Terrorism and Human Rights (29): Terrorism, Caused by Poverty or Repression?

It seems that poverty doesn’t cause terrorism, at least not usually. Rights violations are a better predictor (and, conversely, respect for human rights predict reduced terrorism). I’ve found this paper (gated unfortunately) supporting those claims.

The empirical results reported here show that terrorist risk is not significantly higher for poorer countries, once the effects of other country-specific characteristics, such as the level of political freedom, are taken into account. … lack of political freedom is shown to explain terrorism, and it does so in a nonmonotonic way. Countries with intermediate levels of political freedom are shown to be more prone to terrorism than countries with high levels of political freedom or countries with highly authoritarian regimes. …

On the one hand, the repressive practices commonly adopted by autocratic regimes to eliminate political dissent may help keep terrorism at bay. On the other hand, intermediate levels of political freedom are often experienced during times of political transitions, when governments are weak, and political instability is elevated, so conditions are favorable for the appearance of terrorism. (source)

Why Do Countries Become/Remain Democracies? Or Don’t? (11): The Relative Cost of Freedom and Dictatorship

When dictatorial governments come under international pressure to improve the human rights situation in their countries, they often react by stating that they govern developing countries and don’t have the resources that are necessary to make improvements. Such statements have some plausibility. A judiciary, a well-trained police force, a functioning system of political representation etc. all require funding.

However, to some extent this explanation is no more than an excuse: you don’t need money to stop persecution of dissidents, to lift restrictions on the media, to allow demonstrations etc. On the contrary, you save money by doing so. You don’t need a large police force or paramilitary force; you don’t need strong government controls of every aspect of society and the economy; you don’t need to bride your citizens into acceptance of the state etc. But obviously the goal of dictators isn’t to save money and make the country better off by investing that money in the economy.

On the other hand, it remains true that the adequate defense of freedom, rights and democracy requires money, which is probably why rich countries usually score higher in freedom indexes. And, consequently, governments can save money by limiting freedom and by oppressing people.

So, both oppression and freedom cost money, and both a reduction of oppression and a reduction freedom save money. The question is then: what is, overall, the cheapest? A dictatorship or a democracy? And how can we know? Well, one possible indicator could be government spending as a percentage of GDP. If democracies have a systematically higher percentage, one could say that freedom costs more than oppression (on the condition that there isn’t a third variable explaining why democracies spend more).

However, one look at the data tells you that there isn’t much of a correlation between freedom and government spending, or between oppression and government spending. There are some countries that oppress a lot with not a lot of money – “not a lot” in relative terms compared to GDP. China and Saudi Arabia for example. And there are others that do need a lot of money (a large share of the economy) to keep the bosses in place. Cuba and Zimbabwe for example. But perhaps that is because their GDP is so low, not because they need a lot of money to oppress. In other cases, such as Saudi Arabia we may think they don’t spend a lot on oppression but we are fooled because their GDP is relatively high. And anyway, even dictatorships use some part of their state budget for things that aren’t quite so bad.

Likewise for freedom: freedom comes “cheap” in the U.S., and is “expensive” in Sweden. Between quotation marks because government spending over GDP is a very imprecise measure of the cost of freedom or oppression, for the reasons just given. It’s not because a country’s GDP doubles thanks to higher oil prices that the cost of freedom also doubles. Freedom (like oppression) costs money but not money as a fixed percentage of GDP.

Alternatively, you can also look at the tax burden. Here, the data show that countries that impose the highest taxes are also the ones that are most free (Scandinavia obviously ranks high on both accounts). But is that because freedom costs so much more than oppression? Perhaps the answer is “yes” if you include in “freedom” the things that make freedom possible, such as good healthcare, education etc.

But perhaps a more interesting and useful question would be: what cost considerations or economic incentives would produce a move towards democracy or away from democracy? It’s clear that a crisis of some sort – 9/11, a war, or, more appropriately in the current context, an economic recession or depression (see the Roosevelt cartoon below) – encourages democratic leaders to abridge certain rights, freedoms and democratic procedures. In the case of an economic crisis, the claim is that freedom and proper democratic procedures are just too expensive economically. A swift resolution of the crisis requires strong centralized intervention.

It’s also widely accepted that one of the causes of the demise of the Soviet Union was the unbearable cost of oppression. I think it’s better foreign policy to try to make oppression as costly as possible, rather than trying to make freedom as cheap as possible. Freedom tends not to be very cheap, I guess. And when it is, it’s probably not really freedom.

Why Do We Need Human Rights? (10): Why Do We Need Democracy?

Regular readers will know that I see democracy as a human rights issue. The standard human rights texts (declarations, treaties and constitutions) all provide a right of the people of a nation to take part in the government, choose representatives in free elections etc. As with human rights in general, many people are in favor of democracy, but are unable to say why, or are unable to agree on the reasons why they are in favor. Some people may not have a particular reason to favor democracy, apart from a pragmatic one: it has worked quite well, especially compared to other forms of government that have been tried before, and it’s such a fuss to change.

Those who have reasons can be divided into two “camps”: those who view democracy as the best means to an independently valuable  goal, and those who view democracy as intrinsically valuable. The former group is the most numerous (and includes me). An instrumental justification of democracy can take many different forms, depending on the ultimate goal that is supposed to be promoted by democracy. The most common forms are:

  • Democracy promotes prosperity, economic growth and poverty reduction.
  • Democracy promotes peace (internally and externally).
  • Democracy leads to better political decisions.
  • Democracy leads to less repression and more respect for human rights.

I believe all of these statements are very persuasive, and taken together they form a very powerful justification of democracy (although we may need to agree on a very specific definition of democracy in order to be convinced by these statements – but that’s another discussion).

The non-instrumental justification, the one that says that democracy is good, not because of what it produces, but because of what it is, is also very interesting and persuasive. It focuses on what happens to people when they participate in government, what happens when democracy takes place, not what happens after it has taken place. So instead of pointing to beneficial consequences of democracy – more prosperity, more peace etc. – it points to the benefits of community, association, participation, self-government, self-determination etc. and how these things improve people’s characters, virtues and happiness. Read more here.

The only problem I have with this non-instrumental approach in which democracy is an end in itself, is that it tends to collapse into the instrumental approach: if democracy improves people’s character, then it’s also instrumental. It’s only an end in itself in the sense that it’s product doesn’t appear afterwards (like peace follows from democratic rule), but is simultaneous with it (people’s characters and virtues improve because of democracy, but only as long as democracy “happens”).

However, often it’s quite irrelevant which type of justification of democracy we prefer, and how successful (or not) the chosen justification is. Such exercises can be no more than “preaching to the choir”, intellectually interesting but practically irrelevant. People who already accept democracy don’t need a philosophical explanation of why democracy is so wonderful. And people who don’t accept democracy are often immune to rational justifications or to philosophy in general. Good luck approaching the Taliban with a philosophy paper on the benefits of democracy… (In fact, good luck approaching them at all).

The Causes of Human Rights Violations (14): The Influence of Democracy on Human Rights

I believe human rights and democracy are interdependent and cannot be properly understood if they are separated from one another. A democracy without human rights, without for example the freedom to speak and to organize, is not really a democracy, and the system of human rights is incomplete when political rights – i.e. rights which ground democracy – are left out. Rights and democracy are prerequisites for each other. What use is the right to vote if people don’t have the right to speak, to have an education etc.? And what use is the right to speak if you’re not allowed to vote? There’s a dynamic aspect to this: a certain level of protection for human rights will lead to the development of (a stronger) democracy; and, vice versa, a certain level of development of democracy leads to better protection of human rights. It’s the latter point that I want to deal with in the current post.

Why do I assume that more democracy leads to better human rights protection? For several reasons. Democratic rulers know that they can’t get away with repression. They’ll be voted out if they try, or, worse, they’ll suffer the consequences of the rule of law, imposed on them by other branches of power in a system of checks and balances and separation of powers. Democracies also have powerful non-violent mechanisms for dispute settlement. And, finally, democracies need human rights to function adequately, so they have an added incentive to respect them.

However, all this isn’t just my personal assumption. Most of the political science literature supports the statement that democratic political systems decrease rights violations and repression (see here for an overview). What the literature doesn’t agree on is the pattern of the influence of democracy on rights. There are mainly 3 models doing the rounds: a linear one, an inverted u-shape model, and a threshold model.

1. Linear model

This model, which is the most popular one, states that every step towards democracy is a step away from repression and rights violations (perhaps with “diminishing returns” for human rights once democracy has reached a certain – high – level of development, in which case the linear pattern would be slightly bended downwards).

2. Inverted U-shape model

This model states that well-developed democracies do indeed offer better protection of human rights, but it also states that very authoritarian regimes are also not characterized by high levels of repression since these regimes enjoy such a high level of regime security – perhaps through previous repression – that repression is no longer necessary. This model is also called MMM or “more murder in the middle”. Regimes in the middle are unstable, mixed, and perhaps in a transition to democracy or to strict authoritarianism, and therefore may feel it is necessary to use repression.

3. Threshold model

This model, contrary to the first one, states that not every step in the development of democracy improves the rights situation. Only after democracy has reached a certain level of maturity (a “tipping point”) will repression diminish.

Examples

Examples of model 1 are here and here. Other examples are cited here. Examples of model 2 are here and here. An example of model 3 is here.

Bottom-line?

So, which one is closest to reality? Difficult to say. Much depends on the data used, but still more on the definitions. All 3 models have some intuitive appeal, but only if use different definitions. Model 2 for example is convincing, but only if we limit “repression” and “rights violations” to attacks on physical integrity rights. A well-established and very authoritarian regime will probably not need to go to such extremes. On the other hand, a weak authoritarian regime, threatened by a strong internal (democratic) opposition will be more likely to use force and violence. But all other human rights, apart from the physical integrity rights, are still heavily violated in a “safe” authoritarian regime. So it’s a bit dubious to say that such regimes are not “repressive”.