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For all its faults, democracy is still better than autocracy

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Last week, I discussed the poor state of democracy in a webinar organised by an Indian media organisation. After my presentation, a member of the audience asked why Indians should be interested in democracy at all. Was it not a western idea foisted upon the rest of the world? Would developing countries not be better off with traditional autocracies?

I was both disturbed and pleased by this question — disturbed because it says something when a member of India’s educated elite asks it in a public forum, but pleased because I know that many are now asking the question, and not just in developing countries. Tyranny‘s appeal is growing.

Freedom in the World 2024, a report from the independent think-tank Freedom House, asserts that “global freedom declined for the 18th consecutive year in 2023”. Over the past decade, big declines in political and civil rights have occurred in many developing countries. Under Narendra Modi, India is, alas, one of those countries.

Are such declines perhaps a price worth paying for faster economic development? At the broadest level, this seems quite implausible. If one puts to one side a few resource-rich countries and Hong Kong and Singapore, the world’s richest countries are all liberal democracies. Is this really an accident?

Yet sceptics might still argue that democracy is not the best way for poor countries to become richer. They can point, for example, to China’s amazing growth record over the past 40 years. Yet the evidence does not support this view. A 2019 paper, Democracy Does Cause Growth, by Daron Acemoglu and others, argues that “there is an economically and statistically significant positive effect of democracy on future GDP per capita”. Thus, “long-run GDP increases by about 20-25 per cent in the 25 years following a democratisation”. Crucially, this also applies to countries at the early stages of development.

Arguably far more important, as Carl Henrik Knutsen notes in a 2019 briefing note for the V-Dem Institute, the outcomes of autocracy show much higher variance. Thus, when autocrats are good they might indeed be very good, but when they are bad they are horrid. Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot and Mao Zedong killed people by the millions. That might have been because they wanted to or it might have been because they did not care. The point is that autocracy is unaccountable government. Unaccountable governments can do anything.

In a brilliant recent piece, the historian Timothy Snyder argues that “strongman rule is a fantasy. Essential to it is the idea that a strongman will be your strongman. He won’t. In a democracy, elected representatives listen to constituents. We take this for granted, and imagine that a dictator would owe us something. But the vote you cast for him affirms your irrelevance. The whole point is that the strongman owes us nothing. We get abused and we get used to it.”

It is even worse than this. The would-be tyrant is not a normal human being. He is almost always consumed by the desire for power. Once he has gained what he seeks, how can one get rid of him if he proves mad? How can one preserve the integrity of core institutions against him? How can one manage the succession? We know that a constitutional monarchy can work. We know that an autocrat can do well in a small country, such as Singapore, if he recognises that it requires the rule of law and secure property rights. We know that in South Korea and Taiwan, autocrats oversaw the start of rapid development. We know, too, that China had, in Deng Xiaoping, a leader who was not drunk on personal power. So, as the Chinese say, one might have a “good emperor”. But what is to be done if, as so often, one has a bad one, instead?

Democracy prevents such dire outcomes because it has built-in methods of correction. Even if a democracy has inadequate civil, political and legal rights, as too many do, elections might still make a difference. This turned out to be true in Poland last year and, just now, in Turkey. The fact of elections is a constraint in India, too. In parliamentary systems, members of parliament can also revolt, as they did in the UK against Boris Johnson and Liz Truss.

The great argument for democracy is not that it will produce good rule, but that it will prevent terrible rule, which is the worst thing societies can have, except for the absence of rule — in other words, anarchy. The more complete the set of rights, the more potent will be the constraints: there will then also be open debate, freedom to protest, free media and independent institutions.

Democracy is always fragile. It is fragile because some people want to be tyrants and too many people want to trust them. This is also more likely if democracies fail to deliver the goods that people desire — a sense of belonging, of security, of being valued. As Yascha Mounk argues in The Identity Trap, democracies are more fragile in more unequal and more diverse societies, not least because would-be tyrants will play on such divisions. Indeed, it is hard to create liberal democracies in such societies in the first place, as Warwick’s Sharun Mukand and Harvard’s Dani Rodrik argue in The Political Economy of Liberal Democracy.

My interlocutor was right: democracy is a recent innovation. But he was also wrong: that democracy is recent, does not mean it is not valuable. This is true even if democracies are imperfect and autocracies sometimes work for a while. Democracy delivers accountability for governments and voice for citizens. That is far better for us than serving the whims of despots.

martin.wolf@ft.com

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