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Sep. 9 2010 - 6:32 pm | 0 views | 0 recommendations | 4 comments

You can’t export democracy

Yglesias writes:

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.


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  1. collapse expand

    “Policy is important, but deeper civic and cultural attitudes are more important to the continued well-being of a democratic society.”

    Very true, and often overlooked. In my opinion, US policymakers presume that these underlying attitudes and customs either already exist or that they will spontaneously appear immediately after the local despot is removed from power.

    Quite to the contrary, in repressive states potential leaders of democratic movements are scarce or virtually non-existent.

    Many will have been eliminated by the current regime; the remainder will likely have been co-opted or forced into exile. Further, exiled opponents are likely to have some or all of the following disadvantages:

    * lack of legitimacy. They live abroad in relative comfort, while others remain in the country and suffer.
    * lack of a domestic base of support. Advances in communications, including the internet, cell phones and sat TV have made it easier to share information, but exiles still face the problem that nuts-and-bolts political organizing is not available to them.
    * lack of experience in political organizing. Even when the aptitude is present, the combination of a repressive regime with a culture lacking a tradition of grass-roots political or civic organizations means not only that experience in political organizing rare or even absent, but also that the attitudes and resources necessary to support such organizations simply do not exist.
    * lack of organizational infrastructure or support. Most exiles are more academic/theoretical than organization-building. This may be partly b/c the repressive regime they are fighting eliminates or co-opts any perceived threats, but this dynamic means that even those exiles with organizational aptitude will lack experience or existing organizational infrastructure.
    * lack of a current understanding of or linkage to the political/social environment in their home country. Ironically, the time and distance that may be essential in allowing them to establish themselves as resistance leaders may also doom them to functional obsolescence.

  2. collapse expand

    Thank you. I was living in Jakarta when the economy and government imploded in 1998. There was a clear winner of the election and it sure wasn’t Suharto (the incumbent), but guess who had the means and the opportunity to stuff the ballot boxes? Yeah.

    The entire country knew precisely what had happened, but didn’t know what to do about it. Sure, there were lots of riots. Eventually the “president” did get kicked out (and replaced by his own VP, a creepy little madman), but never tried for his crimes — which included mass graves and the attempted extermination of half an island. Of course, his predecessor was worse…

    Which is why in the very next election, the predecessor’s daughter was elected.

    Then the head of the military.


    Get the picture?

    You can’t have democracy without a huge amount of education and infrastructure that Indonesia just plain did not. The best scenario for the developing world is really for a benign dictatorship, as in Bhutan, whose king informed his subjects — to unanimous horror and grief — that the kingdom will be converting to a democracy.

    We’ll see how it turns out in the end, but it can’t be worse than falling to the mercies of whichever thugs happened to cannibalize the last government before deciding “democracy” was a hip thing to pretend to have.

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