Liberal democracies are often thought of as the best form of governance, but is it the suitable to everyone? And is this really correct, or just a Western notion that their way of governing is the best way, and thus cultural arrogance? We will examine all these points in this topical debate.
All the Yes points:
- Democracies are the best way to guarantee people’s fundamental human rights.
- Democracies are more likely to be economically successful
All the No points:
Democracies are the best way to guarantee people’s fundamental human rights.
Liberal democracies are the only system of government that guarantee fundamental human rights such as the habeas corpus (right to a free and fair trial), freedom of speech, freedom of the media, and the right to vote, among others.
Non-democracies, by their very nature, do not guarantee these fundamental human rights. These are rights that can and should be guaranteed by governments, and they are fundamental human rights that all individuals should have under the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights.
This depends whether you are talking about ‘liberal’ democracies as with the start of the text or just democracies as with the title of the argument and the debate. Liberalism is distinct from democracy, although most democracies have at the same time been ‘liberal’. There are two strands of liberalism economic and the conception of political liberty. Democracy is mainly about having free and fair elections whereas constitutional liberalism is the rule of law, a separation of powers, and the protection of basic liberties of speech, assembly, religion, and property.[Fareed Zakaria, The Rise of Illiberal Democracy, Foreign Affairs, (Nov. 1997)]] It does not matter if constitutional liberalism comes before or after democracy is established, the two are not necessarily simultanious[Charles Kupchan, ‘Illiberal Illusions: Restoring Democracy’s Good Name’, Foreign Affairs, (May, 1998) http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/54023/charles-kupchan/illiberal-illusions-restoring-democracys-good-name%5D%5D
Democracies are more likely to be economically successful
Liberal democracies are statistically substantially more likely to be economically successful than non-democracies. There have been several cases where nations have been divided, and the democratic side have succeeded economically whereas the non-democratic side have not had a comparable economic success or high levels of GDP. Examples of this include North and South Korea, a nation divided whereby South Korea has been an economic success story, whereas North Korea struggles even to provide enough food for its’ citizens to be fully nourished.
One of the differences between North and South Korea is indeed their economic systems, however the point here is that liberal democracies facilitate the change of governments which would presumably also enforce new economic systems that would overturn dire economic policies that keep it’s citizens mired in poverty for decades.
With regard to the argument that property rights are better protected by non-liberal democracies is simply incorrect: liberal democracies place emphasis on the rights of citizens and ALL liberal democracies are capitalist, therefore will be likely to have strong property rights. Autocracies and semi-autocracies are subject to less oversight and scrutiny from the media, opposition parties, and their citizens, and often do not have the same constitutional guarantees, making it easier to change laws such as those guaranteeing property rights.
Thus the argument that other forms of government are better able to be economically successful because they are more likely to enforce property rights is incorrect.
There are several interrelated counter arguments to this. The first is simply to point out that the difference between North and South Korea is to do with their economic systems rather than one being a democracy. South Korea is Capitalist while North Korea is Stalinist and centrally planned (and obviously not very well centrally planned either!). There is no real reason to believe that a democracy protects the foundation of a free market better than an authoritarian regime. One of the principle foundations of the free market is property rights, however a democracy leads to regular changes in the political leadership so may well be more likely to have some governments that infringe property rights. An authoritarian regime on the other hand can guarantee property rights over a long period so long as it has built up the necessary trust. While democracies have a better record of upholding the rule of law this does not help if the laws themselves are anti business; as would likely be the case in a less developed democracy dominated by agricultural labourers. Korea and Taiwan are good examples of authoritarian states that have provided the necessary stability for the economy to thrive.[Pranab Bardhan, Democracy and Development: A Complex Relationship http://globetrotter.berkeley.edu/macarthur/inequality/papers/BardhanDemoc.pdf%5D%5D
The main link between being a democracy leading to being economically successful is that democracies are more likely to follow the group interest when deciding on what protectionist policies to use and when to be free market whereas authoritarian regimes tend to be oligarchic and have power concentrated in the power of the few so they in turn try to concentrate wealth in their own hands so pursue economic policies that waste resources by lining their own pockets. In cases where the democracy pursues disastrous economic policies there is a good chance that the democracy will turn into an authoritarian regime such as the Weimar republic.
We are used to the idea that Democracy and liberalism are inseparable. However the world today provides many examples of democracies being used for authoritarian ends rather than liberal ends. Take for example Iran, undeniably a democracy, it has elections both for the executive and legislature (although the supreme leader and guardian council are undeniably the most powerful branch of government they could effectively be placed as the judiciary – which incidentally is not democratic in most ‘liberal democracies’) However most of us would not regard Iran as a particularly liberal regime or one that guarantees fundamental human rights and it is as often the elected elements of the political system that are to blame as it is the guardian council. Fareed Zakaria, The Rise of Illiberal Democracy, Foreign Affairs, (Nov. 1997)]]
Democracy in most systems means rule of the majority – if that. This means that the majority may well deny freedoms to a minority. Moreover Britain votes once every four years for half of the Houses of Parliament this would theoretically be plenty of time for a party once in power to set about denying libertys rather than spreading them. This could be a major change as with the Wimar republic being democratically taken over by Hitler or it could be much more minor such as the British government’s erosion of liberties since 9/11 justifying it as part of the war on terror to be able to prevent peaceful protest and stop and search. [George Monbiot, ‘A threat to democracy’, The Guardian, Tuesday 3 August 2004 http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2004/aug/03/terrorism.britainand911%5D%5D
it is development that leads to democracy
Development often leads to democracy, not the other way around. Most theories see the rise of middle classes as the spur that creates a democracy. Development leads to large numbers of the population getting richer, becoming better educated and informed and so become more likely to have political opinions on a range of issues from education to foreign policy, as well as being exposed to ideas about other forms of government. [John Lee, ‘Putting Democracy in China on Hold’, CIS Issue Analysis 95, http://www.cis.org.au/issue_analysis/IA95/ia95.html%5D%5D
However even this link is getting weaker. The number of wealthy authoritarian countries is increasing and they are not always becoming democracies, and if they do become democracies it is not necessarily on a liberal model. Authoritarian regimes are increasingly showing that they can create the economic growth to become affluent and still evade the need for political reform. China is the most obvious example of a authoritatian regime that is growing increasingly wealthy, has a large middle class that is usually the group that demands political rights, any yet is not having to give up authority. Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and George W. Downs, ‘Development and Democracy’, Foreign Affairs, ( Sep., 2005)]]
Many commentators see a bargain between the Chinese middle classes and the Communist party, whereby the middle classes let the Communists stay in power in return for rapid economic growth. This has allowed the communist party to co-opt the educated members of society, those who would normally be most likely to be discontented at a lack of representation. The middle classes fear that democracy would mean that the peasents who work on the land would have the real say in government. In short like the British upper classes in the early 19th century they believe that the rural populace is not yet ready to participate in elections.[Qing Hua, ‘Democracy in China, Not Anytime Soon’, The Asian Economist, Tuesday, August 26th, 2008, http://www.theasianeconomist.com/democracy-in-china-not-anytime-soon/%5D%5D
Theory vs. Practice
Liberal democracies are often credited with having good records on human rights, responsibilities, leadership, moral decencies et al.
However, it is not difficult to see that the United States and the UK (as two of the most prominent examples) are liberal democracies in theory, but not in practice. In the United States, the “Patriot Act” has made sure it has overturned most civil liberties for United States citizens, whilst in the UK the Terrorism Act of 2006 has achieved pretty much the same thing. These governments have aquired the ability to effectively throw out whatever human rights they no longer wish to comply with.
Whilst we are still able to live with a considerable amount of freedom, liberal democracies tend not to be able to deliver the ability to use that freedom.
Liberal democracies often suffer from having large wealth gaps and severe problems with financial control. In the United States, for example, five percent of its population controls forty-five percent of its wealth.
In a liberal democracy, when you are poor, your ability to exercise your freedom is restricted, due to the fact that social mobility is generally uncommon and slow. Whereas if you are rich, your ability to stay rich is relatively easy.
Under communist or socialist rule social mobility is the most important policy. To decrease the wealth gap and to ensure that everyone has a decent living are what count the most. Communism and Socialism do not imply the limitations of freedom. In fact, there is more of it (in theory), due to the power of social mobility and the philosophy that everyone should be able to make a decent living. However, in order for this to work in a Communist or Socialist society it is necessary for the government to follow through with its promises – that it will act for the good of the people and not for itself. So long as there is benign, compassionate, intelligent government in these systems then these systems are in many ways better than liberal democracies.