Democracy in Congo? Laugh On

Thursday, October 30, 1997

The overthrow of Zaire's longtime dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko, had barely been accomplished when the victor, Laurent Kabila, heard the standard Western clamor for democracy. The idea, apparently, was that the new leader almost immediately should hold multiparty elections and create a governing system that allowed for shared power.

Does Democracy Equal Stability?

This all seems somehow unfair. Was there to be no period of grace in which the person who deposed one of the world's worst dictators was to be rewarded with an interval of uncontested authority? What then was the reward for leading a risky revolution that eliminated the person who had led his country to more than thirty years of negative average economic growth? It is as though an entrepreneur had led a successful takeover of an inefficient company and was then told that he had to sell back his shares at the pretakeover price and hold a vote to decide how the benefits of the takeover would be distributed.

In any event, "you have to be kidding" is the most appropriate reaction to the notion that Western-style democracy can be sustained in a country where people have little education and in which annual per capita income is around $200. History indicates that democratic institutions

The policies that are most favorable for growth include maintaining secure property rights and promoting the rule of law.

have little chance of permanence when the standard of living is this low. For example, in all of sub-Saharan Africa--the poorest region on earth--the only place to have maintained a multiparty democracy for a long time is Botswana, which is an outlier in many respects. True, the extent of African democracy has increased in recent years, partly because of Western pressure, and places such as Uganda, Mozambique, and South Africa might seem promising. Nevertheless, a realist also has to look at recent coups against elected regimes in the neighboring Congo, Sierra Leone, Niger, and Gambia and has to recall that the prospects for democracy in Africa looked better in the 1960s than they do now.

How Best to Promote Growth

Democracy--in the sense of political rights and civil liberties--is, in any case, not the characteristic of institutions that matters most for economic performance. There is some evidence that, starting from the worst dictatorships, an increase in democracy is favorable, on average, for economic growth. To put this another way, although some dictators have delivered good economic results--such as Pinochet in Chile, Lee in Singapore, Fujimori in Peru, Park in South Korea, and the shah in Iran--the larger list of economic failures includes Marcos in the Philippines, Mao in China, Saddam in Iraq, Duvalier in Haiti, and a cast of despots in Africa. The favorable economic effects from democracy seem, however, to disappear once a country attains a moderate degree of liberalization, such as that characteristic in recent years of places such as Malaysia and Mexico. Further expansions of democratic freedoms toward the Western ideal seem to come at the expense of economic growth.

This last finding is not surprising if one thinks of democracy as a setup in which decisions are literally made by majority vote. Such a system tends to favor redistributions from rich to poor and, more specifically, the expansion of social welfare programs that have typified and stifled Western Europe. Such programs may have desirable aspects, but they come at the cost of diluted incentives for investment, employment, and growth.

The government policies that are most favorable for growth include maintaining secure property rights, promoting the rule of law, fostering free markets domestically and internationally, macroeconomic stability, and investments in education and some forms of infrastructure. Improvements in these areas are not necessarily accompanied by enhanced democracy, as is clear from experiences in Singapore, Chile, Peru, China, South Korea, Taiwan, and elsewhere. In contrast, there is a good deal of evidence that economic prosperity leads eventually to sustainable expansions of democracy. Even China, as it becomes wealthier, is likely to expand its electoral rights and civil liberties.

The best advice that outsiders can offer Laurent Kabila is not to focus on elections and power sharing but rather to emphasize the growth promoting policies that can lift his country out of its extreme poverty. We should urge him, in particular, to forget his Marxist past and to concentrate on property rights and free markets. If the United States wishes to extend foreign aid (a factor that, along with natural resources, has typically not been a contributor to economic growth), then a useful form would be a reserve fund that allowed the new Congo to dollarize its currency and, thereby, eliminate its hyperinflation. With respect to a quick move to Western-style democracy, perhaps the best advice would be for Kabila to consult more with Singapore's Lee and less with America's Clinton.