If you look around, it turns out that the Anglophone countries, the Nordics, Switzerland, and Netherlands are the oldest established permanent floating constitutional democracies in the world. And they’re also generally the least-corrupt countries. And generally the most-prosperous. I think this is generally a question of joint causation and mutually re-enforcing trends rather than democratic governance leading to the adoption of “good policies.” All these countries are actually full of stupid policies—in Sweden a privately owned store can’t sell Tylenol and the United States invaded Iraq to eliminate a nonexistent nuclear weapons program—but we succeed nonetheless. By contrast I’m not sure having Joseph Kabila call up a bunch of smart policy wonks would do a ton of good. And in general, we’ve had a lot more success having people from badly-governed countries move to better-governed ones than in having people from well-governed countries show up in badly-governed ones and tell them how to do things.
This is pretty much true. Policy is important, but deeper civic and cultural attitudes are more important to the continued well-being of a democratic society. That being said, a lot of the nitty-gritty of policy debate is going to have consequences down the road. Maybe it won’t change the basic fact that the Anglophone countries, the Nordic countries, Switzerland, and the Netherlands are all basically still the most free, liberal societies in the world. But it will effect things like upward mobility, long-term financial stability, and unemployment rates. Likewise, civil liberties are directly impacted by specific policies, and certain policies that either diminish or enhance our civil liberties can have massive social impacts. And yes, the more liberal, democratic countries are going to generally trend toward better civil liberties than many of their counterparts, but the war on terror, the war on drugs, and the rest of our very bad social policies have very real, very direct impacts on our society and citizenry. Policy matters, I think, because it can create sea changes in the very cultural assumptions that helped shape our societies in the first place – assumptions like what level of privacy we should expect in our own homes, bodies, or while traveling. So there’s a bit of a chicken and egg thing going on here.
Yglesias finishes with, “I think democracies do well largely because the norms it takes to keep a democracy going are generally beneficial rather than because democracy leads to smart policies.” This underscores just how viciously untrue the myth is that we can somehow ‘spread democracy’. Unless those social and civic norms are in place already, a society that hasn’t been democratic isn’t going to become democratic overnight. The reason Germany was able to revert to democracy after the fall of the Third Reich was exactly because democracy had already taken root there prior to the rise of Hitler. Fifty years later, the Russians were nowhere near as prepared to accept democracy when communist rule came to an end which is why Russia is nothing at all like an actual democratic state today. And Iraq not only had no history of democratic rule, but not really any cultural or intellectual democratic past either. Iran does, to some degree, but notions of democracy and freedom in Iran would still be almost unintelligible to Westerners. Afghanistan is even less rooted in any familiar traditions, making our continued presence there even more foolish and wrong-headed.
In any case, one last thing to note is that policy is important because it is something we chose to do. We have to debate policy because it’s something we have some control over.