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.