According to the sports writer Art Spander, democracy gives every voter a chance to do something stupid. But that is not the main reason why most prefer it to other political regimes. First, with its ideals of freedom, political equality, and accountability, democracy can be seen as intrinsically valuable. Second, self-governance, or democracy, might be associated with better political, economic, and social outcomes than its alternatives.
In his recent article about the Malaysian election in The Atlantic, Brookings’ Shadi Hamid reminds us that the latter, consequentialist case for democracy is often overstated. Democracy is not primarily about providing “well-paying jobs, better schools, or improved living standards.” Instead, it exists to give people the option (however remote) of deposing bad leaders and ensuring that “political outcomes are not permanent.” As a result, Hamid wants us to stop arguing that democracies produce economic growth or better governance.
Democracy certainly provides no guarantee of good policies. Because of cycling and Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem, democratic decision-making might not even generate coherent decisions, since no unproblematic way of aggregating people’s choices exists. Furthermore, democratic societies face problems of collective action: voters face weak incentives to be informed about policies because an individual vote exercises only a miniscule impact on the electoral outcome, whereas interest groups are well-organized in the pursuit of their economic rents and privileges. Democratic policymaking will thus disperse the costs and concentrate the benefits of its policies towards the well-organized groups.
But does that mean that the case for democracy should be boiled down to Hamid’s minimalistic proposition, namely the “feeling that you, as a citizen, can actually alter the course of your own country, and that your nation, at least in theory?”
For one, a common complaint about democracies is that elections have little effect on adopted policies. In the case of Italy over the past decade, even the link between elections and choice of the person heading the executive has been largely severed. People, furthermore, have recourse in autocracies too. They can emigrate, which is often easier than to organize themselves politically, even in a well-functioning democracy. Or they can try, perhaps naively, to join the ruling elite in order to change things from the inside, as many idealistic communists tried to do in countries of Central and Eastern Europe. The point is not to defend authoritarian regimes but merely to point out that the feedback from citizens to the government is not uniquely powerful under democracy.
More importantly, as my AEI colleague Clay Fuller notes, “the entire world now has elections and half of them occur in dictatorships.” Not all of such regimes need to rely on outright electoral fraud to ensure that people’s ability to alter the course of their own countries is never effectively exercised. A combination of an uneven playing field, demoralized opposition, and a reliable electoral base produces desired outcomes, although a theoretical chance of deposing leaders through elections exists also in Russia and Turkey.
The experience of many ethnically fractionalized countries of Sub-Saharan Africa, or Iraq, shows that elections alone can result in a divisive, patronage-driven politics or in a continuation of pre-existing conflicts through other means. Successful self-governance requires other things as well: rule of law, constraints placed on the executive, mechanisms that enable voters to verify whether politicians are delivering on their promises, and a shared civic culture. Without those, the sole ability to cast a vote for various candidates in an election will ring hollow.
On a different note, contrary to Hamid’s minimalistic argument, genuinely democratic societies are in fact associated with better economic and social outcomes. It is not a coincidence, as Amartya Sen noted, that one does not see famines in democracies, or that democracy and media freedom are associated with lower rates of children’s mortality.
Triumphalism of the 1990s aside, there is no reason to be shy about the merits of democratic governance when the weight of evidence is on its side. As far economic prosperity is concerned, little suggests that autocracies can outperform democratic societies, notwithstanding anecdotes about the “Chinese model.” True, the literature trying to capture effects of democracy on growth has been voluminous and is sometimes contradictory, but the best recent research seems clear: “[D]emocracy does cause growth, and its effect is significant and sizable,” MIT’s Daron Acemoglu and his co-authors conclude. (See also Knutsen 2015, Madsen et al. 2015, Papaioannou and Siourounis 2008, Persson and Tabellini 2006, Rodrik and Wacziarg 2005, or meta-review by Doucouliagos and Ulubasoglu 2008.)
Voting in elections is not the only, or the most important, channel through which democracy matters. The diffusion of power in democracy puts a check on anti-competitive entry barriers. An independent judiciary provides a guarantee that property rights will be respected and encourages investment. But whatever the precise causal mechanisms, if democracy is to lead to good results, it cannot be boiled down to just regular votes. It needs to be part of a broader institutional package, which is not easily divisible. As Acemoglu and co-authors have been arguing for years, strong complementarities exist between state capacity, broad distribution of power in society, and rules of the game that underpin the competitive and innovative market economy. If one of the elements disappears, other will follow suit.
In Venezuela, unchecked economic populism helped entrench an oppressive political regime. In Hungary and Poland, political takeover of the state by Fidesz and Law and Justice, respectively, has been accompanied by economic policies that undermine the two countries’ long-term growth prospects: nationalizations, levies targeted at foreign investors, and various privileges distributed to party cronies. Half of all bank assets in Poland are now in the hands of a government which is keen to actively channel loans to domestic (arguably politically connected) businesses. Similar policies produced catastrophic results in the 1990s both in Slovakia and in the Czech Republic.
What that means is that Hungary’s and Poland’s current illiberal set-up is not stable. Rather, it is either the beginning of a long slide to authoritarianism and dysfunction, or, with any luck, a temporary aberration waiting to be corrected. Likewise, in the long run, the authoritarian capitalism of China or Russia cannot offer a lasting alternative to the civilizational model that combines “good” economic institutions with self-governance. Innovation at the technological frontier requires freedom—intellectual and otherwise—which is incompatible with political systems that suppress dissent.
Of course, there are many ways in which the West can botch things in the meantime. The combination of America’s polarized politics, declining levels of trust in political institutions, and the idiosyncrasies of the current occupant of the White House can be corrosive to the rule of law. Likewise, President Donald Trump’s protectionist instincts could lead the world to a genuine trade war, especially if we witness an economic downturn, with similar consequences to the collapse of the global trading system in the 1930s. And although driven by good intentions, the zealous enforcement of intellectual orthodoxies at universities and in large corporations is bound to do damage to most important driver of the West’s economic prosperity: a competitive marketplace of ideas.
The non-negotiable package of formal and informal institutions that embed successful democracies is certainly narrower than the long list of liberal pieties that have characterized our political life in the past decades. To be sure, a number of those, such as the growing tolerance of alternative lifestyles, are genuine achievements that ought to be celebrated. But many, such as immigration, multiculturalism, or a commitment to a strictly multilateral international order, are subjects of genuine disagreements within electorates in the United States and in other Western societies. An eventual pushback against liberalism in those areas is not a threat to democracy itself but evidence of democracy’s responsiveness.
Of course, one of the disconcerting features of ongoing political changes in Western democracies is the pervasive sense that, unlike in the past, everything seems up for grabs. But defending a vision of democracy stripped to its electoral bones is of little practical value. After all, elections are one of the few components of the democratic institutional package that nobody is suggesting to do away with, not even in genuine autocracies. And elections alone do not turn democracy into a desirable political regime.
As a result, the challenge of our time is not to learn to appreciate free elections but to distinguish essential components of the democratic institutional package from policies and institutions that are legitimate subjects of political contestation. The former, of course, have to be defended vigorously. At the same time, it is time re-learn how to have a civil debate about the latter, without slipping into hysteria and alarmism.