Democracy Matters

Max Boot has a fascinating article in The LA Times on why the spread of democracy is important for world peace. He notes a new book that makes the argument that trying to build economic stability before democracy doesn’t work:

Siegle, Weinstein and Halperin puncture the myth that democracy works only in rich nations. In fact, many poor countries have freely elected governments (think India, Poland and Brazil) while some rich ones (think Saudi Arabia and Singapore) do not. Far from economic development being necessary for democracy, they argue that democracy promotes economic development. Free countries grow faster than their more repressive neighbors. They also perform better on social measures such as life expectancy, literacy rates, clean drinking water and healthcare. And they are less prone to armed conflict.

Skeptics of democracy cite a few cases of impressive economic performance by authoritarian regimes such as South Korea and Taiwan in the 1970s and 1980s. But more common are dysfunctional kleptocracies like Congo, Syria and North Korea. According to Siegle, Weinstein and Halperin, autocracies are prone to wild swings in economic and political performance. Democracies, with greater openness and accountability, generally produce more consistent results. They note that “the 87 largest refugee crises over the past 20 years originated in autocracies,” and they cite Nobel laureate Amartya Sen’s observation that “no democracy with a free press has ever experienced a major famine.”

In light of these findings, Siegle, Weinstein and Halperin urge the U.S. to eschew a “development first, democracy later” model in favor of spreading democracy first and foremost. That case is strengthened by a study last year in the Chronicle of Higher Education by Alan Krueger, a professor of economics and public affairs at Princeton (and a Clinton administration veteran), and Jitka Maleckova, a professor of Middle Eastern studies in Prague.

They reject the conventional wisdom that terrorism is rooted in poverty and lack of education. It does not comport with data showing, for instance, that Palestinian suicide bombers are wealthier and better educated than the general population. After studying all the available research, they conclude “that any connection between poverty, education and terrorism is, at best, indirect, complicated and probably quite weak.” Why, then, do some places produce more terrorists than others?

In a way, it’s a chicken and egg problem. Democracy requires some level of economic development, but economic development cannot be maintained without the rule of law provided by a democratic system. It’s why Africa, despite sitting on all kinds of natural resources, is one of the poorest places on the planet, and Hong Kong, despite having no natural resources is one of the richest places on Earth. If wealth created democracy, Saudi Arabia would be democratic right now. It’s clear that the correlations between wealth and democracy aren’t as strong as democratization theorists would surmise.

Scholars have been studying democracy for centuries, yet it is clear that there is no magic formula for democratization. However, it is clear that democracy is a powerful institution. The story of the 20th Century has been the story of expanding democracy. In 1950, 31% of the world’s population lived under a democratic system. In 2000, this number was 58%. Despite the events of the past few years, Fukuyama’s essential thesis that democracy is winning hearts and minds across the globe is no less true today than it was when he published it.

The only way in which this trend may be reversed is if the world’s democracies lose their will to continue to fight for democratic values. The most invaluable contribution to the spread of democracy in the 20th Century was not force of arms, but the moral courage of individuals like Lech Walesa, Vaclav Havel, Pope John Paul II, and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

Democracy is not some arbitrary construct of the West, it is a system rooted in the fundamental values of human rights, innate to the human condition. All people, regardless of their race, color, or religion have the inherent right to be free – our foreign policy should continue to reflect this and demand democracy worldwide while fighting those states that are actively exporting tyranny and fanaticism.

One thought on “Democracy Matters

  1. I think the best correlation is between *earned* wealth and democratization. You hand a country it’s wealth on a silver platter, as we see with oil-based economies all over the world, it’s a recipe for disaster. On the other hand, all the advanced democracies in east asia that came out of authoritarian systems did so through the talents of their labor force. Japan, for instance, has the second most powerful economy in the world, yet has next to nothing in the way of natural resources- their natural resource is 100 million of the best-trained and educated workers in the world. (Remember Goto Dengo’s comments about wealth at the end of Cryptonomicon…)

    Democracy cannot exist without literacy and responsibility, and the natural consequence of both tends to be cold, hard cash.

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