Democracy's benefits?
May 30, 2005 11:10 PM   Subscribe

With "freedom" as a goal of US policy, what are the real benefits of democracy? In the developing world, no democracy has ever had a famine as Nobel-winner Amartya Sen demonstrated, and citizens of democratic nations have equivalent economies, longer lifespans and better educations than autocracies. Unfortunately, it appears that democracies do go to war with each other (although less, statistically). On the other hand, high levels of political freedom decrease terrorism and prevent genocides. Obviously, democracies also do bad things, but is there a better form of government?
posted by blahblahblah (28 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
The Times article is interesting (and long). Halfway through, I have this question: while poor Democracies perform better and develop faster than poor Autocracies, I don't feel this proves one better than the other; a country doing poorly under any given government indicates poor performance by that government - not poor performance by that form of government. I'm not taking a stand on whether one is better than the other - but often have I said that an enlightened dictator would be the best form of government - efficient, correct, and powerful.

It says that democracy encourages sharing of power and risk, and that a democratic government has incentive to respond to the demands of its constituency, but would not a good autocratic government also know the needs of its people and provide the necessary changes, services, etc?

The problem as I see it is not the idea of autocratic rule but the rulers themselves. Is it inconceivable that a country with a dictator could perform better and have happier, longer-living citizens than a democratic competitor? A dictator that knows what is best for his or her people (really knows - not just thinks he knows) has the latitude to act without encumbrance and can make the necessary laws or take the appropriate actions without being criticized by the population. Unfortunately, a dictator is a human being, and many dictatorships are established and maintained by military might. Thus, the dictator in power is not necessarily the best one for the job, and the country suffers.

So, to sum up, there are good and bad democracies, mostly good, and good and bad dictatorships, overwhelmingly bad. Who's to say whether a good dictatorship would outperform a similarly sized and orientated democracy? This whole exercise is, of course, a total fantasy, but since we're talking about political theory I consider nothing out of bounds.
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 11:39 PM on May 30, 2005

My Report On Dictatorship, by Black Leotard Front.
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 11:41 PM on May 30, 2005

Unfortunately, nice people don't get to be dictators often. Because:

* They don't aspire to the job
* They won't do what's necessary to get in power
* They won't do what's necessary to stay in power

The people who get to be dictators are the violent, ruthless nutjobs who are willing to go the distance.

So, BlackLeotard, your theory is awesome except for the small detail of human nature.
posted by selfmedicating at 7:24 AM on May 31, 2005

Odinstream: the nations of eastern Europe, the nations of western Europe (saving them from the Nazis) the democracies of Latin America, New Zealand and Australia (saving them from the Japanese) South Korea, Japan, and probably some others I am forgetting just now.

American has been terribly inconsistent with her ideals over the years, and committed terrible crimes. But I don't see how you can deny that the nation has been an enormous force for good. OK, I do see it, but I disagree.

Larger question: As we move towards universal democracy, is that really going to usher in the era of world peace that its advocates have so long prophesized? The Reason article you linked to suggests no, but I find it hard to imagine two democracies engaging in the kind of ideologically-fueled bloodbath that was the Second World War, and that we just avoided in the Cold War.

Thoughtful post.
posted by LarryC at 7:34 AM on May 31, 2005

Democracies push their problems under the rug of nondemocratic states.

I think it's great if democracy spreads through the whole world, because then we'll be pushing the problems around on the hardwood floor where everyone can see them.
posted by By The Grace of God at 7:39 AM on May 31, 2005

Variations of types of democracy determine whether they are prone to war and how well their people are cared for.
For example, a corporatist democracy would be more concerned with the success of business interests while a socialist democracy would be more concerned with the people.
posted by nofundy at 7:44 AM on May 31, 2005

Monarchy. God's gift to mankind.

You figure you get a fifty fifty shot at decent vs indecent rulers, and even the dismal ones are good for gossip.

They also tend to make for better art 'n' architecture than autocrats. And who doesn't love a royal wedding?
posted by IndigoJones at 8:51 AM on May 31, 2005

Anyone want to provide a nice list of unfriendly (to the U.S.) democracies that the States have helped topple in favour of friendly dictatorships?

Compiled one at one point but no time to do so again now. (it was long)
posted by dreamsign at 9:15 AM on May 31, 2005

I guess it depends on what one means by "famine." In the 1890's there was a drought and depression in the US that led to hunger and the death of many people due to malnutrition.

Setting that aside, Sen's work on famine is not as simple as democracy = no famine. The key point he makes is that famine is not principally caused by the decline or lack of food availability. Instead, he attributes famine to a lack of legal entitlement to food.
posted by Cassford at 9:21 AM on May 31, 2005

"an enlightened dictator would be the best form of government - efficient, correct, and powerful."
"your theory is awesome except for the small detail of human nature."

I couldn't disagree more.
The different flavors of democracies as well as the differences regarding republics and representative democracies and "democracies" where the fearless leader gets 100% of the vote aside - I'd have to throw some Bucky Fuller type engineering at you.
Function follows form. What is it you want your government to do?
In fighting short engagements perhaps a dictatorship is best, but those forms of governance are by definition specialized. I would argue overspecialized.

It is an incorrect assumption that the trains run on time in dictatorships. Democracies are far more efficient than any other form of government because of the system of applied feedback and local controls in place.
Why did feudalism follow the 'republic' of the Roman empire?
It is incorrect to think it is simply human nature that held back the efficient flow of power. I concede myopic perspectives such as the church were involved. However the change in the system of communication was the largest factor, as was the resulting local control available in feudalism that enabled a region to respond more quickly to change (storm, invaders, etc) and elicit help from central control. A 'lord' didn't have to wait for the senate to meet or the emperor to decide. (I grant I'm oversimplifying, but the concept holds)
In a democracy this happens lightning fast. Caesar conquered Gaul because of superior organization but he held it because of superior supply lines. The Allies defeated the Axis in WWII for the same reasons. In both cases the populace was convinced they were defeated not because of the force of arms (plenty of examples of a people fighting to the last man - hell they just found some Japanese soliders still fighting) but because of the superiority of the systems which followed their own shoddy work. I'm not thinking of oppression (many examples of that, but those yolks are overthown eventually), but of actual permanent change here. Alexander the Great had long since broken that ground and showed the world how to conquer ('sure you can keep your own religion'). But his empire's governance was inefficiently based on a single man's life and fell apart extraordinarially quickly after his death. Rome lasted longer. The church & feudalism lasted longer still (some of that is still in place).
The North may have defeated the South in the American Civil war because of superior industry, but they had that superior industry because of their methods and system of governance. Self-determination is superior to slavery. However attractive slavery might be in the short term or how satisfying it is to the urges of our human nature.

In many ways a political ethos can be defined as 'good' or 'better' or 'worse' according to, in many cases, very obvious standards. The statements of Churchill (echoed by Bush the lesser's 'as long as I'm the dictator' sentiments) represent a frustration with power rather than efficient power flow. A desire for slavery rather than the responsibility of self-determination (obviously - a slaver is himself a slave).
One cannot judge a situation as well before the fact of it nor can one judge the best course from a distance. The more immediate and personal an event is, the better one can understand it. That which supports and facilitates that reasoning and allows for balance and clear communication with others in similar straits whether it applies to an individual, small group or a state or nation demonstrates itself to be a more efficient form of governance.
Not merely that which governs best governs least, but that method of governance which best reflects the workings of ,say , telepathy and empathy would be the best form.

The reasoning being: a single perspective - no matter how benign or wise, no matter how enlightened the individual ruler or group of rulers - cannot live everyone's life for them in the best possible manner and so cannot make the best decisions for them. Neither can they, again no matter how smart they are, think of everything - from even their own perspective much less many perspectives.
While any smaller group has greater mobility - any larger group has a greater wealth of reasources, one of which is the power of ideas and the power of multiple perspectives (amongst others).

It's easy to confuse this mobility with efficiency or confuse single path efficiency with the capacity to adapt to a wide variety of circumstances (which is the principal function of government, to deal with what an individual cannot do on his or her own)- there is a reason the cheetah is dying out as a species while humans (or squirrels if you like) are everywhere.
It's also easy to become bogged down in emotional attachment to one's own perspective as so many groups seem to have done in the U.S. - this demonstrably sabotages communication by suppressing other perspectives and has the result of 'dumbing down' the system. Like sticking gum in a watch.

The best government would give the most local control with the most expeditious method of communicating the widest variety of perspectives and moving extra resources to wherever they are needed (whether it be for defense, shortfalls, etc.).

Right now I think that'd be representative social democracy with a free market economy. But that's just an opinion. I'm sure there are better ways to achieve the greatest freedom and fastest reponse, I just can't concieve them on my own.
posted by Smedleyman at 9:33 AM on May 31, 2005

Pretty long diatribe, sorry. But Sen inspired me. Good post btw.
posted by Smedleyman at 9:35 AM on May 31, 2005

I understand your objections to my little theory. It was a fantasy theory and as such assumes some unlikely things, namely: the dictator is compassionate, intelligent, decisive, and very well-informed. While it is not possible for a single person to know the desires of all of his/her people, if such a person were to exist that did, a democracy would be a hindrance to their rule and would cause damage to the people. So Smedleyman I totally agree in the real world the best government is the one you describe as it spreads risk and power in the best way for the times.
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 12:13 PM on May 31, 2005

iamck, you are glossing over the important rider "a market-dominant minority", eg the ethnic Chinese in Malaysia.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 12:46 PM on May 31, 2005

LarryC - The Soviet Union was as responsible, if not more, for defeating the Nazi's as the United States, and far more people on their side died for it.

That said, since places like Britain invented the basis of the democracy the U.S. currently enjoys (as well as Canada's, Australia's, etc), I don't think I would ever suggest that the U.S. was "responsible" for democracy in Western Europe - they certainly helped protect it, you know, along with Canada, Australia, Britain, all of the partisans in occupied Europe, and the U.S.S.R.

My question would be - would the massive famines and starvation in India in the 1870s and 90s could as being under a "democracy"? Certainly colonial rule wasn't democratic, but Britain was - the government which set colonial policy was elected, and by the 1890s the franchise had been extended to the majority of adult men.
posted by jb at 12:53 PM on May 31, 2005

Was it Mencken? "Democracy is the worst form of government imaginable, aside from everything else we've ever tried?" Coulda been Churchill.
Ok. So, polisci do or die. Functionally, different governments have different strengths, but there's no single one that's the best for every situation. Certainly, a couple folks here have hearkened back to the Platonic arguments for an enlightened dictator (a Philosopher King). But where are we gonna find one? But his fundemental arguments against democracy hold: A democracy killed Socrates.
It's also important to note that both fascism and communism (in fact, all totalitarian movements) are post-democratic in nature. (Not meaning that they necessarily stem from a functional democracy in practice, but that they stem from a democracy in theory. Obviously, German and Italian fascism were directly post-democratic, and may provide the most cogent criticism of democracy).
Something that needs to be clarified is that when we think of democracy, we tend to think of LIBERAL democracies, i.e. ones that protect freedoms even when the majority wishes to abolish those freedoms. It's a pain in the ass that "liberal" is incorrectly used all the fucking time, as "progressive" should oppose "conservative," and "liberal" should oppose "restrictive/authoritarian."
Arg. I'll come back to this thread later. Too much scatter...
ON PREVIEW: That's because the "liberal" in the liberal democracy being pushed at developing countries doesn't mean "with regard to rights" but rather "without regulation of capital." In fact, the constraints put on governments through SAPs mean that the governments are profoundly undemocratic and ossified authoritarian.
posted by klangklangston at 1:31 PM on May 31, 2005

The Soviet Union was as responsible, if not more, for defeating the Nazi's as the United States, and far more people on their side died for it.

Cold comfort to Eastern Europe....
posted by IndigoJones at 3:09 PM on May 31, 2005

"It was a fantasy theory"
Perhaps my objection BlackLeotardFront was you didn't really open the throttle on the fantasy. I mean Captain America would be a great guy to hold the reins. ....that and I like to type.

"A democracy killed Socrates"
I'd dispute the term there. It was a very limited form of selective democracy. One could equally say a republic killed Jesus Christ.

I'd agree with what I percieve to be your line of thinking though.
posted by Smedleyman at 3:31 PM on May 31, 2005

The relevant question isn't which form of government is better than democracy, the question is which form is best suited to the country.

The most serious flaw of the Foreign Affairs study is that it fails to mention all the countries that gave democracy a shot, and the result was more or worse authoritarianism: Sudan, Algeria, Egypt, Russia, Iraq... Venezuela is still nominally democratic, but for how long? I have no problem believing they're right about the countries that had successful democracies being more capable of sharing resources and thus averting disasters, but going from authoritarianism to democracy or vice versa is a shock many nations have shown themselves unable to make.
Because both a middle class and civil institutions are required for successful democracy, democratic Russia, which inherited neither from the Soviet regime, remains violent, unstable, and miserably poor despite its 99 percent literacy rate. Under its authoritarian system China has dramatically improved the quality of life for hundreds of millions of its people. My point, hard as it may be for Americans to accept, is that Russia may be failing in part because it is a democracy and China may be succeeding in part because it is not.
Notice in the FA piece that Russia is mentioned all of once, in the the introduction, and then completely ignored. Probably because it's a rather good counterexample to their argument.
posted by raaka at 3:31 PM on May 31, 2005

LarryC: While the US might have wound up fighting against Japan and Germany for Democracy the actions the US undertook before then did a lot toward creating the Nazis and the Imperial Japan.

It would have been much better if the US had stayed out of Europe in 1917 before abruptly pulling out or had occupied Europe as it does now. Also, while fighting Imperial Japan for democracy in Australia was useful it would have been much less costly had the US not blockaded Japan thus forcing it to embark on further conquest.

This is not to blame the US for Imperial Japan or Nazi Germany but just to point out that neither would have been anything like it was had the US not engaged in actions in those areas. The US's actions were a necessary but not sufficent cause in the creation of those states and their drive for conquest.
posted by sien at 5:16 PM on May 31, 2005

Sien, I think you are totally wrong here. You are indeed blaming the US for the rise of Nazi Germany and Japanese aggression. The implications of your post are that without the US entering WWI, there would have been no Nazi Germany, or that Nazi Germany would somehow be "less bad." There was already a war before the US entered, and the US was not a big pusher of reperations when the war was over (and occupation was never even a possibility). Besides, Facism was not limited to areas that lost the World War, see Italy and Spain as examples. Further, Japan was also already invading Asia and committing horrific massacres long before the US oil embargo. I am not sure how you can say that the US is responsible for Japan's conquest.

How was the US necessary in any way for the creation of Nazi Germany or Imperial Japan?
posted by blahblahblah at 5:25 PM on May 31, 2005

Since history is our only guide, I would say that the US was necessary but not sufficient, given the evidence.
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 6:19 PM on May 31, 2005

jb - The Soviet Union was as responsible, if not more, for defeating the Nazi's as the United States, and far more people on their side died for it.

Maps of WW2 losses. Germany lost the war in Russia.
posted by snarfodox at 8:11 PM on May 31, 2005

snarfodox - That was my point. Though the apostrophe was completely unnecessary. I'm going back to the English grammar thread in shame.
posted by jb at 8:27 PM on May 31, 2005

sien: Nazi Germany arose after the Germans had lost WWI because the US entered the War on the French and German side. Had that not happened the settlement after WWI would not have been as it was. The War in the West would have been a draw, not a loss for Germany. Had there been a different settlement after WWI without the creation of weird pockets like Danzig and without most Germans thinking that the Versailles Treaty was very unjust the Nazi Party would not have taken hold. An alternative would have been for the US to occupy Germany as was done after WWII.

It is similar to the way in which the US set up the conditions for the creation of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Zbigniew Brzezinski is open about how he believes that the contribution made by the war in Afghanistan's role in the destruction of the Soviet Union was well worth the later problems with Muslim extremists.

As far as Japan goes, well, I overstated the case. However, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour was in response the American blockade.

The problem with advancing Democracy by force is that mistakes are inevitable and the consequences are often pretty severe. It also leads inevitably to the build up of secret services and a military industrial complex that has an enormous tendency to be undemocratic and to subvert the rule of law.

The best way the US can convince people that Democracy is a good idea is by being richer and smarter and a better place to live than any non-democratic state.
posted by sien at 8:53 PM on May 31, 2005

(I tried posting this earlier, but mefi went down)

-- Looking on in the Sen article I see that he does address the points about the Indian famines, and makes good points. But still I think about how there was a free press in Britain, and that it did nothing about the 19th century famines. The problem was, of course, that the British press was not in India, and didn't particularly care about the Indian people, but economic policy was still set there.

Which makes me wonder - what will the effect of international organisations which dictate economic policy be on the flexibility of democratic governments to deal with their own problems?
posted by jb at 11:20 PM on May 31, 2005

So it was the Soviets that set up the democracy in West Germany after the war?
posted by Pollomacho at 7:48 AM on June 1, 2005

The moment has passed in the stream of conversation now, but I think it was not unreasonable to kill Socrates, even if Athens was a democracy. (link to a longer spiel on my blog)
posted by athenian at 2:00 PM on June 1, 2005

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