Ebb Tide of Freedom?

Friday, June 27, 2008

Has the democratic wave broken? Is the tide of political freedom now ebbing after the spectacular flow that began in 1989? Recent events on nearly every continent certainly unsettle those who dream of a world governed by the ballot box rather than the bullet. But they may also provide an overdue opportunity to think more realistically about the way democratization works.

The picture is, as usual, especially bleak in Africa, where two erstwhile democratic role models find themselves in serious difficulty. Only five years ago, Mwai Kibaki ’s election as president was supposed to mark a new dawn in Kenya after twenty-four long years of misrule by Daniel arap Moi. But allegations that Kibaki in effect stole the December presidential election from the opposition leader Raila Odinga unleashed bloody conflict and continuing political uncertainty. In South Africa, the problem is not violent (as yet) but it is equally troubling. There, the African National Congress has chosen as its new leader, and therefore the country ’s most likely next president in 2009, a man who currently faces serious corruption charges. Already, some of Jacob Zuma ’s more radical supporters are warning that there will be “blood spilt in the courtroom” if he is convicted.

In Asia, too, democracy is besieged. Benazir Bhutto’s assassination in Pakistan on December 27, 2007, two weeks before elections were to be held there, has significantly reduced the chances of a peaceful transition from military rule back to democracy. In Thailand, the generals are still in power months after staging a coup against Thaksin Shinawatra (another democratically elected leader facing accusations of corruption). Meanwhile, a much nastier military junta continues to rule Burma, having crushed last summer’s protests by political dissidents and Buddhist monks.

Of course, the prospects for democracy in the world’s most populous country look little brighter. The Chinese Communist Party shows no sign of wanting to relinquish its monopoly on power.

To be sure, communist rule is a thing of the past in the territory of the former Soviet Union. But Vladimir Putin has made a mockery of the Russian constitution by handing the presidency to one of his sidekicks but retaining power as prime minister. Nor is Russia the only former Soviet republic slipping back into old autocratic habits. In Kyrgyzstan, elections late last year were condemned by international observers. Kazakhstan is little more than a despotism; the same goes for Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. Even Georgia ’s “Rose Revolution” seems to be withering fast.

The prospects for democracy in the world’s most populous country, China, don’t appear to have brightened.

Latin America offers some consolations, though it remains to be seen whether Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez will accept the unexpected defeat he was handed in December’s referendum on constitutional “reform.” As for the greater Middle East, the Bush administration’s bid to spread democracy at gunpoint has proved far more costly in lives, money, and time than almost anyone in Washington envisaged five years ago.

It was not supposed to be like this. Nearly twenty years ago, on the eve of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Francis Fukuyama published a seminal essay, “The End of History,” in which he prophesied “the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government. ”

In fairness to Fukuyama, he was writing after more than a decade of sustained improvement in global governance. In the mid-1970s, roughly half the world ’s states could be classified as “autocracies.” By 1989 the number had been nearly halved. And the trend continued much as Fukuyama foresaw—by 2002 it was down to fewer than thirty. In its 1998 report, the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance was able to announce that, for the first time, a majority of the world ’s population were living in democracies. There truly did seem to be a democratic wave, beginning in the Iberian Peninsula in the mid-1970s, spreading to Latin America and parts of Asia in the 1980s, and sweeping eastward from central Europe in 1989–91.

The trouble with waves is that sooner or later they break. Every year, Freedom House awards scores to countries according to their degrees of political freedom. According to the latest figures, no fewer than fifty-seven countries have suffered democratic ebb in the past five years. Among the worst performers were Armenia, Djibouti, Fiji, Gabon, Ivory Coast, Russia, Somalia, Thailand, Vanuatu, and Venezuela. The list of “success stories” is almost as discouraging: Burundi, Haiti, Iraq, Lebanon, and Liberia have all improved their scores by more than 10 points (out of a possible 40) since 2003. It would be a hopeless optimist who put money on the durability of those democratic transitions. A pessimist might wonder if we were about to witness another of those declines of democracy such as happened in the 1920s and 1930s, when the democratic wave that ended the First World War was followed by a riptide of reaction and repression.

Why does democracy flourish in some countries but shrivel and die in others? The simplest answers on offer are economic. According to the political scientist Adam Przeworski, there is a straightforward relationship between per capita income and the likelihood that a democracy will endure. In a country where the average income is below $1,000 a year, democracy is unlikely to last a decade. Once average income exceeds $6,000 a year, it is practically indestructible. This certainly seems plausible at first sight. The countries with the maximum Freedom House scores are, with the exception of Barbados, the rich countries of northwestern Europe. The countries with the lowest scores include some of Africa ’s poorest.

It was not supposed to be like this. Remember Francis Fukuyama and his “universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government”?

Another appealing economic rule is the Harvard economist Benjamin Friedman’s: that sustained growth (rather than the level of income) is conducive to democratization. At first sight, that proposition appears to fit the long-run historical trend, with the greatest challenge to democracy coming in the era of the Depression.

Recent economic developments, however, have weakened such arguments. The world economy as a whole has never enjoyed a boom like that of 2001–07, yet democracy has gained little from all this prosperity. Moreover, the most rapidly growing economies in the world since 2000 have not been the democracies. Take the case of the so-called BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, and China). While communist-ruled China ’s share of world gross domestic product has increased by 2.5 percentage points in the past seven years, democratic India ’s has risen by just 0.6 percent. Russia has outperformed Brazil by a comparable margin. And this disparity between democracies and autocracies seems set to widen: from now until 2050, according to Goldman Sachs, China ’s share of global GDP will increase from 4 percent to 15 percent; that of the G-7 countries —the world’s wealthiest democracies—will decline from 57 percent to 20 percent. Other emerging markets expected to achieve rapid growth in the next forty years include Egypt, Iran, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Vietnam, none of which seems an obvious candidate for democratization.

Back in the 1980s and 1990s, it seemed as if capitalism and democracy had a mutually beneficial relationship. Not only was economic progress apparently conducive to political progress, but the causation could go the other way, from democratization to enhanced economic performance. Today, rapid state-led growth is enriching China and other Asian manufacturers, regardless of their political systems; their demand for energy and commodities is enriching democratic and undemocratic primary producers alike.

A quite different hypothesis about the success or failure of democracy has to do with culture rather than economics. It was Samuel Huntington who argued in 1993 that after the Cold War, Western civilization would find itself in conflict primarily with Islamic and Confucian worldviews, which by implication were much less likely to produce peace-loving democracies than the Judeo-Christian civilization of the West. Of all the ripostes to “The End of History,” Huntington’s notion of a “clash of civilizations” has been the most compelling.

In the Freedom House rankings, it is clear that Western societies are much more likely to be democratic than Muslim societies. Yet such cultural explanations have their defects. Taiwan and Indonesia show that democracy can work for “Confucians” and Muslims alike. If allowance is made for economic and other variables, the gap between the West and the rest is much less significant. In any case, it was not so long ago that serious scholars were arguing that Roman Catholics were incapable of the capitalist work ethic or that German speakers could never make a success of democracy —hypotheses falsified by postwar European history.

History is indeed the key to understanding what makes democracy work. Recently, in Cape Town, I diverted myself from the alarums and excursions of African politics by rereading the second of Anthony Trollope ’s Palliser novels, Phineas Finn. The setting is Westminster in 1866, the year before the second great electoral Reform Act. The youthful hero enters Parliament as the member for a tiny Irish constituency, whose 307 voters generally do the bidding of the earl of Tulla. The hero finds the House of Commons a den of iniquity, with his fellow MPs voting as the whips (rather than their own consciences) command, largely in the hope of securing the salaries that come with ministerial office, so they can pay their grasping creditors and their club bills. There is general satisfaction, even among Liberals, when a popular demonstration in favor of the secret ballot is broken up by the police.

The England of the 1860s was, in short, hardly a model democracy, quite apart from its still-restricted franchise. Was there corruption? By today ’s standards, certainly. Were the rich overrepresented? Without a doubt. Yet three things are striking about the system Trollope so vividly describes. First, the political elite were agreed in condemning any kind of political violence—even the threat of it—out of hand. Second, those in government did not hesitate to leave office, and all its perquisites, if they felt their parliamentary position to be untenable. Third, the overwhelming majority of MPs on both sides accepted the sanctity of the constitution and supremacy of the law.

It was not so long ago that serious scholars were arguing that Roman Catholics were incapable of the capitalist work ethic or that Germanspeakers could never make a success of democracy.

These assumptions did not spring into life overnight. They were the product of around two hundred years of political evolution, dating back to the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Only gradually did the two-party system arise. Only gradually did it become conventional for the prime minister to command a majority in the House of Commons. Only gradually did ideas about representation develop until finally—long after Trollope’s time—the right to vote became associated with adulthood alone, rather than with property ownership, education, or sex.

Democracy cannot be conjured up out of thin air in the absence of such assumptions. As a young Tanzanian once explained to me: “In Africa, if you give a man all the privileges of power—the money, the authority, the big house and car—and then say, five years later, ‘Now you must give all this up to your harshest critic,’ he is quite likely to find a reason not to do what you ask.” Yet this is not a peculiarity of Africa. It was once the case everywhere. Only slowly, by sometimes painful trial and error, do elites learn that it is in their own interests to exclude violence from politics, to take turns governing, and above all to submit to the rule of law.

Democracy cannot be conjured up out of thin air. Only slowly do elites learn that it is in their own interests to exclude violence from politics, to take turns at governing, and to submit to the rule of law.

Winston Churchill famously described democracy as “the worst form of government—except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” This remains the case, not least because representative government with multiple parties will generally produce superior governance to dictatorships and one-party states, where rent-seeking behavior is generally unchecked by free political opposition. There is corruption in most countries, but it is nearly always worse—and more economically distorting—in nondemocracies. That is why, if they remain one-party states, China and Russia will sooner or later stumble and fall behind the democratic tortoises Brazil and India.

The key to spreading democracy is clearly not just to overthrow undem-ocratic regimes and hold elections. Nor is it simply a matter of waiting for a country to achieve the right level of income or rate of growth. The key, as Hoover senior fellow and political scientist Barry Weingast has long argued, is to come up with rules that are “self-enforcing,” so that the more they are applied, the more respected they become, until at last they become inviolable.

There is no reason that should not be possible in any of the world’s civilizations. As the British example makes clear, however, it can (and probably must) be a protracted process. And that is precisely why it would be rash, after a few bad years, to prophesy the death of democracy —as rash as it was to predict its triumph after a few good ones.