. None of the criteria I have listed above apply. Under autocracy, the rulers are above the law, not the law above the rulers. The 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, or very imperfectly democratic. Hong Kong is in one meaning a city state which is not governed democratically but which has still (recently) benefitted from a rule of law regime, including with an independent judiciary. This regime has come under stress after Hong Kong was reintegrated into the People’s Republic of China, but continues to prevail reasonably well.

However, while rule of law without democracy is not impossible, it is very unlikely. Democracy without rule of law, on the other hand, is not possible.