Democracy is expensive.
February 24, 2002 9:31 AM   Subscribe

Democracy is expensive. A New York Times article examines the high costs of building the government infrastructure of a democracy, and suggests that they may be too high for a poor or war-torn country. I hope there's an alternative to "Live free or die".
posted by mattpfeff (7 comments total)
A free election can be expensive! From the President of the International Foundation for Election Systems (IFES):

" ... we dedicate publications like the Buyer's Guide to Election Suppliers to the election administration community. This year's edition includes more vendors than ever before. You now have access to over 186 companies that specialize in the equipment, services, and supplies you need to conduct your elections freely and fairly ..."
posted by sheauga at 10:30 AM on February 24, 2002

A UN perspective: The Administration and Costs of Elections Project (ACE)
posted by sheauga at 10:35 AM on February 24, 2002

The problem with arguments about the cost of democracy is that richer countries tend to think of it as a luxury - something they can afford - whereas wealth is probably a consequence of a free, easily-governed system. And tyrants in poorer countries use the same excuse. I remember Salazar repeatedly saying something along the lines of: "liberal democracy is the ideal form of government for Britain and the United States but in Portugal we still have some way to go before we can allow ourselves that indulgence".

It's actually a very big question and took me back to my post-doc seminars in All Souls, Oxford, where Marxists like Gerry Cohen would use the same arguments to posit socialist democracy and mainstream elite-theorists would argue it was just the most efficient method for the dominant political/economic class to acquire legitimacy.

It all boils down to how you spend the "cake". The "cake" being the sum of available socially desirable resources, it's not only a question of freedom to(vote, express yourself. etc)but of freedom from(illness, insufficient education,etc).

For e.g. India is an enormous country, the world's largest democracy, where freedoms are mostly of the "to" variety and Singapore is a rich, property-owning authoritarian little state, where freedoms are mainly of the "from" variety". All I'm saying is it's extremely complex and, I guess, depends ultimately on your political viewpoint.

Thanks, mattpfeff, for something juicy and important to discuss!
posted by MiguelCardoso at 10:58 AM on February 24, 2002

The assumptions about what drives a democracy seems to be somewhat confused in this article. They seem to equate democracy with its literal, rather than figurative, meaning. If you want a democracy, first you must assure the wealthy and powerful that democracy will sustain and nurture their wealth and power. Then you must assure the middle classes that democracy will help their efforts to maintain and enlarge upon their fortunes.
But then there's the bottom line: government efficiency.
This is a simple ratio between what the government promises and what the government delivers. If the ratio is near even, the government will survive *no matter what form of government it is*. If the ratio is too large, then the government will fail.
It doesn't matter if it is a dictatorship, authoritarian regime, democracy, or whatever. So the "essential" part of what *sustains* a democracy has very little to do with its literal definition.
Ideally, a democracy should then use whatever resources are available beyond the immediate promises of the government, to slowly build those institutions that are hallmarks of the system. Extras, not essentials.
posted by kablam at 3:51 PM on February 24, 2002

The idea that Afghanistan is too poor and conflict-ridden to attempt anything in the way of democratic governance doesn't sit well with me. Poking around, I discovered that only 4 Arab countries hold no elections at all:
Saudi Arabia, Quatar, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates.
Aren't all these places more affluent than Afghanistan?
posted by sheauga at 4:47 PM on February 24, 2002

kablam, it seems to me that the United States, in its nation-building mode, is hoping to make all those things happen. But isn't it still a valid concern that the prerequisites for a democratic government may be too expensive for Afghanistan at this stage? (I mean, it's possible that Afghanistan's limited resources (both human and economic) would be better spent building a working criminal justice system and infrastructure -- given that those are dramatically weakened right now -- than paying for an uneducated populace to participate in elections, isn't it?)

sheauga, I agree -- I (personally) think the question is more one of when to invest in building a democracy, than if. That is, hopefully stability would bring some prosperity, and with it the opportunity for a better, yet more expensive form of government, if in fact democracy is too expensive at the start.
posted by mattpfeff at 5:30 PM on February 24, 2002

I think especially regarding our woeful pre-9/11 record with Afghanistan that we have an obligation to keep them running and moving towards true democracy for a good long time. Its not even as easy as post-war Europe where they had the infrastructure/mindset before the war. As far as I can tell Afghanistan's flirtation with democracy before the war with the Soviets was middling at best. We can't expect to just send a couple bucks their way and for them to "get it" right out of the box.

I remember seeing on Nightline right when the Karzai government was being picked an interview with a "man on the street" in Afghanistan that his impression was that "the Taliban has been defeated and we have a new king". The various wacky warlords running around there can't help to dispel this man's (and others like him) notion. Its not going to be easy or cheap but its well worth it to not have a hiding place for the next Osama (I'd like us to do it pre-emptively in Africa as well, but I ain't holding my breath for George).
posted by owillis at 12:32 AM on February 25, 2002

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