Why Do We Need Human Rights? (35): Why Do We Need Democracy?

Democracy is a human right. In the past, I’ve  listed a number of reasons why we should prefer democracy over other forms of government (here and here for example). I’ve now come across another reason, one that may not be convincing or relevant to everyone, but still it’s mildly interesting:

All things — including wealth — being equal, earthquakes kill more people in dictatorships than in democracies, write NYU political scientists Alastair Smith and Alejandro Quiroz Flores. The reason that democratically elected leaders prepare their countries for disaster better is because they fear they’ll be voted out of office if their governments are caught unprepared. (Dictators obviously tend to worry less about election outcomes.) A recent World Bank study backs up this argument, with an added wrinkle: institutionalized autocracies, like China’s, tend to outperform non-institutionalized or corrupt autocracies as well as young democracies when it comes to preventing earthquake deaths. Still, another study finds that politicians in democratic elections benefit even more from doling out disaster relief after a catastrophe than they do from preparing for disasters yet to come. (source)

More on democracy and human rights here, here and here.

What is Democracy? (60): Is Separation of Powers Compatible With All Types of Democracy?

OK, that question is probably way too ambitious for a blogpost. There are dozens of types of democracy, so let’s just look at two types: presidential democracy and parliamentary democracy (PrD and PaD for short in what remains). And that means not only limiting the scope of the investigation but also simplifying it: there are many different types of PrD or PaD (the Westminster model is one form of PaD, the US system is one form of PrD). But that’s what you have to do if you want to keep your blogposts relatively short and readable.

Moreover, separation of powers is an enormously complex topic as well, so again I’ll have to simplify. I’ll focus on two of the three powers that are traditionally distinguished: the executive and the legislative powers and ask how separation between these two powers is compatible with PrD and PaD.

First, why is separation between these two powers an important value? For the same reason that separation of powers in general is important: to create checks and balances and to pit different powers of the state against each other so that there is less risk of tyrannical government and collusion of different powers against the people. The executive power, which normally executes the laws voted by the legislative power, usually also has a veto power against certain acts of legislation in order to limit the risk of oppressive or unjust legislation. Sometimes, when it gets very bad, the executive can also disband the legislative power and provoke new elections. Conversely, the legislative power often has the power to demand accountability and transparency from the executive power. If the legislative believes that the executive power acts in impermissible ways it can vote laws that make those acts illegal. And so on.

What are the main differences between PrD and PaD? In a PrD – where you have of course also a parliament – the executive power is elected directly by popular vote. People elect a president and this president selects her government. The people also elect members of parliament in separate elections.

In a PaD, the executive isn’t elected directly by the people. The people elect only the members of parliament. The political party (or parties) that manage to get a majority of elected members of parliament then form a government (often after coalition negotiations between parties when there isn’t one party that has managed to acquire a majority of representatives in parliament).

A PrD seems better able to respect the separation between the executive and legislative powers. A president doesn’t sit in parliament and doesn’t rely on the approval of the legislative for her political survival and hence she is unlikely to always have the same views as the legislative majority. Checks and balances can work. She has an independent mandate from the people and she can have a view that’s different from the view of the parliamentary majority. In PaD, the executive is a product of a parliamentary majority. It’s often even composed of some members of the parliamentary majority who sit both in the government and in parliament. Therefore, it isn’t common in a PaD for the executive to counteract the legislative or vice versa. In a PaD, these two powers are more or less the same. The executive is the parliamentary majority and parliament as such is systematically in agreement with the executive. It’s only the parliamentary minority that can voice opposition. But that’s it: it has a voice but it can’t effectively block executive initiatives, since it’s merely a minority. The act of legislation often originates in the executive that in fact has the power to enact whatever legislation it wants since it automatically has the support of the parliamentary majority. Why is that the case? Members of the parliamentary majority who aren’t part of the executive are often second rate party members who are easily persuaded to approve the legislative initiatives of the executive because their political career depends on the support from the senior party members who make up the executive. For the same reasons, the accountability and transparency requirements are often sidestepped because the parliamentary majority doesn’t want to embarrass the executive.

So, PaD abandons part of the separation of powers in order to gain efficiency. Parliamentary systems, compared to presidential systems, can act in a more decisive and a quicker manner (in theory at least). In a PrD, the president can block legislation coming from parliament or can have her legislative proposals voted down by a parliamentary majority.

However, this efficiency advantage of PaD compared to PrD is often lost when coalitions are necessary. This is why some parliamentary systems avoid proportional representation – which tends to produce more than two political parties with representatives in parliament – and use some kind of district system combined with first-past-the-post elections – which tends to lead to two party systems and hence avoids the need for coalitions.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that PaD doesn’t have any separation of powers at all. It usually has an independent judiciary that can act as a counterweight and that can use for example judicial review to invalidate laws that are incompatible with the constitution. So it really isn’t easy to say which system is preferable. Efficiency is perhaps just as important as separation. Yet the direct election of the executive, which is typical of PrD and also the basis of many of the advantages of PrD compared to PaD, generates more popular control and hence more democracy, and that is important as well. And finally. PrDs are more stable. So on balance I think I prefer PrD.

What is Democracy? (53): Secret Ballot, or Public Vote?

The secret ballot has become so common in modern democracies that it’s hardly ever questioned. And yet, there are good reasons why a democratic vote should be public. So, let’s go over the pros and cons of the secret ballot, and see where that gets us.

Advantages of the secret ballot

  • The desire to avoid voter intimidation or bribery is the obvious and most commonly cited justification of the secrecy of the ballot. If people in power know how an individual votes, then this individual may be pressured to vote in a certain way. And “people in power” should be understood in a broad sense, including employers, dominant husbands etc. This justification is based on certain key features of a democracy, namely equal influence, one-man-one-vote etc. The risk of coercion is present even in societies where the general level of coercion is low and democratic values are widely shared. And it’s often the least advantaged who will be coerced, because they have most to gain from changing their vote to please someone else, and most to lose from not doing so.
  • The risk of pressure can also be present in other, more subtle forms. For example, it has been shown that people are afraid to publicly oppose authority figures. Tests have shown that when an authority figure speaks first, there’s less dissent afterwards. An open ballot can lead to forced conformity.

Disadvantages of the secret ballot

  • Implicit in the doctrine of the secret ballot is the assumption that the electoral process is no more than the aggregation of individual preferences which have been fixed previously and independently of the electoral process. However, the voting process is, ideally, also formative of preferences, and not merely an arithmetic process based on fixed preferences. That means that people deliberate and discuss about the best way to vote, about the best candidates and policies. But that also means that people have to present their positions and preferences in public. Maybe the ultimate vote can still be secret, but the initial voting intention can’t be if we want democracy to be a lively debate. But if the voting intention can be public, why not the actual vote?
  • An open ballot allows representatives to know exactly whom they are representing. One of the advantages of this knowledge is that it allows for some efficiency gains. Representatives know who has to be convinced. Those efficiency gains should improve the electoral process.
  • When you vote in an election for representatives or in a referendum, this vote has real consequences. Taken together with the votes of your fellow citizens, your vote is likely to change the lives of a number of people, and sometimes change these lives dramatically. Moreover, those people are likely to be minorities, and hence relatively powerless. It’s therefore important that voters are accountable to their fellow citizens and that they explain and justify the reasons they have for voting in a certain way. This horizontal accountability is incompatible with the secret ballot.
  • Why should we have secret ballots for voters and at the same time open votes in parliament, as is usually the case? After all, the justifications for a secret ballot for voters also apply to representatives. They also may be subject to pressure when it’s known how they vote. Maybe to a lesser extent than some parts of the electorate, since they tend to be wealthy and generally powerful, but still. Representatives are less numerous, and hence it’s easier and more effective to use pressure in order to manipulate a vote. Also, the public nature of representatives’ positions makes them vulnerable to specific kinds of pressure that can’t be applied to ordinary citizens (e.g. they may be blackmailed for indecent private behavior and thereby pressured to vote in a certain way). Of course, representative bodies are different from electorates, and therefore not entirely comparable. For example, it’s hard to see how a representative body can be accountable to the electorate when it votes in secret. Voters have to know what the individual representatives have accomplished, or not, so that they can “throw the bums out” at the next election if necessary. Also, this threat of non-reelection can pressure the representatives to act in ways desired by the electorate. So, pressure – at least some kind of pressure – is part and parcel of the representative process, whereas it’s incompatible with a popular vote. However, even if a vote by representatives isn’t entirely comparable to a vote by the people, it still is somewhat comparable, and people arguing for a secret ballot in a general election will have to explain why their arguments don’t also apply to votes in parliament.
  • Open ballots, both in representative bodies and in general, force people to restrict themselves to preferences and arguments that they can justify to others. If you vote in a certain way, and are seen to be voting in a certain way, people will ask you why. And if you’re pressured to answer this question and to justify your vote (or voting intention), it’s a lot more difficult to be motivated, or to be seen to be motivated by self-interest only. Hence, the open ballot will make voters more sensitive to the general interest, which is a good thing. Also, this public justification tends to improve the quality of preferences, since people have to think about them, argue about them with others etc. That’s the logic of the marketplace of ideas.
  • And, finally, open ballots make electoral fraud a lot more difficult, if not impossible.

Obviously, not all of these advantages and disadvantages have the same importance, and they don’t make it instantly clear whether a secret or an open ballot should be preferred in principle. Much depends on the specific circumstances. For example, in a country with a lot of economic inequality and gender inequality, the case for a secret ballot for voters is relatively strong. In general, a mixed system is probably best. However, we don’t have such a mixed system at the moment. Most modern democracies strongly favor secret ballots, and seem to ignore the real problems resulting from such a system. I believe some more attention should be given to these problems and to possible solutions, which obviously doesn’t mean that we should go to the other extreme and deny people’s right to keep their opinions to themselves if they so wish. There can’t be a duty of free speech.

Economic Human Rights (32): The Economic Cost of Taxing the Rich

Taxation is linked to human rights in several ways:

I personally belief that a progressive tax is best in light of the last two concerns. In a progressive taxation system, higher earners pay a larger percentage of their income on taxes. Compared to a regressive taxation system (people with higher incomes pay less in percentage of their income, as in the case of a consumption tax or VAT) or a flat tax (the tax percentage is the same for all income groups), a progressive tax reduces income inequality: it makes incomes more equal in a direct way because it reduces the income of higher-earning families by a larger percentage than the income of lower earning ones; but also in an indirect way because this system – under certain conditions – yields more tax revenues which can then be spent on poverty reduction and the safety net. Also, it seems to be a good example of a just and fair system. The strongest shoulders should carry the most heavy burden. Someone earning a low income can end up in poverty after paying a small percentage in taxes; a wealthy person will perhaps not even notice paying a relatively large sum in taxes.

The counter-narrative states that high tax rates discourage people; they are a disincentive to hard work and effort. High tax rates for high incomes discourage people who work relatively hard (they work hard supposedly because they earn a lot). Because high tax rates punish the most productive elements in a society, the whole of society suffers. More productive people will limit their productivity because they don’t want to fall into a higher tax bracket, and the money they pay in taxes can’t be invested in the economy. Taxing the rich therefore has an unacceptable economic cost. Conversely, low tax rates for the rich produce benefits for all (this is trickle down economics, read also about the Laffer curve).

But this narrative doesn’t quite stand the test of data. As is clear from this link, high tax rates don’t slow down economic growth, and low tax rates don’t speed it up. This paper also supports the claim that moderate, as opposed to dramatic, increases in marginal rates don’t have any impact on the willingness of the wealthy to participate in the economy. They won’t go Galt. Atlas won’t shrug, except to signal indifference.

The top income tax rate was 91% (beginning at taxable income of $400,000) … [in] the period from 1951 through 1963. Those were the golden years of the U.S. economy, in which the average annual rate of productivity growth was 3.1% (compared with about 1.5% after 1981). Of course, the growth might have been even faster had the marginal tax rates been lower, but the coincidence of high rates and high productivity raises challenging questions for those who believe that high marginal tax rates carry an unacceptable cost. (source)

To be fair, marginal tax rates are a crude measures of tax burden. There’s a difference between marginal tax rates and effective tax rates.

  • A marginal tax rate is the tax rate that applies to the last dollar of the tax base (taxable income or spending, usually income). It’s not the rate at which all your dollars are taxed. It’s the maximum rate you’re paying on any of your dollars of taxable income.
  • An effective tax rate refers to the actual rate, i.e., the rate existing in fact, for the entire income, after tax deductions and credits and taking into account lower rates for lower income brackets (see here). It’s your total tax obligation (including your income tax and any other additional taxes and/or credits), divided by your total taxable income.

But even if we look at the effective tax rates of the rich, we see that this has steadily decreased over the decades, with little or no positive effect on overall economic performance.

And when there’s no positive effect of decreasing tax rates, there’s probably also no negative effect of increasing tax rates. To the extent that the wealthy (and productive, although those groups obviously don’t overlap completely) respond to changes in the tax system, their responses focus not on increased/decreased labor, productivity or investment, but on tax avoidance (see here).

What is Democracy? (45): Freedom of Information

In a previous post I discussed the concept of “accountability” and how it’s typical of democracy: politicians, legislators, judges etc. have to give account of their actions. They have to explain what they did, why they did it, and how they did it. Democracy means that the people can dismiss their leaders if they believe they haven’t carried out their job according to the wishes of the people or according to the law. This possible dismissal can only happen if the people have complete and accurate information on the job performance of their leaders. That is why democracies have a free press that can investigate the conduct of politicians. That is also why they have parliaments where the opposition can question the government or the majority, and why they have “freedom of information acts” (see also here). Such acts – often called “sunshine laws” – impose mandatory disclosure of government records, with some exceptions. The people have a right to know, but unfortunately even countries with a long tradition of democracy often find it difficult to be completely transparent. Certain circumstances such as the war on terror make it easy for the governments of those countries to restrict their information obligations. Freedom of information legislation is often full of exceptions or subject to emergency restrictions.

The Causes of Human Rights Violations (8): Lack of Good Governance

Bad governance is a cause of underdevelopment, poverty, war and human rights violations. Major donors and international financial institutions are increasingly basing their aid and loans on the condition that the recipient countries reform their systems so that these conform to the requirements of good governance.

Good governance means a good way to take and implement government decisions (corporate governance is the way to take and implement decisions in a company, but that’s another topic). When judging whether governance is good or bad one has to look at:

  • the way decisions are taken and implemented
  • the structures and rules that govern the decision making and implementing process
  • the people involved
  • the decisions themselves
  • the outcome and consequences of the decisions.

The focus is both on what is done and on the way it is done.

Criteria for judging governance

The criteria used to judge governance are the following (some are partially overlapping):

  1. Is the government accountable or is there no way to criticize it, to replace it or to correct it?
  2. Is the process of decision-making and implementation transparent or is it hidden from public criticism? Is information freely and directly accessible to those who will be affected by decisions?
  3. Is the process of decision-making and implementation responsive to the needs of the citizens or does it follow other needs (such as business needs, international requirements, selfish needs’85) and ignores or misrepresents the needs of the people?
  4. Is the process of decision-making and implementation inclusive, just and fair? Are the needs of the most vulnerable taken into account? Do all the members of society feel that they have an equal stake in it, or do some feel excluded, left out, treated unfairly or discriminated?
  5. Is the process of decision-making and implementation effective and efficient? Does it produce the results that meet the needs of society or results that are demanded by an elite? Does it deliver rapid service or are the procedures slow and cumbersome? Does it make the best use of resources or is it wasteful and time consuming? Does it make use of natural resources in a sustainable way and a way that protects the environment?
  6. Does the process of decision-making and implementation follow the rule of law or is it arbitrary? Are decisions based on enforceable rules that apply equally to all? Are these rules enforced by an independent judiciary and an impartial and incorruptible police force?
  7. Is the process of decision-making and implementation participatory or is it exclusive? Does it respect equality and non-discrimination? Is the participation ad hoc or organized and structured?
  8. Is the process of decision-making and implementation oriented towards consensus, towards mediation of and compromise between different interests, or is it divisive?

The concept of good governance is therefore not limited to the government, but to the whole of society, including the effects of government on society and the input of society in government.

The criteria to judge governance are universal, but it is important to take into account local circumstances, historical “baggage” (like previous regimes, colonialism etc.), a country’s position in the international system etc.

Why Do Countries Become/Remain Democracies? Or Don’t? (3): The Resource Curse

Why do countries with lots of natural resources tend to do worse than countries with less resource wealth, both in terms of economic growth and in political, social and human rights terms? We see that countries which own lots of natural resources such as diamonds, oil or other valuables that are found in the ground, are often relatively poor, badly governed, violent and suffering from gross violations of human rights.

There are many possible causes of this curse (also called “the paradox of plenty”):

1. Lack of economic diversification

Other economic sectors tend to get neglected by the government because there is a guaranteed income from the natural resources. These sectors therefore cannot develop and cannot become an alternative when the resources are taking hits. The fluctuations of the international prices of the resources can cause extreme highs and lows in national economic growth. This is bad in itself, but also makes it difficult for the government to do long term planning, since the level of revenues cannot be predicted. Dependence on one economic sector means vulnerability.

Another disadvantage of concentrating the economy on one resource sector, is that these sector often provide few jobs, especially for local people. The oil industry for example needs highly specialized workers, who are mostly foreigners. On top of that, these sectors do not require many forward or backward connections in the economy (such as suppliers, local customers, refiners etc.), which again doesn’t help the local job creation.

Even if the government tries to diversify the economy, it may fail to do so because the resource sector is more profitable for local individual economic agents.

Resource dependent countries also see their best talents going to the resource industry which pays better wages than the rest of the economy or the government sector. As a result, the latter are unable to perform adequately. See point 4 below.

2. Corruption

Corruption tends to flourish when governments own almost the entire economy and have their hands on the natural resources. More on corruption in a future post.

3. Social division

Abundance of natural resources can produce or prolong violent conflicts within societies as different groups try to control (parts of) the resources. Separatist groups may emerge, trying to control the part of the territory most rich in resources. This is often aggravated by existing social or cultural division. Division may also appear between parts of the government (e.g. local government vs central government, or between different parts of the central administration).

The resources therefore may cause divisions and conflict, and thereby cause deficiencies in government, economic turmoil, and social unrest. But the resources may also prolong conflicts because groups which manage to take control of (parts of) the resources may use these to arm themselves or otherwise gain influence and power.

4. Government’s unaccoutability and inefficiency

Countries which do not depend on natural resources are often more efficient in taxing their citizens, because they do not have funds which are quasi-automatically generated by resources. As a result, they are forced to develop the government machinery in an efficient way, hence a reduced risk of government break-down. The citizens in return, as they are taxed, will demand accountability, efficient spending etc.

Conversely, the political leaders in resource-dependent countries don’t have to care about their citizens. They create support by allocating money, generated by the resources, to favored interest parties, and thereby increasing the level of corruption. And if citizens object, they have the material means to suppress protest. They don’t appreciate an effective government administration as this carries the risk of control, oversight and other anti-corruption measures (see point 2). So they have an interest in bad government.

It is obvious that bad government, rights violations and economic stagnation have many causes. The resource curse is only one. There are countries which are blessed with resources and which do well at the same time. And there are mismanaged countries that don’t have any resources. As in all correlations, the causation may go in the other way: bad government can create dependence on exports of natural resources.

“When a country’s chaos and economic policies scare off foreign investors and send local entrepreneurs abroad to look for better opportunities, the economy becomes skewed. Factories may close and businesses may flee, but petroleum and precious metals remain for the taking. Resource extraction becomes ‘the default sector’ that still functions after other industries have come to a halt.” (source)

What to do about it?

Leif Wenar has argued that a strict application of property rights could help reduce or correct the resource curse. When dictators or insurgents sell off a country’s resources to foreigners or multi-national companies, while terrorizing the people into submission, they are in fact selling goods that they stole from those people. They have no right to sell what they don’t own. The natural resources of a country belong equally to all the people of that country. Article 1 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights states:

All peoples may, for their own ends, freely dispose of their natural wealth and resources.

And

“the people, whose resources are being sold off, become not the beneficiaries of this wealth but the victim of those who use their own wealth to repress them”. Leif Wenar (source)

One could take legal action in western jurisdictions to try to enforce the property rights of the citizens of resource cursed countries and to charge multinational corporations with the crime of receiving stolen goods.

Western countries, investors and consumers could also boycott companies that invest in resource-cursed countries, or try to pressure campaign them to get out of these countries, or they could stop to invest in these companies.

When people finally get a grip on their resources, they open the path to better government, a better economy and better protection for human rights. Perhaps then they will not have to die trying to recapture a tiny part of the resources that are their lawful property, as happened in many cases in Nigeria, for example, where people often try to tap some oil from the pipelines channeling their property to the west. In doing so, they risk their lives. As a consequence of their actions, the pipelines can explode.

What is Democracy? (3): Popular Sovereignty

Democracy and absolute, uncontested or unquestioned power are incompatible. In a democracy, one is allowed and even required to criticize and, if necessary, reject those in power. And if one is able to convince a majority of the people, then the people will remove those in power. The people give power and can take it away. Nobody can acquire or claim power in a permanent way, as if it were his or her private property instead of a public matter. Nobody can personify, embody or crystallize power. Power in a democracy is undefined, or at most temporarily defined and subject to formal and legal rules that make it possible to criticize power. This criticism, depending on its severity, its force and its success, will lead to either the removal of people from power or the renewal of their mandate.

In a democracy, power is the provisional and temporary result of a power struggle between those who want to change the government or its policies and those who want to keep it. This struggle should not be abolished and should continue indefinitely according to stable and foreseeable legal rules and procedures (for example those regulating the elections and the election campaigns). Periodically, the struggle reaches a climax. Elections are a temporary decision of the struggle in favor of one or a few of the parties. Power is, therefore, an object of temporary use rather than property, and is always the result of conflict, criticism, struggle and competition between opposing views on good government.

In a democracy, you can only have power on a temporary basis because your power is the result of an election victory, and you have to undergo the test of future periodical elections in which you make yourself accountable for the things you have done or failed to do. You return to the electorate on a regular basis in order to ask for its judgment and to see whether some or other form of criticism carries sufficient weight. After a political struggle between candidates (incumbents and others) and between points of view regarding the record of the government and the promises of the opposition, the electorate decides who can have or use power and who should stop using power. If it decides that it no longer wishes to obey a certain person in power, for example because that person mad a mistake of failed to do what he or she was asked to do – which is pointed out by political opponents in the course of the pre-election struggle – then the electorate takes away the power from this person. The leaders do not appoint themselves. They are appointed by the people, and have to render account of their actions to the people. If the people consider that the leaders made the wrong decisions or failed to do what they were instructed to do, then the people can dismiss them. Nobody’s power is a matter of course. Power is not self-evident. It must always be assigned, reassigned and legitimized by way of accountability and refutation of criticism.