Post-script to this week-end

January 28, 2008

So Mikhail Kasyanov will not be able to run in the Russian presidential elections. Kenya’s violence is on the rise.

It looks like the last wave of democratisation (cum-marketisation) in contemporary history has broken…. Niall Ferguson had a good piece in the FT’s week-end edition (subscription required) on the topic:

“Why does democracy flourish in some countries, but shrivel and die in others? The simplest answers on offer are economic. According to the political scientist Adam Przeworski, there is a straightforward relationship between per capita income and the likelihood that a democracy will endure. In a country where the average income is below $1,000 a year, democracy is unlikely to last a decade. Once average income exceeds $6,000 a year, it is practically indestructible. This certainly seems plausible at first sight. The countries with the maximum Freedom House scores are, with the exception of Barbados, the rich countries of north-western Europe. The countries with the lowest scores include some of Africa’s poorest.

Another appealing economic rule is the Harvard economist Benjamin Friedman’s: that sustained growth (rather than the level of income) is conducive to democratisation. At first sight, that proposition appears to fit the long-run historical trend, with the greatest challenge to democracy coming in the era of the Depression.

However, recent economic developments have weakened such arguments. The world economy as a whole has never enjoyed a boom like that of 2001-07. Yet democracy has gained little from all this prosperity. Moreover, the most rapidly growing economies in the world since 2000 have not been the democracies. Take the case of the so-called Bric (Brazil, Russia, India and China). While communist-ruled China’s share of world gross domestic product has increased by 2.5 percentage points in the past seven years, democratic India’s has risen by just 0.6 per cent. Russia has outperformed Brazil by a comparable margin. And this disparity between democracies and autocracies seems set to widen. From now until 2050, according to Goldman Sachs, China’s share of global GDP will increase from 4 per cent to 15 per cent, while that of the G7 countries – the world’s wealthiest democracies – will decline from 57 per cent to 20 per cent. Other emerging markets expected to achieve rapid growth in the next 40 years include Egypt, Iran, Nigeria, Pakistan and Vietnam, none of which seems an obvious candidate for successful democratisation […]

A quite different explanation for the success or failure of democracy has to do with culture rather than economics. It was Samuel Huntington who argued in 1993 that, following the cold war, western civilisation would find itself in conflict primarily with Islamic and Confucian civilisation. By implication, these two civilisations were much less likely to produce peace-loving democracies than the Judeo-Christian civilisation of the west. Of all the ripostes to “The End of History”, “The Clash of Civilizations” has been the most compelling.

Prima facie evidence in support of Huntington’s proposition is not hard to find. In the Freedom House rankings, for example, it is clear that western societies are much more likely to be democratic than Muslim societies. Yet such cultural explanations also have their defects. Taiwan and Indonesia show that democracy can work for “Confucians” and Muslims alike. If due allowance is made for economic and other variables, the gap between the west and the rest is much less significant. In any case, it was not so long ago that serious scholars were arguing that Roman Catholics were incapable of the capitalist work ethic, or that German-speakers could never make a success of democracy – hypotheses falsified by postwar European history. […]

The England of the 1860s was (…) hardly a model democracy, quite apart from its still-restricted franchise. Was there corruption? By today’s standards, certainly. Were the rich over-represented? Without a doubt. Yet three things are striking about the system Trollope so vividly describes. First, the political elite were agreed in condemning any kind of political violence – even the threat of it – out of hand. Secondly, those in government did not hesitate to leave office, and all its perquisites, if they felt their parliamentary position to be untenable. Thirdly, the overwhelming majority of MPs on both sides accepted the sanctity of the constitution and supremacy of the law.

These assumptions did not spring into life overnight. They were the product of around 200 years of political evolution, dating back to the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Only gradually did the two-party system arise. Only gradually did it become conventional for the prime minister to command a majority in the House of Commons. Only gradually did ideas about representation develop until finally – long after Trollope’s time – the right to vote became associated with adulthood alone, rather than with property-ownership, education or sex.

The reality about democracy is that it cannot be conjured up out of thin air in the absence of such assumptions. As a young Tanzanian once explained to me: “In Africa, if you give a man all the privileges of power – the money, the power, the big house and car – and then say, five years later, ‘Now you must give all this up to your harshest critic,’ he is quite likely to find a reason not to do what you ask.” Yet this is not a peculiarity of Africa. It was once the case everywhere. Only slowly, by sometimes painful trial and error, do elites learn that it is in their own interests to exclude violence from politics; to take turns at governing; and above all to submit to the rule of law.”

But now back to work! 


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