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.


At the ballot box, every citizen is equal: rich and poor, capitalist and worker, 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. It is when citizens are equal politically that a system can be democratic. To the degree that there is political equality, the political agenda reflects the balance of opinion and of interests in citizenry. To the degree there is political inequality, special interests will distort the agenda.

Political equality coexists with economic and other forms of inequality. Away from the ballot box, the rich and the poor are all but equal, nor are the capitalist and worker or men and women. The professor who has a reputation to lean on, the ability to write persuasively and access to space in high-minded newspapers or websites, has more influence than the immigrant who is just passably literate in his adopted language. Once you step out of the voting station, you step back into a land of unequal power.

But the fact of manifold inequalities, even rampant inequalities, does not mean that there is no political equality. In free and fair elections, there is equality of opportunity and impact. Under a democratic constitution, people have equal rights (if not necessarily equal ability to make use of rights). Under the rule of law, people are equal before the law (if not necessarily equal in their ability to work the law to their advantage).

The situation of the humble citizen is vastly different in any democratic system from any autocratic system.

The coexistence of political equality and other inequalities is unavoidably uneasy. Near to a century ago, Justice Louis Brandies of the United States Supreme Court warned: “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. But he was wrong. Democracy in America survived, possibly because of 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 root, the fact of economic inequality does not in itself turn political equality into an empty shell of formality. However, it would also seem that a high level of 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 conditions the name of “transgression.” Economic inequality is not a threat to political equality by its mere existence but becomes a threat if economic power is allowed to transgress from markets, where it has a role, to politics, where it by democratic principles should have no part.

The crude mechanism of transgression is corruption. If money is allowed to buy public policy, political equality is reduced to a pretence. A contributing cause to democracy not taking hold in Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union is entrenched corruption.

The sophisticated mechanism of transgression 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 in recent years is of this kind. Politics have become mega-expensive – actually have deliberately been made mega-expensive for the purpose of making money the ultimate political resource. Candidates and representatives cannot (mostly) hope to win or retain office without raising large amounts of money from sponsors and have thereby become more beholden to the givers of money. Sponsors are now organised in PACs, super-PACs and otherwise and are increasingly able to decide who will be elected – those the money is willing to sponsor – and what policies they can promote and support when elected – those that are acceptable to the money. Furthermore, monied interests have added organisational power to their already formidable economic power and have become able to more decisively dominate language, agendas and discourse.

President Barack Obama used his final State of the Union Address in January 2016 to warn against “democracy grinding to a halt.” In Washington, he explained, elected representatives are “trapped” by the “imperative” of raising money, which pulls everyone into the “rancor” of having to outshout each other. “Democracy breaks down when the average person feels their voice doesn’t matter; that the system is rigged in favor of the rich or the powerful or some special interest. Too many Americans feel that way right now.”


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.


With democratic rights comes liberty. People have the right to live their lives as they wish (with due consideration to the rights of others) and the right to have their liberty protected.

The liberty that comes from a regime of rights goes broader than to freedom from coercion. That is basic, but rights also ensure the opportunity to deliberate rationally on the purpose of liberty.

Autocratic regimes may allow people a good deal of choice in their daily lives. From my study of the Chinese political system, The Perfect Dictatorship: “Many Chinese, notably in the urban population and its middle and upper strata, can live distinctly modern lives. They have property and are home owners and consumers. They have household appliances and flat-screen TVs. They have smartphones, computers and internet access with a great deal of content. They travel the country and the world. They go to other cities on fast trains. Those lower on the ladder can aspire to move up.”

But they cannot allow them autonomy. The people I describe in that paragraph may have joined the world of modern consumerism but not that of modern autonomy.

What is lacking under autocracy is, firstly, political liberty and basic human rights. But then, secondly, free access to information. This is because of censorship, control of the press and internet, and propaganda. Under autocratic rule, people are denied the opportunity to search freely for relevant information and make themselves reliably informed about their society, the world they live in and their own place in it.

And lacking, thirdly, is the freedom of assembly and hence of political deliberation. Autocracy denies people that freedom because they may use it to form networks or organisations that may enable them to stand up to their dictators.

What democracy allows, then, and autocracy refuses, is finally the opportunity for citizens to work on understanding themselves and their social condition by seeking freely for information and to improve their understanding of politics and society through free and critical deliberation with their fellows. They may have some freedom of choice in their daily lives but they are denied the social existence of the autonomous citizen.

Those of us who live under democratic regimes enjoy the freedom of information and assembly and perhaps take it for granted as obvious. The Chinese example perfectly confirms the logic of autocracy in this respect.


What enables the people to control the government, is that they have rights. Under democratic constitutions, citizens have rights: 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 governments a duty to respect the basic rights of citizens, to protect those rights, and to maintain institutions dedicated and empowered to upholding citizens’ rights, such as an independent judiciary.

If a constitution does not enshrine basic rights and ensure institutions for their maintenance, it is not democratic. If it is democratic, it enshrines the protection of rights. Democratic rule is premised on a system of rights and is impossible without that grounding.

In non-democratic systems, people do not have a similar array of rights. Here, governments rule without the consent of the people and therefore, necessarily, in fear of the people. Such governments rule not for the people but usually for themselves or for the benefit of a minority or an élite. Autocratic governments cannot allow the people basic rights because that would give them the tools to challenge the governments’ right to rule. Under autocracy, it is governments that have rights, not people. A non-democratic constitution that effectively awards citizens basic rights is an impossibility.

Nor does any such constitution or political system exist. Non-democratic systems can be more or less hard but they all, by definition and necessity, deny citizens basic rights.


(I will issue 12 post under this heading over the next days – inspired by a list compiled previously by Professor Robert A. Dahl. Comments and discussion most welcome.)

We humans are a dangerous species. We are dangerous to each other. If we can, we will trample on others, or damage or kill them, for our own good. If they can, those who are stronger will supress or abuse those who are weaker. If they can, majorities will persecute minorities and élites will exploit those lower down the ladder. We need to be governed. We need protection.

Orderly social and economic life depends on governing authority. There must be defence and there must be police. There must be laws, regulations, courts and prisons. There must be infrastructure and public services. There must be taxation. For order, societies need governments with power. Modern societies and economies have governments with vast powers.

All governments are themselves dangerous to the people who live under their rule, the more powerful the more dangerous. Power corrupts. We depend on authorities with power for protection but we must also have protection from their potential excesses. The danger is that the governing we need turns into tyranny. Writes Robert A. 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, and clear enough today when we look to, for example, China or Russia. In all autocratic systems – absolutist monarchies, aristocracies, oligarchies, outright dictatorships – there is an overwhelming risk of tyranny.

Under democratic constitutions, the governments that rule over the people are themselves under the control of the people they rule. The people can dismiss those who have the power to govern them, and they can threated the government of the day with being dismissed tomorrow. That counter-power is in the hands not of an aristocracy or some other minority, but of the people themselves. They exercise their counter-power by acting collectively, such as in elections, with equal right of participation by all, rich and poor.

In democracies, then, the combination of government above and safety below is possible. It’s ingenious: we get both protection and protection from the protectors. Without democratic checks, that combination is unlikely. Autocracy can provide the protection of stability, as now in China, but it cannot provide the combination with also protection from the protectors.


Did I hear you saying that: get the government off my back? People do. They are tired of interference, regulations, taxes, the nanny state. They think that governments do what we could do better ourselves. President Reagan, in his first inaugural address put it thus: “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”

But be careful what you wish for. If government interference is a burden, its absence is much worse.

To see how, visit Italy. Start in the north where you find yourself in the comfort of a normal developed European country. Then board the high speed train in Rome for Naples, an hour or so south, and you step into the underdevelopment and squalor of a third world city. Here, economic and social life is saturated by organised crime to such a degree that normal governance is not possible, and the city and its people suffer for it. The Centro Storico, although a World Heritage Site, should have been a beautiful European old town, as those in, for example, Vienna, Prague, Riga or Stockholm, but is instead a neglected and dilapidated slum.

Nor would you find much evidence to suggest that what government does not do, people take care of themselves. One of the things that is neglected in Naples is the collection of rubbish. I guarantee you that will not stir you to start cleaning up the mess yourself. Far from it. Say you have in your hand the wrappings of an ice cream and can find no bin that is not already overflowing. You will say to yourself: if no one else cares, why should I? And you will throw the wrapping where it may fall. Government neglect begets not private initiative but also private neglect. Functioning governments do not just do things, they also, importantly, signal to citizens and set standards.

To see this explained, head north again, now to Siena and its Palazzo Pubblico. Here, in the Sala della Pace, is Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s Allegories of Good and Bad Government, commissioned by the Republic’s governing council in 1338. In the central mural, a figure representing wisdom lays down the principles by which the city should be ruled, such as justice and magnanimity. To one side is another mural displaying what follows when these principles are obeyed: a thriving city of activity, trade and development with happy people living under the protection of the angel of security. To the other side is yet another mural in which a tyrant sits on a box in which justice has been locked away in a city of torture, death and decay.

These allegories are remarkable considering the time in which they were created. First, good and bad government follow not from religious blessing or damnation but from secular values, the core one being justice. In today’s language: from a sound constitution. Second, good governance results not from governors being given free powers but from their being constrained by the rules of justice. In today’s language: not from autocratic strength but from democratic controls. Third, in the causality that is displayed. First comes good government, then follows prosperity, happiness and security. In today’s language: freedom is not a luxury that people may hope for once power has enabled prosperity. It is where there is freedom that prosperity follows. What was built on these walls, then, almost 700 years ago, was a sophisticated theory of government and its conditions and consequences, and one that even now presents itself as entirely modern.

On a recent visit to Siena’s Palazzo Pubblico, it happened that today’s City Council was in meeting in the room above the Sala della Pace. They were discussing renovation, which is in good hands in the city. So, no doubt, does the City Council in Naples from time to time, but there, Council decisions are not capable of following through to practical action. In Siena, the government keeps the city clean in spite of a flood of tourism that the businesses in Naples’s Centro Storico can only dream of.

Since the time of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, we in advanced democracies have been trapped in a fruitless debate for or against government, with confidence in government having been undermined. Even the catastrophic government failure of the crash of 2008 does not seem to have overturned the paradigm of small government. What we should want is not necessarily big government but certainly good government, something that is not possible under the gospel of small government.

To regain confidence in the virtue of good government, go to Italy and learn from both contemporary evidence and historical wisdom.