December 10, 2004

Why Do Democracies Excel?

Some time ago -- and no doubt everyone was chattering about it then -- Joseph Siegle, Michael Weinstein, and Morton Halperin butted heads (to form an acronym: SWH) and wrote an essay called "Why Democracies Excel", in which they set forth to refute the "wrong-headed" notion that economic development needs to precede democracy. No, no, say SWH: The festering countries of the world do much better when they democratize first and ask for cash later. Therefore, SWH go on, the IMF and World Bank should bias their aid towards democracies, and the U.S. and others should promote democracy before development. That's the rule.

Now it just so happens that instinctively I agree with this premise. As I wrote yesterday, the data in the Middle East, at least, suggests that by eradicating corruption and bolstering the rule of law, countries can set themselves down onto the fast track towards sheer globalized bliss. Forget those free trade fixes! Political reform is where it's at. That sounds good to me. It makes my neocon heart flutter.

But... I'm also not at all convinced by SWH's argument. And since SWH are apparently influential hotshots, I guess it's worth taking the time to rap them the knuckles. So... indulge me.

To make their case, SWH stack poor autocracies with poor democracies side by side, finding that the latter do at least as well economically, and much better socially (people live longer, send their kids to class, grow better fruit, etc. etc.) But this whole exercise tells us nothing about what individual countries can actually bear. Egypt, to be sure, could use a the political equivalent of a kick in the autocratic ass, and good might well come of it. But would this ass-kick work on, say, Angola? Oh wait, they tried that in 1992; it went to shit. Why? Perchance because Angola suffers from "the resource curse". So okay. In these cases, "resource curse" cases, mightn't the country be better off developing economically -- through World Bank, etc. programs that spread the wealth about more equitably --before easing into democracy?

The crux is this: Does the resource curse hinder democracy or can democracy ease the resource curse? Joseph Stiglitz says yes to the latter. But these economists think otherwise. The truly important thing, though, is that I don't know and SWH's cross-country comparisons certainly aren't helping me out.

Then we sometimes catch SWH mixing up cause and effect. They argue, for instance, that democracy doesn't actually enable factionalism and armed conflict, as per CW, by noting: "poor democratizers fight less frequently than do poor authoritarian nations." Eh? But couldn't you reverse the causal arrow here, and say that regions prone to conflict are in turn less likely to democratize? Aren't there century old reasons why Yemenis get ornery? Why should we believe that democracy will cure that?

Oh yes, then we're treated to a long sermon on why being a democracy encourages growth. Honestly, it's okay, I don't need the banner-on-the-blimp to figure this out: free media, transparency, all that good stuff spurs innovation. I get it. But that's not what we're talking about. No one's wondering whether autocracies are better than democracies. They're not. We're wondering which path is better and easier: democratization via economic growth, or economic growth via democratization. Or better yet: We of course know that autocracies bog down economic growth, but is this bogginess better or worse then whatever pitfalls come from foisting democracy on an unready country? To this, SWH give no love -- nor answers.

Listen, if anyone has figured out how to wave a magic wand and promote democratic reform without all the pitfalls -- like, y'know, civil war, or "one man-one vote-once" -- then sell us the damn wand and be done with it. But otherwise, we'll assume those pitfalls are real; so this debate needs to be conducted at a far more specific level, figuring out course works for each particular country. Or sorts of countries. Questions for discussion include: How do you solve the resource curse? How do you know if a country needs more democracy or more development? Yes, it's not always either/or, but maybe sometimes you need to put a grubby finger on the scales. How do we know if a country is in danger of becoming an illiberal democracy, and can a gust of economic development -- or liberalized trade -- nudge that country on the right course? And on and on.
-- Brad Plumer 1:42 AM || ||