Is democracy a universal good or not?

Democracy is sometimes treated as a self-evident good. Democratic countries are better than non-democratic ones because democracy represents the values of freedom and equality over and against tyranny and repression. But democracy has from time to time also served as the mechanism by which anti-democratic governments are elected. What is the right way to think about democracy? Setting aside the extremely interesting and important ancient characterizations of democracy and the other regimes that you can find in Plato and Aristotle, let's look at two modern political scientists to get a quick "pro and con" perspective on democracy.

Was democracy just a moment?

"The global triumph of democracy was to be the glorious climax of the American Century. But democracy may not be the system that will best serve the world—or even the one that will prevail in places that now consider themselves bastions of freedom." -Robert Kaplan

In his 1997 article "Was Democracy Just a Moment?" Robert Kaplan argues that democracy has made the world more complex, but not more moral.

“In the fourth century A.D." Kaplan writes, "Christianity's conquest of Europe and the Mediterranean world gave rise to the belief that a peaceful era in world politics was at hand, now that a consensus had formed around an ideology that stressed the sanctity of the individual.” But that belief was wrong: “Christianity made the world not more peaceful or, in practice, more moral but only more complex.” The main argument of the paper is that, “Democracy, which is now overtaking the world as Christianity once did, may do the same."

  • Communism’s collapse does not imply that democracy must win in the long-term:“no guarantee that subtler tyrannies do not await us”
  • “I submit that the democracy we are encouraging in many poor parts of the world is an integral part of a transformation toward new forms of authoritarianism”
  • future regimes are likely to be more oligarchic than democratic
  • Kaplan offers a pessimistic, tragic, but arguably prudent perspective

Democracy is value neutral “Hitler and Mussolini each came to power through democracy. Democracies do not always make societies more civil — but they do always mercilessly expose the health of the societies in which they operate."

Example, Sudan: “Sudan's newly elected democracy led immediately to anarchy, which in turn led to the most brutal tyranny in Sudan's postcolonial history: a military regime that broadened the scope of executions, persecuted women, starved non-Muslims to death, sold kidnapped non-Muslim children back to their parents for $200, and made Khartoum the terrorism capital of the Arab world, replacing Beirut” (“If a society is not in reasonable health, democracy can be not only risky but disastrous”) . Other examples Kaplan offers are Tunisia, Algeria, Kurdistan, Afghanistan, Bosnia, Sierra Leone, Congo, Mali, Peru, Haiti, Russia, etc.

Examples, Russia and China: “Because both a middle class and civil institutions are required for successful democracy," Kaplan argues, "democratic Russia, which inherited neither from the Soviet regime, remains violent, unstable, and miserably poor despite its 99 percent literacy rate. Under its authoritarian system China has dramatically improved the quality of life for hundreds of millions of its people. My point, hard as it may be for Americans to accept, is that Russia may be failing in part because it is a democracy and China may be succeeding in part because it is not.” (Keep in mind that Kaplan's article was written before Putin's coming to power in 2000 and remaining in power until the time of this writing, 2023 -- think about how that would fit Kaplan's analysis. Has Russia been better or worse off with in effect a single ruler for 20+ years than it would have been with democratic instability?)

“The lesson to draw is not that dictatorship is good and democracy bad but that democracy emerges successfully only as a capstone to other social and economic achievements.”

“The very fact that we retreat to moral arguments—and often moral arguments only—to justify democracy indicates that for many parts of the world the historical and social arguments supporting democracy are just not there."

Thus, moral appeals to democracy are a sign, for Kaplan, that the other, more basic kinds of arguments (historical and social) are lacking. And just as "the road to hell is paved with good intentions," the moral appeal to democracy in the absence of other preconditions can lead countries to adopt a system that would be bad for them.

Argument against democratization: “in a society that has not reached[a certain] level of development...a multi-party system merely hardens and institutionalizes established ethnic and regional divisions”

Argument against democratizing places that aren’t ready for it:“ States have never been formed by elections. Geography, settlement patterns, the rise of literate bourgeoisie, and, tragically, ethnic cleansing have formed states. Greece, for instance, is a stable democracy partly because earlier in the century it carried out a relatively benign form of ethnic cleansing—in the form of refugee transfers—which created a monoethnic society. Nonetheless, it took several decades of economic development for Greece finally to put its coups behind it. Democracy often weakens states by necessitating ineffectual compromises and fragile coalition governments in societies where bureaucratic institutions never functioned well to begin with.

Because democracy neither forms states nor strengthens them initially, multi-party systems are best suited to nations that already have efficient bureaucracies and a middle class that pays income tax, and where primary issues such as borders and power-sharing have already been resolved, leaving politicians free to bicker about the budget and other secondary matters.”

Argument in favor of authoritarian governments as a precursor to democratization: “Social stability results from the establishment of a middle class. Not democracies but authoritarian systems, including monarchies, create middle classes — which, having achieved a certain size and self - confidence, revolt against the very dictators who generated their prosperity.”

“Foreign correspondents in sub-Saharan Africa who equate democracy with progress miss this point...[and] seem to think that the choice is between dictators and democrats [whereas] for many places the only choice is between bad dictators and slightly better ones." “To force elections on such places may give us some instant gratification. But after a few months or years a bunch of soldiers with grenades will get bored and greedy, and will easily topple their fledgling democracy.”

Kaplan argues for a position that is between the optimistic, moral, progressive, liberal thinking and pessimistic, hard-headed, realist thinking (Hobbes): “Where a political system leans too far in either direction, realignment or disaster awaits.”“Democratic South Africa...has become one of the most violent places on earth that are not war zones... The abundant coverage of South Africa's impressive attempts at coming to terms with the crimes of apartheid serves to obscure the country's growing problems. There is a sense of fear in such celebratory, backward-looking coverage, as if writing too much about difficulties in that racially symbolic country would expose the limits of the liberal humanist enterprise worldwide.”

Kaplan also argues that authoritarianism will be supported by multi-national corporations, which play such a large role worldwide, even more so than proper international bodies like the UN. Powerful corporations and technological developments “liberate” us from geography and “democracy loses meaning if both rulers and ruled cease to be part of a community tied to a specific territory.”

Liberals and conservatives: “Whereas the liberal mistake is to think that there is a program or policy to alleviate every problem in the world, the conservative flaw is to be vigilant against concentrations of power in government only—not in the private sector, where power can be wielded more secretly and sometimes more dangerously.”

Umpire Regimes: “This rise of corporate power occurs more readily as the masses become more indifferent and the elite less accountable. Material possessions not only focus people toward private and away from communal life but also encourage docility. The more possessions one has, the more compromises one will make to protect them.”

Democracy or oligarchy? “Already, barely literate Mexicans on the U.S. border, working in dangerous, Dickensian conditions to produce our VCRs, jeans, and toasters, earn less than 50 cents an hour, with no rights or benefits. Is that Western democracy or ancient-Greek-style oligarchy?” Kaplan asks.

Democracy as a universal value

"In the summer of 1997, I was asked by a leading Japanese newspaper what I thought was the most important thing that had happened in the twentieth century. I found this to be an unusually thought-provoking question, since so many things of gravity have happened over the last hundred years. [...] Nevertheless, among the great variety of developments that have occurred in the twentieth century, I did not, ultimately, have any difficulty in choosing one as the preeminent development of the period: the rise of democracy." -Amartya Sen

“When people look back at what happened in [the 20th] century, they will find it hard not to [give] primacy to the emergence of democracy as the preeminently acceptable form of government.”

Democracy has had a long history from Ancient Greece through Magna Carta to French and American revolutions, but “it was in the twentieth century...that the idea of democracy became established as the ‘normal’ form of government to which any nation is entitled – whether in Europe, America, Asia, or Africa.” For Sen, "democratic governance has now achieved the status of being taken to be generally right."

“The idea of democracy as a universal commitment is quite new," Sen writes, "and it is quintessentially a product of the twentieth century. ”Other moments of democratization were local or focused on local affairs. Previously, the question was whether a country is 'fit for democracy,' but in the 20th century the question changed, because: 'A country does not have to be deemed fit for democracy; rather, it has to become fit through democracy.'"

Do you see the difference with Kaplan?

What about the argument that non-democracies produce better economic results, like in Singapore?

Sen argues that this hypothesis “is based on sporadic empiricism, drawing on very selective and limited information, rather than on any general statistical testing over the wide-ranging data that are available.” I.e. it is political junk science.

Sen says that, “there is, in fact, no convincing general evidence that authoritarian governance and the suppression of political and civil rights are really beneficial to economic development.”There is no preponderance of evidence that democracy is either more or less beneficial economically. “Since democracy and political liberty have importance in themselves, the case for them therefore remains untarnished.” In other words, even if they don’t help the economy, they don’t hurt it, and it’s better to have them than not.

Sen also says that beyond statistical correlation, we should look at causal processes in economic growth: basically, openness and other helpful policies are not incompatible with increased democratization: “There is by now broad consensus on a list of 'helpful policies' that includes openness to competition, the use of international markets, public provision of incentives for investment and export, a high level of literacy and schooling, successful land reforms, and other social opportunities that widen participation in the process of economic expansion.”

Democracy, in short, is good for the economy.

Another argument is that “political and civil rights give people the opportunity to draw attention forcefully to general needs and to demand appropriate public action,” i.e. democratic governance keeps the government honest, so to speak, with positive net economic benefit. Sen gives as an example the fact that no widespread deadly famine has ever occurred in a democratic country with a free press. In a democracy, governments have to win the people’ s trust, etc., which they do by solving to an extent solvable problems, like famines: “Famines are easy to prevent if there is a serious effort to do so, and a democratic government, facing elections and criticisms from opposition parties and independent newspapers, can not help but make such an effort.”

What exactly is democracy?

We must not identify democracy with majority rule," Sen argues,. "Democracy has complex demands, which certainly include voting and respect for election results, but it also requires the protection of liberties and freedoms, respect for legal entitlements, and the guaranteeing of free discussion and uncensored distribution of news and fair comment. Even elections can be deeply defective if they occur without the different sides getting an adequate opportunity to present their respective cases, or without the electorate enjoying the freedom to obtain news and to consider the views of the competing protagonists. Democracy is a demanding system, and not just a mechanical condition (like majority rule) taken in isolation.”

How does democracy enrich human life?

“We can distinguish three different ways in which democracy enriches the lives of the citizens”:(Sen calls them intrinsic, instrumental, and constructive):

First, political freedom is a part of human freedom in general, and exercising civil and political rights is a crucial part of good lives of individuals as social beings. Political and social participation has intrinsic value for human life and well-being. To be prevented from participation in the political life of the community is a major deprivation.”

Second, as I have just discussed (in disputing the claim that democracy is in tension with economic development), democracy has an important instrumental value in enhancing the hearing that people get in expressing and supporting their claims to political attention (including claims of economic needs).”

Third ... the practice of democracy gives citizens an opportunity to learn from one another, and helps society to form its values and priorities. Even the idea of 'needs,' including the understanding of 'economic needs,' requires public discussion and exchange of information, views, and analyses. In this sense, democracy has constructive importance, in addition to its intrinsic value for the lives of the citizens and its instrumental importance in political decisions.”

What is a universal value?

"For a value to be considered universal, must it have theconsent of everyone? If that were indeed necessary, then the category of universal values might well be empty. I know of no value--not even motherhood (I think of Mommie Dearest)--to which no one has ever objected. I would argue that universal consent is not required for something to be a universal value. Rather, the claim of a universal value is that people anywhere may have reason to see it as valuable.”

The argument here is that in the 20th century like never before, most people would approve of democratic changes if they were to occur: “In considering democracy for a country that does not have it and where many people may not yet have had the opportunity to consider it for actual practice, it is now presumed that the people involved would approve of it once it becomes a reality in their lives.”

The “Poor People Don’t Want Democracy” Argument

Against the argument that some sections of the population don’t care much about democracy and would rather just have “bread,” Sen has two responses:

(1) as in the famine scenario, it may be the poor who have the most to gain from the kind of security that comes with democratization: “the protective role of democracy may be particularly important for the poor. This obviously applies to potential famine victims who face starvation. It also applies to the destitute thrown off the economic ladder in a financial crisis. People in economic need also need a political voice. Democracy is not a luxury that can await the arrival of general prosperity.”

(2) “there is very little evidence that poor people, given the choice, prefer to reject democracy... To the extent that there has been any testing of the proposition that the poor do not care about civil and political rights, the evidence is entirely against that claim.”

The Cultural Argument is that there are non-democratic cultures with their own values. Example, “Asian Values”: “It has been claimed that Asians traditionally value discipline, not political freedom, and thus the attitude to democracy must inevitably be much more skeptical in these countries.”

Sen objects that (1)“It is very hard to find any real basis for this intellectual claim in the history of Asian cultures.” One problem is that “Asia” is very diverse (east asia, southeast asia, etc.), and every subgroup i.e. Japanese is also very diverse internally. (2)“There is no homogeneous worship of order over freedom in any of these cultures.”“The monolithic interpretation of Asian values as hostile to democracy and political rights does not bear critical scrutiny.” (3)“It is not hard, of course, to find authoritarian writings within the Asian traditions. But neither is it hard to find them in Western classics: One has only to reflect on the writings of Plato or Aquinas to see that devotion to discipline is not a special Asian taste. To dismiss the plausibility of democracy as a universal value because of the presence of some Asian writings on discipline and order would be similar to rejecting the plausibility of democracy as a natural form of government in Europe or America today on the basis of the writings of Plato or Aquinas (not to mention the substantial medieval literature in support of the Inquisitions).”

The bottom line is that democracy is a universal value in the three ways mentioned before, which were not nullified by the economic or the cultural arguments. “The value of democracy includes its intrinsic importance in human life, its instrumental role in generating political incentives, and its constructive function in the formation of values (and in understanding the force and feasibility of claims of needs, rights, and duties). These merits are not regional in character. Nor is the advocacy of discipline or order.”

So what do you think?

Is democracy a universal value? Does it enrich human life? And do countries become fit through democracy? Or must countries first be fit for democracy? Can democracy have destructive effects? Can it lead to anarchy or tyranny? What do Kaplan and Sen get right? What do they get wrong? What did you find most interesting in this summary of their ideas? The goal was to give you an overview of one debate over democracy. It's an ongoing debate. The language of "democracy" continues to influence politics today, often in precisely the moral manner that Kaplan opposed and Sen supported.