Sunday, October 28, 2012

Are We Sure Enough that Democracy is Best?

Most people accept, as an article of faith, that democracy is better than dictatorship. Indeed, the U.S. spends billions trying to convert dictatorships to democracies...except, of course, the dictatorships the U.S. likes.

But is there sufficient evidence that democracy, net, is superior to dictatorship, to what Voltaire advocated: benevolent despotism? (He called it, "enlightened absolutism.")

Examples: King Frederick the Great and Empress Catherine II of Russia  incorporated many ideas of enlightened philosophies and were great advocates of tolerance and of the arts. 

Of course, we can point to dictatorships that were a huge net negative: for example, Hitler, Idi Amin, Stalin, and Robert Mugabe. But many democracies also do poorly, although they're less likely to yield extreme failures because of democracy's self-regulating nature.

The question is whether we should accept as an unquestioned postulate that democracy is so superior to dictatorship/benevolent despotism that there is no better way for the U.S. to spend the billions of our tax dollars it spends every year trying to convert dictatorships into democracies, often unsuccessfully.

Certainly, democracy has advantages: The citizenry is more likely to feel buy-in, ownership in the country's laws and mores. There's the stability that accrues from democracy's self-regulatory nature. There's the cosmic justice that leaders are selected based on the collective decision-making of the electorate  And the decision to elect a person represents a lot of collective wisdom: the entire electorate's. That's crowdsourcing on a massive scale.

That said, democracy has serious liabilities:

The electorate is manipulated by ever more sophisticated "messaging teams" so that who we vote for is heavily based, not on who'd be best at running the country, but on which candidate has the most effective propaganda machine.

The people who run for democratically elected office must run a constant four-year press-the-flesh campaign, thereby deterring many top people for considering becoming a government leader.

Democratically-derived legislation leads to tepid compromise that has been ironed out over months and years rather than bold decisions made quickly. Yes, often, compromise, deliberateness, and moderation are optimal, but sometimes bold, individually derived initiatives would be wiser. Those are difficult to come by in a democracy. 

This list of democracy's and dictatorship's pros and cons is not meant to be exhaustive but only to justify the worthiness of considering this question: Are we too blithely assuming that democracy is such a net good that, in these tight budget times, that there is no better use of the billions of dollars we taxpayers spend every year trying to get other countries to change their "misguided" ways?  

 I truly am not sure but am interested in your thoughts. 


Maria Lopez said...

Tepid compromise is mostly good. Bold decisions made made quickly sound good but can easily be based on delusion.

However, the real problem with dictatorship is succession. While China handled the most recent succession without violence or nepotism most authoritarian regimes do not.

You can also more easily get abominations such as media censorship. This isn't going to be just political. For instance the government could declare that not only can you not publish anti-christian messages but that any mentions of Jesus must by written as Jesus Christ, my Lord and my God.

I think the cure for too much PR does lie in restrictions on political ads however. For instance forbid all imagines except for written text. Basically, I believe in the rule of law as essential for security and commerce. Authoritarian governments, unless there exist some checks and balances run the risk of replacing the rule of law with the rule of men.

Marty Nemko said...

Great set of comments, Maria. Good for you!

Dave said...

A few random thoughts:

1. Some democratic models work more efficiently than others. I
prefer the Swiss model of direct democracy, where any prospective law
is voted on directly by the people. Parliamentary democracy seems to
work more efficiently than the presidential democratic model. One
needs only to look at US foreign policy to see just how inefficiently
the presidential/federalism model operates. British Foreign Office
documents often note how sloppy Washington is -- e.g., "The White
House doesn't know what the State Department is doing."

2. As for exporting Western democracy elsewhere -- The Arab Spring is
a failure. You can't build modern democracy in a country with a
pre-modern civil society. You can call me racist or ethnocentric.
I've heard it all before from the post-modern multi-culturalists in
the ivory tower, which is one of the reasons I wasn't allowed to
finish my Ph.D thesis.

2A. I believe the reasons for German Nazism, Russian/Soviet
Stalinism, Arab Islamism, etc. lie deep within the political culture.
Do you remember when Russia's Kursk submarine sank to the bottom of
the ocean, taking all 118 crew members with it? Vladimir Putin
apparently miscalculated when he refused NATO assistance. The Russian
people were stunned. "How could our great leader make such a

2B. The Arab Middle East seems to bounce between two ideological
poles -- Militant nationalism (Nasserism) and Islamism (Theocracy).
There doesn't seem to be a third way for them.

I think the best way to find out about a people and what makes them
tick, is to study their theology. We have to find out what they
BELIEVE. You and I would not have lasted in Puritan America. We
would have been excommunicated/banished soon after landing at Plymouth

The funny thing about the West (Europe and North America): Serfdom,
slavery, segregation, autocracy, etc. have existed here; yet we always
manage to find the right key to ridding ourselves of these horrors.
We always manage to find the right antidote. That's what makes the
'West' unique.

The political doctrine of the The Natural Rights of Man is a Western
invention -- originated in antiquity, in Greece -- the cradle of
Western civilization. The right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of
happiness. This is perhaps the greatest of all political doctrines.


Marty Nemko said...

Dear Dave and Maria,

I do think that comments like yours are exemplary of those that would make for such a better world: thoughtful, respectful disagreements, agreements, amplification.

Thank you.


Anonymous said...

Democracy works because it averages out the extremes. I think people, as a collective whole, know what's best for society but any single person may or may not get it wrong. And so that's why the democratic process works. The average might swing one way or another but statistically it's a net positive for society.

We saw that with the Wall Street horrors. A group of like-minded people, who eat drink and sleep a common language, lead in the wrong direction. And that direction, as usually is the case, is for the benefit of the few making the decisions.

And just one more example. The work environment shows that people don't like to be led. They like to feel like they're part of the decision making process (whether it's true or not). When workers are included in the decision-making they feel responsible for the outcome and want to help the team succeed. When workers are only told what to do, they tend to shut down and lose interest. I know, I've seen this so clearly in my own job. The morale stinks because of a few "dictators" making all the decisions and unfortunately, not always the right decisions. That feeling of being powerless (at work,in politics, in a relationship) is debilitating.

A dictatorship left to only a few people to make decisions

Marty Nemko said...

And thank you too, Anonymous. Fine comment.

Anonymous said...

When I was in the 7th grade my teacher was talking about different types of governments. There were Monarchies, Theocracies,dictatorships. And then she said, "In our country the people are the govt.". That hit me like a bucket of ice water. My hand shot up and I said, "No it's not!". It turned into a big argument--me against the teacher and the whole class. Let me tell you, if you think "the people are govt.", then you don't know where you are.
What made our form of govt. so revolutionary was that it was based on the assumption that a govt. is a seperate entity from the people. The framers looked upon all govt's as a type of "attractive nuisance". Given it's powers to tax and pass laws, govt. is certain to attract all sorts of corrupt self-seekers. That was why they designed a system of govt. that gives the people the maximum ability to keep the govt. firmly under their thumb.
This system is what has provided for the countries stability, efficiency and a low level of corruption. I would be very wary of trying to alter its
basic formula.

Anonymous said...

Size is an important consideration here, I believe. Large countries (economy/population) I think will almost always be more difficult to manage/control and more inefficient than smaller ones. Plus the bigger the government the more opp. for corruption. Look at the Scandinavian countries or Switzerland, Luxembourg, Costa Rica. Of course, there are atrociously poor small countries as well, but I think the founders of the Constitution were thinking along these lines...very wishful and naive thinking on their part though...we may have been better off without a constitution.

Marty Nemko said...

David Koller, a reader, emailed me to say he had trouble trying to post a comment and authorized me to do so on his behalf. Here it is:

Democracy doesn't always average out extremes. Even the democratic system in Lebanon, a consociational democratic model with proportional representation, collapsed. That same system was employed in North Ireland, and has succeeded. When gauging the prospects for democracy in any nation-state, theology and social and political culture, should not be ignored.

Dan said...

Democracy can fail, and emphatically so.

I believe Egypt, Iraq, South Africa and Venezuela are just a few examples of failed democracies. With Egypt, non-Muslims have little guarantee of basic rights. With Iraq members of the minority sects are in a lesser position. With South Africa and Venezeula you have large swathes of poor who do not guarantee the rights or protection of whites in the first instance and nonpoor in the second instance.

In all of these cases, you have a permanent minority that has no chance of winning, ever. They live permanently under political oppression, with no seat at the political table, ever. There is much talk that America is headed this way in the long run.

I feel this way in Maryland, which has total one-party rule. All seven ballot measures including the worst-in-the-country gerrymandering map were approved without a hitch as the awesome political machine powered everything through with the support of public unions and The Party. The local media was against some things such gerrymandering and iffy casinos but the Machine, taking advantage of party and ethnic bloc voting could not be stopped. The gerrymandering thing gives me particular scorn for our pols because dems almost run the table anyway, so there was hardly a need, politically. District 3 is priceless but the 'coastline' of each one is longer than Norways!

With impenetrable one party rule, the norm in many places, you are back to dictatorship.

I suppose this is the natural state of man. But at least denizens of past dictatorships in history understood that they were in one.

Dan said...

I especially hate that 'democratic' despots who have virtual lifetime seats because of incumbent advantages and gerrymandering still nevertheless feel the smugness that they 'represent the people.'