Democracy, On Its Own, Is Not a Magic Wand

Illiterate peasants voting doesn't lead to good government.

In the last few weeks, a rash of articles has appeared in the popular press bemoaning the retreat of democracy.  For a while, it looked like Russia might become a proper liberal democracy, but now President Vladimir Putin is acting more like a czar than a democrat.  There have been military coups in recent years in previously-democratic Pakistan, Nepal, and Thailand.  Venezuela's Pres. Hugo Chavez, freely elected, has worked tirelessly to rig his country's constitution to ensure that he can never be un-elected; and the handful of African countries which had even an appearance of democracy now no longer do.  Democracy, rather than being on the march, is now in retreat.

But this view of things begs two questions.  They are:

  1. Did democracy actually make any progress that it's now retreating from?
  2. Assuming that it did, is the advance of democracy a good thing, such that a retreat would be bad?

The problem here is that the word "democracy" has become a magic word - a verbal wand.  Wave the wand of democracy over some third-world hellhole, and shazzam!  It's on the road to being the next Singapore.

A quick look at history shows us that ascribing magic powers to democracy is pretty far from the truth.  TV news reports have been flooded with footage of long lines of villagers snaking towards ramshackle polling places as the voice-over intones "the people of Kerblekistan enthusiastically have their first taste of democracy."  But do any of those countries have anything to show for it?  The nations of Africa are generally poorer than they were upon independence.

You may say, hold on a moment.  What about Germany?  Japan?  The Eastern European countries freed from the grip of Communism?  All these have taken with enthusiasm to democracy, and are now as stable and successful as anyone.  But the point is not that democracy caused development, not in the least; democracy merely freed the citizens to make the best use of the development they already had.

For all their faults, the Soviet Communists were enthusiastic about education and industrial development in order to have the military might to stave off the forces of evil capitalism.  The leaders punished with an iron hand anyone likely to derail either of those goals.

The newly-freed Eastern Europeans did not need to learn how to read, how to run a factory or machine shop, or how to perform scientific research - they were already quite good at that, thank you very much.  The advent of democracy merely helped them to make better use of what they already had.

Similarly, Germany and Japan had no infrastructure after World War 2, but it wasn't because they didn't know how to do it; they knew perfectly well, but it had all been bombed flat.  With generous American help, they were easily able to put things back to rights, and once their countries were up and running again, democracy helped them succeed.

But there are very few examples of countries which, when impoverished, undeveloped, and uneducated, have adopted democracy and found it an effective way to wealth.  The closest you can find is India, which is a somewhat special case since they had the example of the British Raj of how to operate a modern state - the Raj built the railways, power-plants, roads, judicial system, and all the paraphernalia of a modern state, and then spent many decades educating native Indians how to run everything.  And even then, it took a good half-century (from 1948 until the mid-1990s) for India to get its act together enough to reach the average global rate of economic growth.

If one seeks out countries which have lifted themselves entirely out of the mud, one does find democracies - but only democracies that became democratic after they got rich.

The former "Asian tigers" are sterling examples.  Singapore was the creation of one man, Lee Kuan Yew, who, while not exactly a dictator, was far from a democrat as we ordinarily think of them.  Malaysia, Thailand, Taiwan, South Korea were once pretty close to dictatorships.  In all cases, wealth came first, political freedoms later.

In contrast, we see the example of the Palestinian territories.  Ever since they became disproportionately subject to world attention, all pundits, diplomats, politicians, publicists, and other sundry individuals who don't have to live there have demanded that their government be a "democracy."  Tired of the corruption of the Fatah party, the outside parties demanded that a proper free and fair election be held.

And it duly was - which resulted in the terrorist group Hamas being elected to power.  As soon as they were legitimized, they proceeded to brutally repress members of Fatah and raise missile and suicide attacks against Israel to a fever pitch.  Is that what we wanted?  Iran's President Ahmadinejad was elected without any more ballot-box stuffing than routinely takes place in Chicago; do we like that?

The answer to this conundrum can be found, as with so many things, in the writings of our Founding Fathers, in this case Thomas Jefferson:

Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government; that, whenever things get so far wrong as to attract their notice, they may be relied on to set them to rights.

Notice that all-important first phrase.  People can run their own government whenever they are well informed - and only then!  Illiterate, uneducated people are by definition not well informed.  So, by the definition of the author of the Declaration of Independence, most third world countries are not ready for democracy.

Encouraging naked democracy in infertile soil can have very bad consequences.  When Commodore Matthew Perry opened Japan to the West, he took American and British missionaries along.  In addition to translating, they also helped him educate the Japanese people on western business, technology and culture.

The United States must be prepared to spread education when it seeks to liberate the citizens of repressive regimes.  For every 100 soldiers on the ground in Iraq, how many school teachers have we sent?  Both must go.

Read other articles by Hobbes or other articles on Foreign Affairs.
Reader Comments
I think you're missing the real reason why underdeveloped nations don't succeed (or really - haven't yet succeeded) with democracy. It's rule of law. I think democracy can definitely successfully take over uneducated nations and reverse them because that IS precisely what democracy does. It allows people do things and grow in whatever way they want. Education is a natural thing that people want. African nations simply never have given it time. The democracy you are talking about was shut down in a few years when a new dictactor takes over. You can't expect it to work, in educated or uneducated countries, unless there is rule of law. Good point on Matthew Perry in Japan. America use to be proud of its missionaries and the work they did.
January 31, 2008 11:10 AM
You seem to be taking the parts of each example that you want to share in so far as it fits your agenda, and leaving the rest by the side of the road.

In almost every case in Asia, wealth did *not* come before freedom. It came at the *same* time. Freedom crept in, governemnt pulled back, wealth increased. Same thing is happening right now in China before our very eyes.

You have so many contradictions here it's hard to follow them all. The infrastructure in both Germany and Japan, post-WW2 was totally different than pre-WW2. They weren't even based on the same ideas.
January 31, 2008 12:01 PM
Where is "Kerblekistan" exactly?
January 31, 2008 12:01 PM
Why don't you guys support Ron Paul? He doesn't support nation building either. STAND BEHIND A MAN WE ALL CAN BE PROUD OF COMPLETELY.

No more greasy, tin men from Massachusetts.
No more old, softy liberals from Arizona.
No more bible thumping hicks from Arkansas.

There are very good writers on this site. Contribute that talent to Dr. Paul!!
January 31, 2008 2:17 PM
As a rule, will not endorse any particular candidate. Individual writers are free to endorse or recommend whoever they want.

We would love to have the opportunity to interview Ron Paul, if you can setup an introduction. We have made requests to all the candidates in the past through the traditional channels.

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February 3, 2008 11:42 AM
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