The Thorny Bush of Democracy Promotion Abroad

Should we be allowed to intervene in a country for the purpose of promoting democracy and human rights, if the people in this country don’t want to have a democracy or human rights? If they do want to have democracy and rights, then it’s of course, possible and acceptable, maybe even necessary to assist them and to help them in their struggle against their government, as long as our intervention doesn’t cause violence or other unintended effects that are counterproductive.

However, what can we do if they don’t want democracy and rights? Is it not undemocratic to force someone to be democratic? On the one hand, democracy implies respect for the will, the choice and the consent of the people. But, on the other hand, if we reject the creation of democracy with undemocratic means on logical grounds, then we foreclose other widely accepted courses of action such as the restoration of peace with unpeaceful means. And we don’t want to do that.

If we’re allowed to impose democracy from the outside and without the agreement of the people, then we obviously contradict ourselves because we don’t act in a democratic way. We’re not interested in the will of the people (the will of the state is of no importance here, although in most cases it is this will rather than the will of the people, which hinders democratisation). But this merely logical objection shouldn’t, it seems, be enough to stop us. After all, the same logical problem besets those who argue that democracy implies the right of the people to decide against democracy. One can’t logically force a system to be self-destructive.

However, the logic problems of our opponents don’t make our own logic problems go away. The choice of the people is an important thing and should be taken into account in democracy promotion. Choosing something other than democracy is choosing a system in which you can’t choose, but it’s still a choice and an expression of popular will.

The will of the people is a principle of democracy, but it is not an absolute principle and democracy is more than that. The choice of the people is not sacred and can be limited. If, in a democracy, the people make undemocratic choices, choices against democracy or choices that violate human rights, then this is legally unacceptable. However, this rule applies only to a people who already live in a democracy. Interventions in undemocratic countries should take into account anti-democratic popular opinion. At least to the extent that anti-democratic popular opinion can be ascertained in undemocratic countries. After all, propaganda, indoctrination and fear can make it very difficult to get a good view of popular opinion in such countries.

Still, it may be possible to be reasonably confident of informed and uncoerced popular objections to democracy and human rights in a certain non-democratic country. In those case, the type of intervention open to outsiders is strictly limited. One may try to convince people to choose for democracy, but beyond persuasion there doesn’t seem to be much that one can do. One can’t force people to be free. In the words of JS Mill:

“[I]t is difficult to see on what principles but those of tyranny [a people] can … be prevented from living … under what laws they please, provided they commit no aggression on other nations and allow perfect freedom of departure to those who are dissatisfied with their ways … So long as the sufferers by the bad law do not invoke assistance from other communities, I cannot admit that persons entirely unconnected with them ought to step in and require that a condition of things with which all who are directly interested appear to be satisfied should be put an end to because it is a scandal to persons some thousands of miles distant who have no part or concern in it. Let them send missionaries, if they please, to preach against it; and let them, by any fair means (of which silencing the teachers is not one), oppose the progress of similar doctrines among their own people” (source)

In the vast majority of cases, however, we can’t be reasonably confident of popular objections to democracy in undemocratic states. The reasonable thing to believe in those cases is that we can’t ascertain the informed and uncoerced opinions of the people of those states. We can also reasonably believe that there may be hidden support, or that support would be forthcoming if more information were available to the people. If a lack of support is due only to misinformation, indoctrination or lack of knowledge, then interventions aimed at persuasion can be sufficient to convince people. And when there is popular support for democratic reform and rights protection, than the means of intervention can be extended beyond mere persuasion.

Why Do Countries Become/Remain Democracies? Or Don’t? (14): Assassination

If we agree that democracy is something important, then we need to know why, how and when countries turn to or away from democracy. So, here’s another installment in our ongoing series:

Assassinations are a persistent feature of the political landscape. Using a new data set of assassination attempts on all world leaders from 1875 to 2004, we exploit inherent randomness in the success or failure of assassination attempts to identify assassination’s effects. We find that, on average, successful assassinations of autocrats produce sustained moves toward democracy. We also find that assassinations affect the intensity of small-scale conflicts. The results document a contemporary source of institutional change, inform theories of conflict, and show that small sources of randomness can have a pronounced effect on history. (source, source)

I guess no need to say that this isn’t a sufficient condition for a democratic transition. More posts in this series are here.

Why Do Countries Become/Remain Democracies? Or Don’t? (12): Arab Democracy, an Oxymoron?

When people look for reasons why countries haven’t made the transition from authoritarian government to democracy, they often mention economic development or culture, or both. And culture usually means religion more specifically. And religion usually means Islam. Now it’s true that if you look at the largest Muslim region, the Arab world (roughly North Africa plus the Arab Peninsula), you won’t find a single democracy. You can check the most common democracy indexes, Freedom House and Polity IV. That’s an anomaly: no other large region in the world is similarly devoid of democratic governance.

The question is of course: why? In our post-9/11 world the obvious answer is Islam, which is believed to be a religion that is particularly incompatible with democratic principles such as separation of state and church, pluralism, rule of law, human rights etc. Some even say that there will never be democracies in the Arab world as long as Islam remains an important force.

However, sometimes the obvious answer is also the wrong one. Some Muslim countries outside the Arab world have reasonably well developed democratic systems of government (Albania, Indonesia, Malaysia, Senegal, Turkey etc.) and are doing much better than some non-Muslim dictatorships out there.

But then, if it’s not religion, what is the reason for the absence of democracy in the Arab world? In an interesting new paper, Larry Diamond has a look at some possible reasons. He focuses on the so-called resource-curse and the correlated lack of accountability (accountability only emerges in countries that have to tax their people), but I think he’s wrong there. Lack of economic development could be a cause, but he rightly dismisses it. If you compare economic development in Arab and non-Arab countries, you see that per capita GDP of Kuwait is on the same level as Norway, Bahrain compares to France, and Saudi Arabia is on a par with South Korea. Conversely, you’ll be able to find non-Arab democracies that are much less developed than the average Arab country.

A more promising explanation of enduring Arab authoritarianism is FOTA: fear of the alternative. moderate opposition groups in Arab countries tend to accept their authoritarian governments. Their dislike of “modern pharaohs” is topped by their dislike of radical Islamist groups that could profit from free elections. Rather than the principle “one person, one vote, one time” followed by theocracy, they settle for the relatively mild yoke of secular Arab dictatorship. Something similar happened before in Latin America, when the feared alternative was communist rule.

Another explanation for the lack of Arab democracy is the large proportion of GDP spent on the security apparatus, and the relative efficiency of Arab security forces. This is probably linked to the support these countries receive from the West, which is another reason for their longevity. And finally, the Arab-Israeli conflict is a very convenient diversion: it allows public frustration to discharge outwards, without internal consequences.

As you can see, none of these causes condemn Arab countries to dictatorship. Compared to religion, these are things that can be changed quite easily, if the will is there. The FOTA is self-fulfilling: it’s likely that radical Islamist movements are encouraged by authoritarian rule, as much as they are restrained by it. So better give it up. And the West could use its leverage, resulting from decades of support, to push for reforms.

Why Do We Need Human Rights? (12): The Economic Case against Human Rights and Democracy, Ctd.

After completing my older post on the topic – in which I argued that the case is very weak – I found this quote by Bill Easterly which I thought would illustrate my point:

Democracy doesn’t attract as much love as it deserves in aid and development circles. Many wonder if benevolent autocrats might be better for development than messy elections, even though there is no evidence to support benevolent autocracy. There is a strong positive association between democracy and LEVEL of per capita income, which at least some authors argue is causal. (It’s true there is no robust association between democracy and GROWTH of income, but then there is no robust association between GROWTH and ANYTHING.) But even if there had been SOME material payoff to autocracy, why don’t we care more about democracy as a good thing in itself? (source)

My argument for democracy is usually instrumental (see here) and prosperity is one of the values that can and should be promoted by instrumental democracy. But I’ve also written about democracy as a good thing in itself. Go here if you care about that sort of argument.

Why Do Countries Become/Remain Democracies? Or Don’t? (9): The Resource Curse

If we value democracy, then it’s interesting to know

  • how societies have achieved the transition from authoritarian forms of government to more democratic ones
  • why other societies have failed
  • and how democracies have avoided the opposite transition.

This knowledge will help us to promote and sustain democracy in the future. Something we already know is that this isn’t simple. There are a huge number of factors at play and there’s no silver bullet. Some of the most widely discussed factors are economic development, levels of education, and religion and culture.

I’ll bracket two important issues here: what kind of democracy are we talking about, and how do we measure transition or development towards democracy? If you want to know what promotes or inhibits democracy and act on this knowledge in order to further the cause of democracy, you can’t avoid these questions, but discussing them here would take us too far.

What I want to focus on here is the so-called resource curse. This curse is believed to be a phenomenon that blocks countries’ development towards democracy. Promoting democracy means lifting the curse. Now, what is this curse, and is it real or just another simplistic explanation of the course of history?

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. Resource wealth can trigger corruption and grabbing, can give autocrats the means to retain power by buying off opposition or building a repressive state apparatus, or can tempt democratically elected leaders to cling to highly beneficial positions of power.

This sounds good but even a cursory glance at reality reveals some counter-indications. There are many resource rich countries that are governed very well and are pinnacles of democracy (take Norway). Still, that may only disprove part of the resource curse. It may be the case that democracies benefit from resources and are able to solidify themselves, while non-democracies are doomed to remain as they are because of resource abundance. Resources then only create a curse when democratic institutions are absent. So we shouldn’t worry about democracies failing because of resources, but about autocracies failing to transform because of them.

However, there’s an article here claiming that

resource wealth is positively associated with both economic growth and institutional quality.

Much depends, it seems, on how to measure resource abundance. There also is a reversal of the direction of causation, a common mistake in statistics:

There is no evidence that resource-dependent countries end up with slow growth and bad institutions. Rather, countries with bad institutions attract little investment, and as a result they grow more slowly and remain dependent on exports of commodities.

What is Democracy? (50): The I-Did-It-My-Way Syndrome

In discussions about the promotion of democracy in those parts of the world where it hasn’t been (firmly) established yet, the skeptical side of the argument usually advances either or both of the following positions:

  • Democracy is a political form typical of the West and undesirable or impossible elsewhere.
  • Democracy is a political concept which is defined in different ways according to the culture in which it is applied. When promoting democratic government in certain places, we are in fact promoting standard Western democracy when we should in fact be promoting something quite different.

The first position often includes references to cultural or religious preconditions for democracy which are claimed to be absent in certain countries (notably Muslim countries, which supposedly have a hard time accepting the separation of state and religion, the rule of law, gender equality and other elements of democracy). Or it includes arguments about economic preconditions which are absent (democracy being OK for the wealthy West, but not for countries which have other, more urgent economic concerns). And, finally, the size of countries, or their ethnic mix, is said to make democracy very difficult to achieve, or to make it an element which can undermine national harmony and stability. Democracy is viewed as something which reinforces communal or tribal antagonism because the different political parties tend to be formed along ethnic or tribal dividing lines. As a consequence, these parties see it as their role to defend the communal interest and nothing else, and once they are in power they tend to do so by discriminating against other communities. In such countries, democracy degenerates into an ethnic census.

The second position doesn’t reject the possibility or desirability of democracy in certain countries, but claims that the western definition of democracy can’t and shouldn’t be imposed outside of the West without taking into account the local, cultural, historical and social circumstances. There should be different models of democracy for different parts of the world. The western model is not a panacea and is not adapted to all circumstances.

Needless to say that this second position tends to collapse into the first one: if democracy is a very open concept that can include very different procedures, rules and institutions, then it can also exclude elements of democracy which we normally see as essential parts of democracy. An “African democracy” or “Asian democracy” or whatever, may turn out to be not very democratic. Indeed, such concepts are often mere smokescreens used by dictators weary of rejecting democracy altogether.

However, there is some element of truth in both positions. Democracy is undoubtedly tied to certain preconditions, and is impossible without those. And, in certain specific circumstances, such as a war or a national emergency, democracy – or full democracy – may be – temporarily – undesirable. Moreover, countries have to be able to follow their own path and to organize their societies according to their own views and traditions, and not according to those of the West. The Western model isn’t by definition the only desirable one, or the best one. It is not up to the West to decide what is and what is not politically acceptable in countries with entirely different traditions. Democracy can take different forms. Even among Western countries, there are vast differences between the types of democracy that are applied.

It’s wrong to copy the specifically Western view of democracy “à la lettre” in the rest of the world. Within certain limits, we have to take local and cultural aspects into consideration and we have to be flexible where we can. But there are limits. A democracy can’t be just anything. Otherwise we would be defending nihilism. If some elements are missing – such as freedom of speech, association and assembly, regular, fair and free elections, the rule of law etc. – then we can hardly speak of democracy.

What is Democracy? (49): An Export Product?

I strongly believe that democracy is a universal value and the best possible form of government for any country in the world (which doesn’t mean that democracy should necessarily take the same form everywhere). This is based on another belief, namely that democracy promotes favorable outcomes (such as prosperity, economic growth, quality of governance, respect for human rights etc.) and is also a good in itself.

However, democracy promotion poses some logical, moral and practical problems. I want to focus on the logical and moral ones here.

Shortly after the French Revolution in 1789, Napoleon Bonaparte propelled his armies across Europe on behalf of the universal principles of liberty, equality and fraternity, somewhat in the style of the U.S. forces now deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Napoleon’s armies occupied Europe because they wanted to export French principles and French civilization. Everybody had to follow the French lead and had to enact a “French” Revolution, assisted by France if necessary. France was the advance guard of the struggle of humanity for freedom and against old-style authoritarianism.

A military type of democratic imperialism in the style of Napoleon is of course only one of many ways to promote democracy abroad and certainly not the best one. Attacking, conquering and occupying other countries, even with the purpose of liberating these countries from oppression and archaic authoritarian forms of government, seems to be highly illogical and self-contradictory. It’s incompatible with the very principles of democracy (democracy is self-determination). This is shown by the fact that, in most cases, the democratic crusade of the French failed to produce democracy in the “backward” countries of destination. On the contrary, it created resentment. The occupied countries, quite understandably, rejected France, and hence rejected its principles as well, perhaps for no other reason than the fact that it were principles of a hostile and conquering country. Traditional and often non-democratic political practices were reinvigorated by feelings of national pride that came with the struggle against France. Grave consequences followed, especially in 20th century Germany. Perhaps something similar can be said of current attempts at military-backed “nation-building”.

Other, non-military means to promote democracy around the world are not without problems either. If you want to liberate the world, then you will tend to see yourself as a model, superior to the rest and more “civilized” than the rest. This kind of megalomania will cause a reaction: people will stress their difference. It will, in other words, create the opposite of what is intended.

If people want to have democracy, then it is of course possible and acceptable, maybe even necessary to assist them and to help them in their struggle against their government. But can we promote democracy if the people of a country do not want to have a democracy? Is it not undemocratic to force someone to be democratic? On the one hand, democracy implies respect for the will, the choice and the consent of the people. But, on the other hand, if we want to create democracy with undemocratic means, we have the analogy that peace is not always restored with peaceful means either.

If, as this analogy suggests, you are allowed to impose democracy from the outside and without the agreement of the people, then you obviously give the appearance of incoherence. You don’t act in a democratic way because you’re not interested in the will of the people (the will of the state is of no importance here, although in most cases it is this will rather than the will of the people which hinders democratization). The question is: are we allowed to impose or enforce democracy in an authoritarian way? Or do the people have a right to reject democracy? Does democracy not imply the right of the people to decide against democracy and to choose something else?

There are several problems with this kind of question.

  • First, it forces a system to be self-destructive (it forces democracy to respect the will of the people in all cases, even when this means respecting the choice of the people against democracy), which is clearly an unreasonable requirement.
  • The second problem is that the question reduces democracy to a system of popular choice and obscures all other functions of democracy.
  • Thirdly, those castigating democracy promotion because it doesn’t respect the anti-democratic will of a people suffer from a paradox of their own: choosing something other than democracy is choosing a system in which you cannot choose. It is difficult to call this a choice. The decision not to decide cannot be called a decision either. A people who choose against democracy contradict themselves and are at odds with their own opinions, in the same way as the democrat forcing democracy down the throat of the same unwilling people.
  • Finally, a people can only choose for or against a democracy when they already live in a democracy. In a non-democratic regime, their choice is of no importance; it is not taken into account and often even impossible to determine.

In spite of all this, however, it’s possible that there is a tentative understanding that a certain people living in a certain dictatorship do in fact make the illogical choice of not being able to choose. So the question remains: are we allowed to impose democracy against the choice of those concerned? Or, in other words, are we allowed to promote democracy with undemocratic means? If we say that peace is not always promoted with peaceful means either, then Stalin could reply that he tried to liberate the Russians from barbarism by using barbaric means. There is not much difference between Stalin’s statement and the statement that we can liberate nations from undemocratic regimes by using undemocratic means. So we must be careful with this kind of reasoning.

The important thing here is the difference between the imposition of democracy on an unwilling (or seemingly unwilling) people, and simple democracy promotion. There’s no contradiction in trying to convince people to choose for democracy.

[I]t is difficult to see on what principles but those of tyranny [a people] can … be prevented from living … under what laws they please, provided they commit no aggression on other nations and allow perfect freedom of departure to those who are dissatisfied with their ways …

So long as the sufferers by the bad law do not invoke assistance from other communities, I cannot admit that persons entirely unconnected with them ought to step in and require that a condition of things with which all who are directly interested appear to be satisfied should be put an end to because it is a scandal to persons some thousands of miles distant who have no part or concern in it. Let them send missionaries, if they please, to preach against it; and let them, by any fair means (of which silencing the teachers is not one), oppose the progress of similar doctrines among their own people. John Stuart Mill in On Liberty

There is, however, an error is this argument, pointed out by the same author. The reason why we do not meddle with the free choice of someone else, is precisely his or her freedom. By choosing to submit to a tyrant, this person alienates his or her freedom. One free choice makes all other free choices impossible.

He therefore defeats … the very purpose which is the justification of allowing him to dispose of himself … The principle of freedom cannot require that he should be free not to be free. It is not freedom to be allowed to alienate his freedom. John Stuart Mill in On Liberty.

Why Do Countries Become/Remain Democracies? Or Don’t? (7): Education and Prosperity

There aren’t many questions in political science that are more important than this one: which are the factors that determine whether a country becomes or doesn’t become a democracy, and that determine the degree to which a country is democratic. There are two reasons why this question is important:

  • Democracy is an important good. Hence it’s important to know what facilitates or hinders the realization of this good.
  • Countries act on this statement in their foreign policy. For example, part of the rationale for invading Iraq was the conviction held by the U.S. administration of the time that promoting democracy in Iraq was both an intrinsic good and in the interest of the U.S.

I gave a short and non-exhaustive list of possible factors promoting/undermining the development/survival of democracy here. In the current post I want to focus on two of them: education levels and income or prosperity levels.

1. Education

This graph compares the Polity IV Democracy Index scores for the countries of the world (average scores during the 1960-2000 period), with the average years of schooling of the adult population in 1960. And there’s obviously a correlation, and the quote below gives an indication about the direction of correlation:

The chart above shows the 77 percent correlation between education levels in 1960 (measured by the average years of schooling in a country as estimated by Robert Barro and Jong-Wha Lee), and the subsequent 40-year average of the Polity IV democracy index. That democracy index runs from zero to 10, where countries with index values less than three don’t look remotely democratic and countries with index values of about seven are reasonably well-functioning democracies.

One way to read the graph is that there are basically no countries with very low levels of education that have managed to be democratic over the long term, and almost every country with a high level of education has remained a stable democracy.

Thomas Jefferson wrote that “if a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.” In 1960, 36 nations had less than 1.74 years of schooling (which happens to be the level that Afghanistan has today). Of those 36 countries, only two — India and Botswana — managed to have average democracy scores above 4.2.

Out of the 19 countries in this sample with more than 5.3 years of schooling (the current level in Iran) in 1960, 17 have average democracy scores above 7.9. Fifteen of these have been perfectly democratic, at least by the standards of Polity IV. Only Poland and Hungary were dictatorships, and one can certainly argue that those places would have been democracies in 1960s if it were not for Soviet troops.

But in the middle ranges of education, between two and five years on average, almost anything goes. Some places, like Costa Rica and Italy, have been extremely democratic, while others, like Kuwait and Paraguay, have not. Iraq falls into this category today, which suggests a fair amount of uncertainty about that country’s political future.

Why do I think that the chain of causality runs from education to democracy rather than the reverse? Democracy in 1960 is essentially uncorrelated with subsequent growth in the levels of education. Education in 1960, on the other hand, does an extremely good job of predicting increases in democracy.

Why is there a connection between human capital and freedom? Giacomo Ponzetto, Andrei Shleifer and I have argued that the connection reflects the ability of educated people to organize and fight collaboratively. Dictators provide strong incentives for the ruling clique; democracies provide more modest benefits for everyone else. For democracy to beat dictatorship, the dispersed population needs to have the skills and motivation to work collaboratively to defeat dictatorial coups and executive aggrandizement.

Education teaches skills, like reading and writing, that enable people to work collaboratively. At younger grades, teachers spend a lot of time teaching children how to get along. In the United States, education is strongly linked to civic engagement and membership in social groups. The ability to work together enables the defense of democracy. Edward L. Glaeser (source)

2. Income

There’s an interesting paper here examining the causal relation between democracy and income. The authors find that

the level of national income provides the most important factor explaining inter-country variations in the degree of democracy with the consequence that low income is the most important barrier to democracy.

They first present the correlation between income and democracy, using not the Polity IV index but the Gastil/Freedom House index.

The authors have two reasons to believe that the causal link goes from income to democracy rather than the other way around:

  • Initial income in 1971 correlates with average democracy scores during the 1972-2005 period. This approach is similar to the one above in the case of education and democracy.
  • And – simultaneously – there doesn’t seem to be a very strong causal link going from democracy to income. Barro has concluded that the degree of democracy is only a minor variable explaining income levels. So there is only a weak causal link going from democracy to income. This means that the strong correlation shown in the graph above must be explained by a causal link going from income to democracy.

Why do higher levels of income promote the development of democracy? I gave an overview of the reasons here but some of the more important ones are:

  • Higher education levels in a population means a higher probability of contestation. Following the Maslow hierarchy of needs it’s natural to expect the appearance of political needs once more basic needs have been secured.
  • More income means more complex production. This in turn means that governments find it harder to impose central control over their economies.

Obviously, income is just one of many factors determining the development of democracy. It’s an important one, but clearly not sufficient. The graph above shows the Muslim countries separately. As you can see, all non-Muslim countries with high income levels are in the “high level of democracy” range. Affluent Muslim countries, however, aren’t. This indicates that affluence in itself promotes but doesn’t determine the development of democracy. Other factors are also in play. Culture and religion are perhaps some of them. It’s often argued that Islam is incompatible with democracy, or at least slows down the development of or transition to democracy. I’ll come back to this controversial topic another time.