August 30, 2009

Build Democracy — Very Slowly

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The people of Afghanistan have just voted in elections based on universal adult suffrage. All adults were entitled to vote, regardless of gender or property. So, that makes Afghanistan a democracy -- right?

By such standards, most democracies are less than a century old. Universal adult suffrage did not come to the U.K. until 1926 -- or to France until after World War II. Until then, they were less democratic than Afghanistan is today -- right?


Here's a problem. If you looked at Britain or France a hundred years ago, you would most likely conclude they were more stable, with more smoothly functioning political systems, and a wider selection of rights and better life chances for nearly everyone, including those not entitled to vote at the time, such as women, than Afghanistan today.

In fact, that could well have been true of England for much (not all) of the last 800 years. Why 800 years? Well, King John signed Magna Charta in 1215. Magna Charta limited the powers of the king over his subjects. It even enshrined their right to revolt against him, if he did not keep to the agreement he had signed. It also legislated discrimination against women and Jews. As soon as he could, John renounced it, plunging the country into civil war. Despite such imperfections, it is a convenient moment from which to date the beginning of England's long march to democracy. It is also a reminder that the full consequences of such events may not be obvious at the time, or for many years after.

To get from Magna Charta to today's parliamentary democracy took many steps. Civil wars curbed royal absolutism, so that the King stepped back from governing. As parliament became more important, the growing value of a seat in parliament led to increased corruption and cronyism. Popular pressure, including the threat of revolt, gradually extended the franchise, making the buying of votes more difficult. Politicians learned to play rules of democracy such as "Lose gracefully; hope to win again next time" and "Win, but don't crush the losers; next time, it could be you." The whole thing took centuries, and of course it is still going on. There were many steps back. So far, at least, we have avoided the trap of "One person, one vote, one time."

The single most important feature of the rise of democracy in the West is how late in the day we came to "free and fair" elections. But if elections came last, what came first? The answer seems to be that the process began with formal limitation of the powers of the government. The starting point, not of democracy itself, but of the process that led to democracy, was the principle that no one is above the law, even the King.

When this principle is not in force, then the government is above the law. In a state governed by laws, the law defines what is a crime, and the courts decide who is guilty on the evidence. Anyone can be tried, high or low, even the government. If the government is above the law, in contrast, the authorities can imprison people first, then decide what they are guilty of. Evidence is not necessary; if appearances matter, the police can always extract a confession. 

In a tidy world, democracies would be those countries that hold elections. Autocracies and dictatorships would be those countries where there are no elections and the government is above the law. But in our untidy world, you can have both at once -- the government above the law, and elections. This tends to happen in two kinds of country. Since they happen to be neighbours, we'll call one Pakistan and the other Afghanistan. The world has many more examples of both.

  • In Pakistan there have been elections from time to time when the military is not in power, but the elections don't matter much. This is because the military is in power, even when it appears not be in power. In Pakistan the army controls nuclear weapons, military deployments, and intelligence activities independently of the government. It also has huge economic interests; according to Military Inc.: Inside Pakistan's Military Economyby Ayesha Siddiqa (Pluto Press, 2007), the army disposes of one third of Pakistan's heavy industries and 6-7 per cent of private sector assets. These economic interests free the army from dependence on the civilian government's budgetary allocations. As a result, the elected government cannot tell the army what to do. In short, elections do not make Pakistan a proper democracy.
  • Afghanistan has been a failing state since its monarchy was overthrown. (Pakistan may become one, but not yet.) In Afghanistan there are elections because of external pressure. Because of this pressure, the government depends on the outcome of the elections to continue in office. As a result, the elections really do decide who will govern Afghanistan -- at least this time round. In the short term, the prize of winning is great, because Afghanistan has only a weak constitution. Traditional restraints on central government have been eroded by decades of civil war. Being in power means you can do pretty much what you want, provided you control the territory. In the long term, however, the gain from winning is very uncertain. Maybe it just means being first in the firing line when the Americans withdraw.

What happens when you have elections and the government can do anything it wants, but only in the very short term? Several things: First, it is crucial to win the election. Second, it is crucial to win this time -- not next time, because there may never be another time. Don't settle for the chance to be the loyal opposition; bribe, threaten, do whatever you have to do to bring in the votes. Third, once you win, grab everything you can as quickly as you can. Forget about building the future. There isn't time. This argument is made by Paul Collier in Wars, Guns, and Votes: Democracy in Dangerous Places (The Bodley Head, 2009).

For such a country, elections are not the place where democracy begins. In fact, for any country, they seem to be the finishing touch on the democratic edifice. The foundations include a stable constitution (written or unwritten), and enough checks on the short-term freedom of action of politicians that they have no option but to play for the long term and cooperate in the games of politics and economics. Society benefits most when politicians see their greatest profit from promoting the steady, long-run growth of commerce and public goods such as roads and education. These things must be in place before democracy presents the electorate with real choices, choices that correspond to true social preferences.

Now that I've mentioned preferences, let's dwell on them for a moment. A virtue of democracy is supposed to be that democratic governments are constrained by the preferences of the median voter. It sets the game up in such a way that each party must compete for the middle ground. A government gets elected if it gets 50% of the vote plus 1. If you range the voters from left to right by their tax-and-spend preferences, for example, then the programme that captures the vote of the middle guy plus all the votes to the right (or left) will win. What the voters have to do is inspect their preferences and vote accordingly.

But when the government can do anything it likes, preferences have little traction. For one thing, parties are not bound by their promises. All parties may promise to be "clean" -- but everyone knows that as soon as they take office they will grab what they can, reward their supporters with part of the proceeds and pocket the rest. Instead, voters must set their preferences aside and make their choices strategically. For the most part this likely to mean ethnically or tribally: If the candidate gets in that is from the other group, what will happen to my group, and so to me? Better vote for my guy than their guy, however dirty. If I can, vote twice or three times, and stop the others from voting at all, unless I can trust them to vote my way. Once my guy is in, join the loot chain. Forget getting an education or doing business. And so on.

What really matters in a country like Afghanistan is not that elections have taken place. What matters is that its rulers, not just the government in Kabul but also the warlords and provincial rulers, need to start treating the country like a place with a future, and the citizens of Afghanistan as people who should not be killed, imprisoned, or plundered without legal process. That is what Magna Charta was all about. What Afganistan needs right now is not so much elections as a Magna Charta to which the government in Kabul and the warlords in the provinces all subscribe. This would be a bigger step forward than elections in which people vote on tribal lines, or are too scared to vote at all. The reason is that it would refocus the rulers away from what they can grab immediately from each other and from their citizens to the longer term benefits they can extract from investing in the economy and in simple things like roads and schools. 

I can see some important objections to this line of argument. In fact, I agree with most of them in advance. 

  • Aren't you playing into the hands of oppressive dictators and exploitative elites?

Yes, it can do this. The problem in Afghanistan -- but not only there -- is that the alternative to oppressive dictators and exploitative elites right now is not democracy. It is, at best, a reasonably law-governed state in which traditional, unelected rulers see a common interest in promoting education, roads, trade, and tourism because they will get a bigger cut from the profits in the long run. They will protect the property rights of the poor as well as the rich, so that the poor will become less poor and will pay taxes and rents. This is why I wrote a while back that what Afghanistan needs is the right kind of feudalism.

It is a risk, however, that if we don't promote instant democracy ourselves, we may end up colluding with rulers who will never be ready for elections. They will oppose elections, not because society is unprepared, but because they are against elections on principle, because they prefer unaccountable power and wealth. In fact, it is not a risk -- it is a certainty.

  • Aren't you undervaluing the thirst for democracy in the Middle East, from Iran to Afghanistan? Haven't these people got a right to decide their own future?

Yes, this is also a risk. Millions of people in countries that don't have democracy want to have a say in their own future. However, it is worth bearing in mind that wanting a say in your own future is not always the same as wanting democracy. Democracy creates losers as well as winners. It's easy to be a democrat when you win.

To have a true thirst for democracy, you have to prefer democracy, even when you lose. In some countries, many people are in favour of democracy only when they win. This is not a reason to be against elections, and generally it should not be up to us to decide whether other countries have elections. Where possible we should leave it to the citizens of those countries to work their processes out, just as the English worked theirs out.

  • So where is our ethical foreign policy?

The first ethic of foreign policy should be not to do harm. Often the best way of avoiding harm is to leave a country alone. We couldn't leave Afghanistan alone because people in that country attacked our ally, the United States, on 9/11. Taking that starting point as given, however, we have probably done Afghanistan -- and ourselves -- a lot of harm by having the wrong objectives.

In each country there is a limited number of ways of doing good, and an infinite number of ways of doing harm. There is going to be a different recipe for doing good in every country, and we can't decide what that is on general principles. However, I think we should generally support the rule of law in other countries, provided the government is subject to the law like the citizens, and we should support the people that struggle to see the law observed and make the government accountable to the courts. This is where all rights spring from, including eventually the right to vote.

  • You can't mean that every law deserves to be upheld? Some laws are disgusting or oppressive.

I agree. The laws in apartheid South Africa, for example, were obviously unjust and did not place the white government under the same restraints as the black population. The laws deserves our support where it creates checks and balances, limits the powers of the government, and gives the citizens redress against oppressive government behaviour in the courts.

At the same time, even in a law-governed country, the law will not always prescribe all the rights we think should be available in our country. In England, Magna Charta did not treat men and women the same, or Christians and Jews. Despite this, it was an improvement on what existed before, because it put the King under legal restraint, and authorized the use of force against him if he violated that restraint.

  • According to you the Afghans will have to wait 800 years before they can have democracy -- that's ridiculous!

I agree. But I am not saying the Afghans must wait 800 years. Some of the reasons why it took such a long time to establish democracy in western Europe do not have to be repeated. One is that the Europeans did not know where they were going. If you know where you are going, that must save a few hundred years. Another is that there was a lot of resistance and backtracking. If you are strong enough to go in a straight line to democracy and quickly overcome resistance, that ought to save a lot of time too. At the same time a straight line is not a short cut. There are still important reasons why democracy cannot be established overnight from a standing start.

Why can't we build democracy overnight? Democracy rests on the idea of moral equality. This means that you are entitled to the same consideration as me, even if I disagree with you, and even if I do not know you. It is the idea associated with Voltaire, who is supposed to have said "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." Not all regions of this world have this idea in their culture. Without it, checks and balances are always at risk of being overturned, and minorities are at risk of suppression.

Put another way, democracy rests on expectations. The winners have a right to expect the losers to go into loyal opposition. The losers have a right to expect to be allowed to live and fight again another day. In many countries the history of power is a story of all-or-nothing, victory-or-death. This history determines the expectations of the contenders for power. Democracy requires them to unlearn this history and learn to expect restraint and trust instead. This takes time -- possibly, more than one generation.

Building commitment to democracy also takes time because democracy can be a disappointing experience. One person's vote is rarely, if ever decisive. Elections rarely, if ever, produce fundamental change in either governance or the conditions of life. Even in stable, long-lived democracies, most elected representatives turn out to be disappointingly human. The main benefits of democracy arrive over decades and centuries, because the requirement of periodic re-election enforces checks and balances; whoever is in power, they are restrained from acting in oppressive or confiscatory ways by knowing that eventually they must face the electorate. This is another reason why building support for a working democracy takes time.

Historical short cuts to democracy are few and far between. The only ones I can think of arise from merging sovereignties, when a society that lacks democratic institutions and traditions borrows them from a democratic neighbour. Something like this seems to have happened in Bulgaria and Romania as they joined the European Union, but it is still a puzzle -- according to "Explaining Democratic Success as an Analytical Challege: Why are Romania and Bulgaria in the EU?" by Venelin Ganev, in NewsNet (News of the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies) 48:4 (2008). Moreover, this cannot help those emerging democracies that have seceded from or are in conflict with their neighbours.

It takes a long time to build a democracy. There are risks in being guided too closely by this; the risk is that we end up doing too little to encourage it. But there are also risks in the short cuts. In Afghanistan, we face huge moral hazards as a country, and our troops are facing deadly physical ones. I fear these are greater than the dangers that would have arisen if we had adopted a more cautious approach, better tailored to the realities of that country.

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I am a professor in the Department of Economics at the University of Warwick. I am also a research associate of Warwick’s Centre on Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy, and of the Centre for Russian, European, and Eurasian Studies at the University of Birmingham. My research is on Russian and international economic history; I am interested in economic aspects of bureaucracy, dictatorship, defence, and warfare. My most recent book is One Day We Will Live Without Fear: Everyday Lives Under the Soviet Police State (Hoover Institution Press, 2016).

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