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January 30, 1998

Two Jeers for Democracy

The more democracy the better? According to Hoover media fellow Tom Bethell, not necessarily. An argument for restricting the franchise.


The inability of elected governments to reduce the level of their spending, not just in Washington but all over the Western world, must at some point give rise to second thoughts about democracy. In our day democracy is endlessly promoted but rarely analyzed. It is assumed to be like pregnancy. Either you are democratic or you are not: No middle ground permitted. In new nations, democracy is seen as the instant correction to colonialism and oppression. The rule of law takes too long to establish, so allow the people to vote right away. If need be, phone up Jimmy Carter and send over the election observers.

Now and then we hear a dissenting voice. Here is a breath of fresh air from an unexpected quarter. Having completed a three-year tour of duty in Africa for the Washington Post, Keith Richburg wrote Out of America: A Black Man Confronts Africa--a rebuttal of conventional foreign policy nostrums that is rare indeed from the pen of a working journalist. In Africa, he writes, democracy was supposed to be the answer. It was the "much-hyped" solution bandied about by the well-meaning academics and Africa specialists who briefed him before he went abroad. But in covering election after election, he soon saw that much preparatory work needed to be done:

Elections are too easily manipulated and stolen, and in many cases end up doing more harm than good, allowing dictators to wrap themselves in a new aura of legitimacy. Before elections are held, constitutions need to be rewritten to reduce the role of imperial presidencies. . . . Security and police forces, now mostly tools of repression, need to be brought under neutral command and control. . . . Parliaments and judiciaries must be strengthened. [Elections must not become] the kind of "winner-take-all" contests that now produce factional warfare. Without those basic steps, any election becomes a sham, a charade of democracy.

To what extent is democracy needed? Tears were shed when democracy came to an end in Hong Kong. But it arrived only in 1995. For more than 140 years, the British had shown "no inclination to temper their benevolent autocracy by letting Hong Kong Chinese have a role in the politics of the place," according to former Assistant Secretary of Defense Charles Freeman. "The colony's governor appointed the members of Hong Kong's legislative council, insisted on his right to approve public gatherings, scrutinized the press for evidence of lèse-majesté, and sometimes threw editors in jail for objecting to British rule." Democracy was belatedly instituted by the parting Brits as a way of embarrassing the Chinese.

Hong Kong developed into the world's leading economy without benefit of democracy. And, yes, without full freedom of speech. How did this tremendous success come about? Nowhere else in the modern world--with the possible exception of Singapore--has there been a comparable achievement. Finding the answer should be of paramount interest to political scientists and economists. The Chinese people are good businesspeople, obviously. In the Chinatowns of America, their whole lives seem devoted to it. Equally obviously, they were unable to make use of these talents under communism. So institutions are crucial--but which ones?

Why the Rule of Law Comes First
One obvious possibility is this: What you need first is the rule of law as it was developed in England. If you can get that without democracy, as the Hong Kong Chinese did, maybe you are in business. Democracy, especially at the early stages of development, will only mess things up. You don't need full liberty of speech either--they certainly didn't have it in Adam Smith's England. As for the franchise, one in twelve adult males could vote in England before the Reform Act of 1832, about one in seven until 1867.

To get the political architecture right, you must do things in the right order. It is not hard to understand that to build a house, you have to bring in and assemble the parts in the right sequence. Something like that applies politically as well. I once heard Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto point out that when the correct laws are not in place (as is true all over the Third World), and the people cannot get clear title to land, the construction of informal housing will take place in reverse order. Squatters bring furniture with them; then they put up a makeshift roof, then walls, finally if they're lucky they may get a utility hookup. Foundations are probably never built. In the same way, instant democracy disorders the political economy. Democracy is something that should come later rather than earlier.

What is needed first is a system of law that treats everyone equally, penalizes wrongdoers, and gives security to property and its exchange by contract. This will foster a sense of justice and encourage people to be productive. Democracy was not historically a precondition for the emergence of such a rule of law in the Western world. And if it had existed in its present, universal form, it undoubtedly would have prevented such a system from emerging at all.

Slipping Down the Slope
It is unquestioned today that democracy means universal franchise, and this is what we always try to impose on others. Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew got it right when he blamed Westerners who "foist their system indiscriminately on societies in which it will not work." A democracy will try to divide the economic pie before there is a pie to divide. That is what has happened in Russia, Argentina, and other countries. Before voting was democratized in England in the nineteenth century, nonetheless, the advocates of reform repudiated any redistributive intent. John Stuart Mill wrote in 1861 that it was "required by first principles that the receipt of parish relief [welfare] should be a peremptory disqualification for the franchise." And he was the big liberal of his day.

The Brits instituted democracy in Hong Kong mainly as a way of embarrassing the Chinese. But Hong Kong had already developed into the world's leading economy without it

Another parliamentary reformer, the economist David Ricardo, argued that property rights were so essential to good government that "I would agree to deprive those of the elective franchise against whom it could be justly alleged that they considered it in their interest to invade them." The security of property was so essential, he said, that even the poor must understand the point and so would not press for redistribution. He was too optimistic. For their part the conservative opponents of parliamentary reform used weak, slippery-slope arguments: Where would it all end? The reformers, who sought only a less restrictive franchise (not universal voting), replied that they accepted the conservatives' principles. Bentham, Ricardo, and Mill had no difficulty in agreeing that of course voters would have to be able to show some educational achievement.

By 1965, nonetheless, democracy in the United States had slipped fully down the slope anticipated by the nineteenth-century conservatives. Literacy tests having been used in grossly discriminatory fashion against blacks, American reformers responded, illogically, by outlawing not the discrimination but the tests. The wording of the 1965 Voting Rights Act would have truly shocked the liberals of the nineteenth century. The act outlawed any requirement that those registering to vote shall "demonstrate the ability to read, write, understand or interpret any matter" or shall "demonstrate any educational achievement" or show "knowledge of any particular subject" or "possess good moral character."

The idea that you do not need to know anything at all, or even how to read or write, in order to qualify for the privilege of voting is nothing less than an insult to the framers of the Constitution.

Thus was democracy debased. Tests comparable to those that aliens must pass if they are to be admitted to citizenship were actually outlawed for all those born and raised here. This showed a profound disrespect, both for government and for education itself. The idea that you do not need to know anything at all or how to read or write or "understand or interpret any matter" in order to qualify for the privilege of voting was nothing less than an insult to the framers of the Constitution. Yet I do not know of a single public figure today, no matter how conservative he or she is said to be, who has called for a reform of voting: restricting it (for example) to those who can read or write or can show some rudimentary understanding of the U.S. Constitution. Such tests, of course, must be applied without regard to race, creed, or color.

The same tendency is observable all over the world. Hoover fellow Larry Diamond, editor (with Marc Plattner) of the Journal of Democracy, does not know of any country, among those that are considered democracies, where the franchise is restricted or voters are tested. "One of the most stunning trends of the late twentieth century, in the universalization of certain norms," he said, "has been the universalization of the franchise."

The reason for this is not clear, but it is a good bet that many countries have been following the American example. May I suggest, then, that the time has come for us to set a good example. The recipient classes--yes, including farmers and businesspeople who receive subsidies--should be disenfranchised, and the vote restricted to taxpayers. To register, voters must produce a Social Security card, a picture ID, and a copy of last year's tax returns. We must restore the old understanding that voters are officeholders. Voting is not a right but an official act. No representation without taxation.


Tom Bethell, a media fellow at the Hoover Institution, is senior editor for the American Spectator.


Adapted from the American Spectator, September 1997.

Available from the Hoover Press are the Hoover Essay Why Freedom Must Be First, by Tibor R. Machan; The Wealth of Nations in the Twentieth Century: The Policies and Institutional Determinants of Economic Development, edited by Ramon H. Myers; and the Essay in Public Policy The Democratic Advantage: The Institutional Sources of State Power in International Competition, by Kenneth A. Schultz and Barry R. Weingast. To order, call 800-935-2882.