Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Democracy and Development

Written by johnleemk on 11:19:15 pm Nov 16, 2007.
Categories: ,

Democracy and its relationship with development is a controversial one. Numerous theories have been propounded to explain the prevalence of democracy in the modern world, and whether this is necessarily a good thing.

We all know the usual view: democracy is ultimately a wonderful idea. It conforms to our view of the social contract between the individual and his government as expounded by Jean-Jacques Rosseau in the 18th century, whereby the government derives its power from the consent of the governed. A democracy ultimately allows the governed a say in the direction their community should take.

Some more extreme views take the line that democracy has even more bountiful benefits than simply making people happy. Democratic peace theory, for instance, argues that democracy saves lives by reducing the number of wars fought, since democracies rarely go to war with one another, and the magnitude of such conflicts (if they exist) is inversely proportional to how democratic each country is.

Some popular but less conventional views take a more negative view of democracy. It is often fashionable in authoritarian countries to pay lip service to the idea of democracy, but redefine it as something else. "Asian-style democracy", for instance, is more focused about a government largely unaccountable to the governed, except for elections, where the rules are often altered to suit those in power. A lot of countries — North Korea being one egregious example — literally pay only lip service to democracy, including it in the name of the country, while in reality being complete dictatorships.

A more nuanced view, with some appeal, is that though democracy is compatible with development and success (if a country can be said to succeed), it is not a necessary factor in development. It is not too difficult to look for examples: most countries considered democratic role models today only became democratic in the sense we understand it within the past century or two.

Philosophically, I find the idea of democracy compelling. If we want to make as many people as possible happy, a democratic system is ideal. This utilitarian argument for democracy has already been well-covered by the 19th-century philosopher John Stuart Mill, so I see no reason to dwell on it.

But if we want to think pragmatically, it is worth recalling that true democracy as we understand it only appeared on the political scene in the last couple of centuries. Great Britain evolved its traditions of democracy and the rule of law over almost a millennium, but only banned the treatment of other human beings as property in the early 20th century. The vote was the province of only half the human population until the early 20th century. The United States has likewise had similar issues with democracy, denying suffrage and even some other fundamental rights to many of its citizens until the middle of the 20th century.

Viewed in this light, it is extremely difficult to argue that democracy is necessarily a factor in development or influence, let alone that forceful imposition of democracy on other countries will unquestionably result in a good outcome. The British Empire sprung up without democracy, while the United States itself gained in power without true democratisation until well into the 20th century.

Likewise, if it took the US and the UK almost a thousand years to develop the necessary cultural and societal foundations for true democracy to prosper and flourish, who is to say that we can build democracy in, say, Iraq or Afghanistan within the span of a few decades? Can you really reshape an entire group of people and alter their fundamental view of power and the world within such a short span of time?

However, I think it is not too difficult to reconcile the apparent contradictions between the philosophical and pragmatic views of democracy. The fundamental precept of democracy is that the people will choose how they are governed — and how is it democratic at all to impose democracy on them?

This takes care of the second contradiction, but it is difficult to see how it can address the view that democracy is not a necessary factor for development. My personal view is that it is difficult to generalise, simply because every country evolves in different ways, with its own sociopolitical dynamics. However, if I had to generalise, it would be my view that basic development is often best undertaken by a somewhat authoritarian government.

The foundations for democracy are, ironically, often best laid by dictators. It is difficult to hold an election when people are starving, and pointless to speak of freedom of speech when anyone can shoot a journalist dead. Ask people to choose between freedom and food, and they will (often depressingly, at least to libertarian zealots) opt for the latter.

But as people grow free to think, as they have time to devote to wondering and complaining rather than scrounging for food, they will yearn for freedom. Freedom is meaningless when you don't have the ability to use it, but terribly meaningful once you have some time to think about what you'd like to do.

Some authoritarian governments, especially those in Asia, think they have a valuable argument here, often drawing parallels between themselves and arguably purer Asian democracies such as the Philippines and India, where people starve to death and journalists are shot to death. The implication is that democracy leads to death.

But, at least judging from experience, once the fundamental necessities of human life are provided for, there is no reason that democracy cannot sustain itself, no reason for it to be incapable of sustaining law and order.

If, like me, you are a sucker for the utilitarian point of view (that the ideal form of government is one which makes the most people the happiest), then there is actually evidence that democracy is necessary to further growth. Authoritarianism may, under certain conditions, create the prerequisites which allow democracy to function, but at the same stifle the very things which democracy is conducive to.

To look at a real life example, both South Korea and Taiwan are renowned today for their powerhouse first-world economies. This renown, however, only really came about after both underwent a dramatic democratic transformation during the 1980s and 90s.

More damningly for the authoritarians, the growth trajectories of both countries took a dramatic upward swing around the time that both switched from authoritarian one-party governments to full democracy.

The truth about democracy is that it is not a cause of development alone, nor is it just a result of development. Countries often democratise because their enlightened people, fattened on the limited fruits of authoritarianism, demand it — so in that sense, democracy is a result of development — but democracy is also a launchpad to even greater development.

And if you reflect on it, this is only logical after all. Authoritarianism is an ideology revolving around the principle that some people always have better ideas than others. A country that is unable to fully tap the pool of talent available to it — whether this is because its people are too hungry and wracked by violence to vote and engage in the dialogue characteristic of a democracy, or because people with bright ideas are told to shut up because they are from the wrong race, religion, or political party — will always lag behind a country which can rely on the wide range of talents and ideas of all its people.


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Infernal Ramblings is a Malaysian website focusing on current events and sociopolitical issues. Its articles run the gamut from economics to society to education.

Infernal Ramblings is run by John Lee. For more, see the About section. If you have any questions or comments, do drop him a line.


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