Why Do We Need Human Rights? (36): The Economic Case Against Democracy

Democracy is a human right. But how do we justify this right? One common argument is that democracies tend to be wealthier than non-democracies. However, there’s some disagreement about this argument: not about the goodness of wealth and wealth-enhancing institutions, but about whether democracies are in fact such institutions. Impressive economic growth rates in non-democratic countries such as China have planted doubts in many people’s minds.

Some time ago, I offered a rather “philosophical” argument against the view that democracies perform worse economically than some types of authoritarian government (i.e. China-style). But in fact we’re dealing with empirically verifiable hypotheses here. So I looked for some numbers and found this article by Dani Rodrik:

The relationship between a nation’s politics and its economic prospects is one of the most fundamental – and most studied – subjects in all of social science. Which is better for economic growth – a strong guiding hand that is free from the pressure of political competition, or a plurality of competing interests that fosters openness to new ideas and new political players? …

Democracies not only out-perform dictatorships when it comes to long-term economic growth, but also outdo them in several other important respects. They provide much greater economic stability, measured by the ups and downs of the business cycle. They are better at adjusting to external economic shocks (such as terms-of-trade declines or sudden stops in capital inflows). They generate more investment in human capital – health and education. And they produce more equitable societies.

Authoritarian regimes, by contrast, ultimately produce economies that are as fragile as their political systems. Their economic potency, when it exists, rests on the strength of individual leaders, or on favorable but temporary circumstances. They cannot aspire to continued economic innovation or to global economic leadership. (source)

The darling of the “authoritarian=efficient” crowd is, of course, China. China has indeed performed extremely well economically under a rather authoritarian government. However, that government is much less authoritarian than it was during the post-WWII decades of stagnation and extreme poverty. So maybe it’s the relative move towards greater freedom that is the true cause of China’s economic performance, rather than its authoritarian government per se.

Moreover, China has done very well in terms of growth and poverty reduction, but in terms of levels of prosperity it’s still way behind most countries that are much more free. Its astounding progress is partly due to the very low starting point that was engineered by its authoritarian rulers.

And finally, the supposed economic success of authoritarianism in China – if it exists – isn’t necessarily proof of the economic ability of authoritarianism in general (authoritarian disaster stories are unfortunately far more common than authoritarian success stories). It may not even be proof of the economic ability of authoritarianism in China, since correlation doesn’t imply causation, especially not if there are only very few observations: China’s economic success may be due to other factors – and maybe this success would have been even greater without authoritarian government.

The economic case for authoritarianism is a bit like this: usually, people don’t return from the dead. But there’s this one guy, Lazarus, who did. Some claim that there was this other fellow, Jesus, who done the deed and made Lazarus walk again. There are no other Jesuses around, and this one Jesus only did his trick once. Nobody quite knows how he did it. Some say he just happened to be around when it occurred and people put one and one together. Lazarus would have walked anyway, perhaps even sooner had this other fellow not stolen all the attention.

Why Do We Need Human Rights? (11): The Economic Case against Human Rights and Democracy

Some authoritarian governments claim that human rights and democracy have to be sacrificed for the sake of economic development and economic progress. Here are some of the reasons given in support of this claim.

Discipline in production and consumption

Discipline in production and consumption is believed to be more important for economic growth than freedom. This discipline requires discipline in general in society, and therefore also a strong state. The exaggerated attention to rights instead of duties is incompatible with discipline. Duties are much more useful in economic development than rights. Instead of wasting scarce resources on consumption, people should moderate themselves and resources should be used for necessary investments. In addition, the free choice of labor is less important than the ability of the state to direct labor towards certain development projects. There may even be a rationale for forced labor.

And finally, if you want economic development, wages need to be low, union activity needs to be minimal, working hours need to be long and perhaps you have to turn a blind eye to child labor. None of this is possible in a democracy that tries to respect human rights.

You need a strong state for all of this, able to force people to be disciplined in both consumption and production.

Discipline in politics

You also need a strong state able to implement and enforce long term plans. Economic development requires consistency, coherence, long term planning and so on, all of which is incompatible with democracy and rotation in office. A democracy doesn’t look further than the next election and is unable to plan economic development. Democracy is the national equivalent of the shortsighted consumer spending everything instead of investing for the future. A democratic government will take measures which guarantee the short term interests of electors and elected, even if these measures are detrimental to the long term economic well-being of the nation.

A strong state doesn’t have to fear election results and can focus on long term planning. It has the power to enforce certain measures which are unpopular in the short run—for example because they imply limits on short term consumption, because they redirect funds towards long term investments or because they entail labor planning—but which yield great dividends in the future.

On top of that, human rights promote individualism and egoism because they are claims of the individual against society. Together with adversarial democracy they hamper national cooperation and harmony which are necessary for economic success.

Radical, not temporary, incompatibility

So according to this narrative, political freedom and human rights have to be rejected because they are by definition incompatible with economic development. And perhaps even with prosperity as such: they may not even be a luxury which poor countries cannot afford yet and which are useless when bellies are empty; they are even less than that. If you choose freedom, then not only will it be impossible to escape from underdevelopment – it will be impossible to maintain prosperity.

Rebuttal

Now, what can we say against this? Let’s take the different arguments in turn. If you assume that discipline in consumption and production is a good thing, then you basically create an export dependent economy. It’s well known that domestic consumption drives economic growth (see also here). If consumption is discouraged (and savings and investments encouraged), and if wages are low and working hours long, then you may get an initial boost in the economy, but this is no strategy for long term success. Not only does it imply dependence on exports and hence vulnerability to shocks occurring in the economies of the trading partners; it also keeps living standards low. And that can hardly be the purpose of economic development. China has clearly understood this and is trying to boost domestic demand (see also here).

The utility of child labor is obviously shortsighted – no economy can prosper without an educated citizenry – and the need for planning and long term consistency in economic policy is also a dubious argument. Centrally planned economies aren’t known for their successes. The state is not necessarily the most appropriate engine for development. Investment and planning decisions are probably best left to the market, and those investments that are best done by the government don’t require an authoritarian form of government. I don’t see how a dictatorship is better placed to plan transport infrastructure or energy provision for example. On the contrary even: the lack of transparency in a dictatorship makes it likely that such investments turn out to be corruption machines.

The argument that democracies are too fickle and shortsighted for economic planning and investments is also a bit weak. It’s difficult to deny that a democratic government, because of the way it comes to power, has more legitimacy and is therefore better placed to take difficult and unpopular decisions. People are more willing to accept or live with unpopular policies if they have a government that can be forced to justify its actions in public. Besides, the point is moot because most authoritarian leaders aren’t the long term planners and do-gooders they are supposed to be: most think only of the short term, namely their own short term financial profit.

What about the lack of cooperation, harmony and unity of democracies, and the selfishness cultivated by human rights? First of all, it’s not evident that national cooperation and harmony are best for economic development. Maybe individualism, entrepreneurship, inventiveness and doing things different are more important. And secondly, why would we assume that human rights are necessarily individualistic and selfish? There can never be an exaggerated attention to rights at the expense of duties. There are no rights without duties. And many so-called individualistic human rights create strong groups (freedom of religion, tolerance, freedom of association and assembly etc.).

Also, why would we have to think that democracy is more adversarial than autocracy? The democratic procedures for changing governments create social stability because they help to avoid revolt. Authoritarian harmony is often only skin deep – if it exists at all – because it’s based on suppression of differences. Things that are suppressed have a habit of popping up later in a more violent form.

The point is that human rights and democracy are magnificent weapons in the struggle for economic development rather than a luxury which poor people can’t afford or a false blessing which will render every economic achievement impossible or short-lived.

Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics (16): Measuring Public Opinion in Dictatorships

Measuring human rights requires a certain level of respect for human rights (freedom to travel, freedom to speak, to interview etc.). Trying to measure human rights in situations characterized by the absence of freedom is quite difficult, and can even lead to unexpected results: the absence of (access to) good data may give the impression that things aren’t as bad as they really are. Conversely, when a measurement shows a deteriorating situation, the cause of this may simply be better access to better data. And this better access to better data may be the result of more openness in society. Deteriorating measurements may therefore signal an actual improvement. I gave an example of this dynamic here (it’s an example of statistics on violence against women).

Measuring public opinion in authoritarian countries is always difficult, but if you ask the public if they love or hate their government, it’s likely that you’ll have higher rates of “love” in the more authoritarian countries. After all, in those countries it can be pretty dangerous to tell someone in the street that you hate your government. They choose to lie and say that they approve. That’s the safest answer but probably in many cases not the real one. I don’t believe for a second that the percentage of people approving of their government is 19 times higher in Azerbaijan than in Ukraine, when Ukraine is in fact much more liberal than Azerbaijan.

In the words of Robert Coalson:

The Gallup chart is actually an index of fear. What it reflects is not so much attitudes toward the government as a willingness to openly express one’s attitudes toward the government. As one member of RFE/RL’s Azerbaijan Service told me, “If someone walked up to me in Baku and asked me what I thought about the government, I’d say it was great too”.

Why Do Countries Become/Remain Democracies? Or Don’t? (6)

Democracy is a human right. If we want to promote universal respect for this right, we have to know how societies have achieved the transition from authoritarian forms of government to more democratic ones, and how democracies have avoided the opposite transition. Once we know this, we can promote the future emergence of democracies, and we can counteract the breakdown of existing ones.

Unfortunately, this is a very murky area of political science. The only thing that’s clear is that there is no silver bullet. There isn’t one thing we can do to transform societies once and for all into democracies. Things aren’t easy or simple. A huge number of factors have been identified as causes of or obstacles to democratic transitions, and existing democracies need constant nurturing and protection. A few of the factors that have been named as either promoting or inhibiting democracy are:

  • economic growth or GDP per capita
  • protestant culture versus catholic culture (a catholic culture is believed to be more hierarchical)
  • levels of education and literacy
  • income or wealth inequality (in very unequal societies, the wealthy have a lot to lose with democracy)
  • levels of employment in agriculture versus industry (industrial societies are believed to more more urban and less attached to traditional and authoritarian social relationships)
  • the presence/absence of neighboring democracies
  • export diversity (countries with one major export product such as oil tend to be “resource cursed”)
  • is a country a former U.K. colony or not? (former U.K. colonies are believed to be more sympathetic to democracy given their British colonial heritage)
  • is there a large middle class or not?
  • etc.

Statistical analysis to pinpoint which ones of these many variables really determine democracy – and which ones are merely guesses – has yielded contradictory results, not surprisingly given the low numbers of observations (societies or countries don’t change their political systems very often) and the relative lack of long time series (most classifications of regime types haven’t started earlier than a couple of decades ago). One interesting analysis is here.

So don’t expect me to have an opinion here. What I wanted to focus on in this post is the first in the list. There are two radically opposing views on the effect of economic development on democracy. One view is called modernization theory. Basically, the idea is that as countries develop economically, people will switch to other, higher needs, such as self-government, self-control, and political activity in general. Poverty, on the contrary, forces people to focus on survival and makes democracy seem like a luxury.

However, the opposite view is also persuasive. Countries that do well economically are less likely to become democratic because the population is quite pleased with how things are going and will not revolt. The authoritarian rulers can claim that it’s thanks to them that things are going well. It’s not unlikely that economic collapse rather than success causes authoritarian regimes to break down.

So even if you isolate one of dozens of possible factors causing regime transition, things aren’t very clear. Should we starve dictatorships, or help them develop economically? As a result of this lack of clarity, it’s very difficult to frame foreign policy in such a way that it favors the development of democracies around the world. This may go some way to explain the traditional lack of ambition in diplomatic circles.

Terrorism and Human Rights (15): Does Respect for Human Rights Reduce Terrorism?

Here is an extremely interesting paper by James Walsh and James Piazza. Quote:

Some hold that restricting human rights is a necessary if unfortunate cost of preventing terrorism. Others conclude that such abuses aggravate political grievances that contribute to terror. We demonstrate that theory and data support the latter position. (source)

They focus on what they call physical integrity rights, or rights which protect people from physical harm. The more a state respects these rights, the less terror attacks it suffers. It will also be less engaged in some way or other in transnational attacks.

These findings are opposed to two similar and widespread beliefs: unstable states can only guarantee security is they are authoritarian (see here), and even well-developed democracies have to limit some human rights in order to fight a terrorist threat. In the former case, the threat comes usually from within; in the latter case from abroad.

States that seek to preserve human rights and political freedoms are limited in their ability to monitor and detain terrorism suspects, are prohibited from making broad police sweeps to catch terrorist perpetrators and their sympathizers, limit coercive interrogation of suspects, and must afford suspected terrorists access to a lawyer and a public trial. Freedom of assembly and of the press allows terrorists and their supporters to publicize their grievances. … The implication is that states that protect human rights are more vulnerable to terrorist attacks. (source)

In fact, the opposite is true. Protecting human rights, and especially security or integrity rights, reduces terrorism, and violating them promotes terrorism. Terrorism is a complex phenomenon, but I think it true to say that grievances and injustices (and many of those are caused by rights violations) are important motives. Democracies and states that respect human rights supposedly give too much freedom to terrorists, allow them to organize, recruit, mobilize and plan, and make it very hard to efficiently combat terrorists (rule of law, free speech, humane treatment and torture prohibitions etc. are all said to hamper counter-terrorism). But authoritarian regimes create injustices on which terrorists feed. They also make it hard to express and redress grievances in non-violent ways,  and use ruthless methods that only make their opponents more radical, fanatic and popular.

What is Democracy? (42): A Luxury That Some Countries Can’t Afford?

Are some countries better off with a dictatorship? With a strong man able to make tough and unpopular decisions without fear for the next election? Are some populations willing to accept this and trade some political freedoms for more security and physical safety?

However, in what way is democracy deficient in delivering security? And is dictatorship better equipped? Let’s look at these two questions in turn.

Democracy and human rights are said to promote discord, chaos and even violence, especially in ethnically or religously divided countries. Indeed, rights such as free speech can be used to incite communal hostility and violence, and democratic elections cannot function if there is no division and contest between groups. The adversarial aspect of democratic elections often results in communal tension and even violence, especially in what we could call immature or imperfect democracies.

The argument for stability and security seems stronger when it is used against democracy than when it is used against human rights. It is evident that most groups that use violence do so because they feel that their rights are somehow violated; respect for human rights will therefore diminish rather than increase violence.

Regarding democracy, it is obviously adversarial and it does divide society into different, antagonistic groups. However, it does not push divisions to such an extreme that living together peacefully becomes impossible or undesirable. The unwillingness to live together is not caused by democracy but by fundamental convictions concerning religion, morality, justice etc. Democracy does not even enhance this unwillingness. On the contrary, it offers ways to bridge fundamental differences between groups (e.g. it offers places of discussion and negotiation) and it creates mechanisms which guarantee peaceful coexistence when it is impossible to bridge differences (such as federalism, power sharing, tolerance, religious freedom etc.).

We can see a two-way causation at work here: although democracy undoubtedly needs national unity, it is also a prerequisite for this unity. A group will question the national unity, will revolt, will cause violent conflicts or will try to separate only if it is discriminated against, if its human rights are violated, if it does not enjoy tolerance and respect for its difference, if it is excluded from power or if it is not granted local autonomy. If, in other words, it does not live in a democracy. National unity, the conviction of belonging to the same group and of sharing the same destiny whatever the differences, can only arise as a result of debate. Freedom of expression and elections can indeed be dangerous in a divided society, but without it, it is hard to see how divisions can be overcome or accommodated, as opposed to merely suppressed.

And this suppression is precisely the so-called major advantage of authoritarian regimes, compared to democracies. An authoritarian state is undoubtedly better equipped to suppress communal hostility. The ability to maintain communal peace is a classic argument in favor of authoritarian forms of government. Indeed, these forms of government seem to be able to separate warring factions, to avoid chaos, violence, separation and disintegration and to focus attention on loyalty, patriotism and the community. They limit the use of rights because rights are a means to incite or aggravate divisions. These regimes are able to violate rights if this is deemed necessary in order to keep antagonists apart.

However, what is the cost of authoritarian peace? Grave violations of human rights in the first place, and more violence than before. Rights violations often create more violence than the violence which was the initial reason to violate rights. Violating rights in order to suppress communal tensions is counterproductive in the long run. A strong hand always causes revolt and violence, the opposite therefore of what is intended. Rights violations, which are deemed necessary for the preservation of communal peace, cause violent opposition and revolt. They can lead to violent revolt even when they do not imply the use of violence. Without human rights, it is impossible to express claims and people who cannot claim something will resort to more extreme means in order to get what is theirs. Authoritarianism promotes the evil it wants to combat, although in the short run rights limitations and the use of violence may seem the only alternative.

Democracy is necessary in a divided society because the alternative – oppression – only reinvigorates what is tries to eliminate.

The Ethics of Human Rights (5): China, Confucianism and Authoritarianism

Confucianism, the traditional Chinese ethical and philosophical system based on the teachings of Confucius (551 BCE – 479 BCE), is often blamed for the lack of freedom and the authoritarian and anti-democratic form of government in China. This post examines the merits of this attack.

Confucianism is not a religion, although many believe it is, perhaps because of its emphasis on morality and the extent to which it has shaped and become synonymous with the culture of much of East-Asia, including of course China but also Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Vietnam and many other countries with large Chinese communities. It is rather a philosophy and a culture.

Although vigorously attacked by the Chinese communists, it is beyond doubt that Confucianism still remains a strong force in Chinese thinking.

Arguments against the link between Confucianism and authoritarianism

Confucianism does not have to lead to authoritarianism. Indeed, Confucianism places more value on internalized morality than on external repression of deviant behavior:

Confucius argues that under law, external authorities administer punishments after illegal actions, so people generally behave well without understanding reasons why they should; whereas with ritual, patterns of behavior are internalized and exert their influence before actions are taken, so people behave properly because they fear shame and want to avoid losing face. (source)

The exercise of rituals or rites (not in the religious sense but in the sense of everyday ritual actions or routines) teaches people to internalize norms and respect them voluntarily, not because of fear of punishment. Formalized behavior through rituals becomes progressively internalized. Laws and governmental power are relatively unimportant to Confucianism.

Another reason why Confucianism is not necessarily autocratic is the teaching that the king’s personal virtue spreads a beneficial influence throughout the kingdom. With a virtuous king, the need for the use of force is limited.

Arguments in favor of the link between Confucianism and authoritarianism

Rituals are not only used to internalize morality and to instill a sense of propriety or politeness, but also to assign everyone a place in society, a kind of relationship to others and a form of behavior towards others.

While juniors are considered in Confucianism to owe strong duties of reverence and service to their seniors, seniors also have duties of benevolence and concern toward juniors. (source)

This leads to a strict hierarchy in society, which is opposed to equal rights, universality of rights and the equal influence that is found in a true democracy.

Social harmony is the ideal that results from every individual knowing his place in society, assuming his role and responsibilities towards others and establishing the right kinds of relationships and forms of behavior. However, this social harmony is clearly opposed to adversarial democratic politics.

There is government, when the prince is prince, and the minister is minister; when the father is father, and the son is son. (Confucius, Analects XII, 11).

There can be no objection to filial duties and filial piety. But the duty of benevolence and concern of the older towards the younger, and the extension of this duty to the rulers with regard to the people, can lead to paternalism and an infringement of the right to chose one’s own style of life.

Confucianism sees a moral role of government, and a responsibility of the government for the physical and moral well-being of the people. Filial piety is extended within Confucianism to political loyalty of the subjects of a state or even outright submission to authority. This leads to political inequality and elitism which is hard to reconcile with democracy.

However, the original teachings of Confucius forced the subjects to obey only as long as the rulers showed moral rectitude and responsibility for the well-being of the people. When the rulers assume their duties, strict obedience is required. But when they fail, the people can rebel. So no “might is right” or absolute power. Later rulers of course interpreted Confucianism in a more authoritarian way, for their own benefit.

Other aspects of Confucianism, such as the priority of the state and the community over the individual, meritocracy etc. make it hard for a democratic culture of freedom to take root.

Incompatibility of Confucianism and democracy, human rights and freedom?

Democracy, rights and freedom are not the exclusive product of the West and they are compatible with all cultures and religions. However, all cultures and religions also contain elements that inhibit the development of freedom. But it is possible tochange these elements.

Other causes of authoritarianism

One should also be careful not to overstate the importance of culture. First of all, culture is often used by rulers to justify themselves, and in doing so they tend to distort the real meaning of the culture in question. As is evident from the examples above, many elements of Confucianism cannot justify authoritarianism. Secondly, authoritarianism has other, non-cultural causes. In the case of China: the legacy of communism, the priority accorded to the economy (a priority that is supposed to warrant human rights violations) etc.

Plato, Democracy, and “Human Rights” (1): Appearance and Politics

In this series of 4 posts I will try to give a critical account of Plato’s pessimistic view of democracy and “human rights” or better the guesses one can make about what Plato would have thought about human rights had they existed in his time. (Athenian democracy did have free speech for example, but never extended such rights to humanity; it only respected rights for Athenian citizens. More about Ancient Greek democracy).

Plato had a preference for a very particular form of authoritarian government. Plato looked down upon the democratic polis. The people, according to him, are ruled by their natural desires. Freedom for them is in the first place the freedom to consume as much as they want. They think that they are free in a democracy, but they are the slaves of nature, of passions and lust. They live in the dictatorship of their desires.

According to Plato, the solution to this problem is not the development of technology. That would have been an anachronism and would perhaps not be a solution anyway, because technology only makes it easier to consume and does not offer a life beyond consumption, as was required by Plato. It offers merely the possibility of such a life. Plato’s solution is solitary asceticism, a radical turning away from sense perception and a dedication to an intellectual life of philosophy and theory which he called the “theoretical life“.

A philosopher has to shun the world of sense perception, sense perception in the meaning of the use of senses to fulfill desires, but also in the more general meaning of empirical knowledge production and of listening and speaking to others. In other words, he has to avoid democratic politics. According to Plato’s philosophy, sense perception, and therefore also political deliberation and the use of human rights (explicitly or implicitly), is an illusion, deception and mere appearance instead of reality. The philosopher must turn away from all this and try to take the lonely road towards the light of the eternal truths visible only to the eye of the mind.

These truths are the general ideas, also called “forms”. For example, the concrete chair, a particular appearance of the abstract idea of the chair, is only a poor imitation of the general idea, an ephemeral specimen of the eternal form, a mere approximation of the ideal. The general idea, the truth rather than the approximation, can only be seen by the eye of the solitary mind. Hence the devaluation of perception.

It is not the differences between things, the plurality, that count, but the resemblances. Plato’s ideal is a minimum of difference. Differences must be transcended in order to achieve knowledge of eternal truth. Knowledge is aimed at the unchanging and general ideas, not at the differences between concrete manifestations of these ideas. That is one of the reasons for his hostility towards democracy. Democracy is after all plurality, reaction and change, and resembles the world of appearances, of concrete things, rather than the platonic world of reality and of the eternal and unchanging forms. The people, according to Plato, constantly go from one concrete object to another, without ever seeing the general idea. For example, they go from one consumer product to another, from one policy or politician to another, from one changing opinion to another etc. The unchanging truth, which is beyond the level of the changes caused by persuasion and human rights, is unattainable for most of them.

Read also parts 2, 3 and 4

What is Democracy? (15): The Willingness to Live Together

Democracy is impossible when there is fundamental hostility between large groups in the state, when one group fears that a political victory of another group will harm its fundamental interests and when, as a consequence, groups are unwilling to live together. The tensions between communities resulting from this kind of situation makes the functioning of democratic procedures impossible and can lead to rights violations and even to civil war.

To some extent, national unity is a prerequisite for the preservation of any form of government, although an authoritarian state is undoubtedly better equipped to suppress communal hostility. The ability to survive in a situation of communal hostility and to maintain communal peace is a classic argument in favor of authoritarian forms of government. Indeed, these forms of government seem to be able to separate warring factions, to avoid chaos, violence, separation and disintegration and to focus attention on loyalty, patriotism and the community. They limit the use of rights because rights are a means to incite or aggravate divisions. These regimes are able to violate rights if this is deemed necessary in order to keep antagonists apart.

However, what is the cost of authoritarian peace? Grave violations of human rights in the first place, and more violence than before. Rights violations often create more violence than the violence which was the initial reason to violate rights. If you hit me, I will hit you back and if I hit you back, you will hit me back again, and so on. Violating rights in order to suppress communal tensions is counterproductive in the long run. A strong hand always causes revolt and violence, the opposite therefore of what is intended. Rights violations, which are deemed necessary for the preservation of communal peace, cause violent opposition and revolt. They can lead to violent revolt even when they do not imply the use of violence. Without human rights, it is impossible to express claims and people who cannot claim something will resort to more extreme means in order to get what is theirs. Authoritarianism promotes the evil it wants to combat, although in the short run rights limitations and the use of violence may seem the only alternative.