A week or two ago I started a series of blog entries about my offensive opinions — the twelve issues about which many of my friends disagree with me. Tonight I hope to finish the series by addressing the final four opinions:
9. The best way to reduce the birth rate is by economic development.
10. War is an institution that has little to do with the quality of one’s personality or relationships.
11. Our Western civilization is not inferior to all other cultures previously known.
12. Democracy is good for peace and for economic development, though the political decisions made in democracies are not necessarily better than those made in other systems.
Why did I write these four items down in this particular order? I was reacting to some recent disputes with friends who are disdainful toward our modern, commercialized, democratic culture. However, the points don’t fall into any logical line of argument, so I’ll not take them up sequentially.
Such friends have a variety of different grounds for disliking our society, many of which reflect disgust with the prevailing materialism and popular culture. Personally, I enjoy most of the people around me (some more than others, of course) and I don’t consider this the worst society in history. The problems most people experience involve insecurity, but nevertheless I see considerable generosity. Canadian materialism and morality are nowhere near as sleazy as in the formerly socialist countries.
And as for violent societies, I remember watching a film about Papua New Guinea (see photo) in which thousands of naked warriors gathered to throw stone-tipped spears at each other on a weekly basis. They and the Nazis and Romans make our soldiers look effete. For 500 years the Romans all over the Mediterranean enjoyed gladiatorial contests above all other entertainment.
Quite often (including in the upcoming October issue) Peace Magazine prints articles by people who want to start society over, from the ground up. They believe that if you could just do a good job with the children, instilling the right values and teaching them good personal virtues and interpersonal skills, then war would vanish, for, as they grow up, these youths would settle their differences in a civilized manner.
We go ahead and print these fantasies, but I don’t believe them. I think that the atrocities of war are perpetrated, not by unsocialized monsters, but by normal, nice people in abnormal situations. I think that most of us are capable of great violence (I certainly am!), especially in a situation where our own lives are in danger. While they are shooting at you, you can’t act as if they were your friends. And if the government declares war, all the friendship in the world between the two sides may count for little. As Chris Hedges has shown in his remarkable book, War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning, once a war has started, it is impossible to talk sense to any of the parties. Hatred is not susceptible to conflict resolution in war. People can’t help it; even if they were friends before, the madness of war seizes them.
There is such a thing as a culture of peace, to be sure. But it’s not predominantly a culture; it’s a set of institutional arrangements. If there are well-recognized international laws, and if the commercial interests are aligned rather than opposed, and if there are alternative mechanisms for dispute resolution, then it may be possible to avert a war. But training children to play nicely is the least promising approach of all. It’s a good thing to do, for its own sake, but not as a way of preventing war.
The very best institutional arrangement for preventing war is democracy. Yet, oddly, this statement is one of my very most offensive beliefs. The great majority of my friends reject it, so I should clarify exactly what I mean (though they will disagree anyhow). Democratic countries almost never go to war against other fully-established democratic countries. Moreover, democratic states perpetrate vastly fewer murders of their own citizens than do non-democracies.
Nevertheless, democratic states do wage fierce wars against non-democracies. And I do not claim that democracies are perfect performers on the international stage. They may do all kinds of terrible things, ranging from surreptitiously and violently attempting to overthrow other governments (e.g. Allende in Chile, Castro in Cuba, and Mosaddeq in Iran) to “fixing” elections abroad, to sponsoring “proxy” wars.
Nor am I naive about how democratic certain states may be. Two nights ago I heard a lecture about how Bush stole the election in Ohio in 2004 and thereby stole the presidency for the second time. (See Was The 2004 Presidential Election Stolen?: Exit Polls, Election Fraud, and the Official Count
by Steve Freeman and Joel Bleifuss). I was readily convinced. The trick seems to have involved limiting the number of voting machines in predominantly black precincts, so that the (mainly Democratic) voters had to stand in line many hours; many of them left without voting.
So what I am saying here is a limited, but astounding, proposition: that democratic governments hardly ever go to war against each other, and they rarely murder their own citizens, whereas the same cannot be said of non-democracies. The reason this is astounding is that it is well-established. By now, there have been hundreds of studies, and there is very little controversy among scholars about the validity of this conclusion.
The late Dean Babst discovered the association between democracy and peace (fulfilling a prediction by Immanuel Kant) and Rudolph Rummel in Hawaii has done the most to establish it. Don’t ask me to prove any particular case, because my recollection of history is weak, but you can read the material yourself and you’ll find this is true. For example, read Paul K. Huth and Todd L Allee, The Democratic Peace and Territorial Conflict in the Twentieth Century (Cambridge University Press, 2002). The authors attempt to explain the pattern, but I found their explanation less interesting than the generalization itself.
The corollary of this finding is remarkable: If all societies became established democracies, international wars would end. We’d still have plenty of problems to solve, for there might still be insurrections and civil unrest within states, and dirty, covert actions might continue abroad, but international warfare would stop.
Why would anyone object to this? I don’t understand it. I suppose it shows the power of anti-Americanism, and certainly some of my friends are unrepentant Stalinists – well, at least Brezhnevites and possibly Maoists, though I never try to pin them down. They certainly don’t want to criticize Castro or Hugo Chavez for not running democracies. That’s probably the nub of the explanation.
But the best thing is, democracy is also good for economic development. (At least I personally think it’s great – but I have friends who don’t believe in economic development, so it is not great to them.)
In the preceding blog I mentioned Amartya Sen as showing the value of democracy for development. But there are lots of other scholars who have explored this question, beginning with Seymour Martin Lipset who first saw the correlation between economic advancement and democracy, but who believed the development was a factor permitting democracy to succeed. Later, people began to argue that the causal relationship ran in both directions. Here I will mention only a bit of the research by Yi Feng, Democracy, Governance, and Economic Performance: Theory and Evidence (MIT Press, 2003).
Surprisingly, and in distinction from Lipset, Yi Feng does not accept that “economic freedom leads to political freedom. Rather, economic freedom can exist without immediately engendering political democracy.” In other words, economic development does not reliably yield democratization. (China and Singapore illustrate his point, for both are prosperous but non-democratic.) However, democracy does foster economic development, though the relationship is not necessarily statistically significant in itself. Its effect takes place through a certain path:
“I argue that democracy affects growth through its impacts on political instability, policy uncertainty, investment, education, property rights, and birth rates.
“While the direct effect of democracy on growth is ambiguous, its indirect effects on growth — through its impact on the probabilities of regular and irregular government changes - are positive.”
What he means here is that governments change regularly in democracies, but if they change at all in non-democracies, it is through rebellions. And regular change is good but “irregular” change disturbs growth.
Moreover, Yi Feng found that the longer a democracy had been functioning in a society, the more equal became the income levels.
Finally, the most interesting discovery here was that democracy had as much or more influence on birthrates as did economic development. This somewhat contradicts one of the beliefs that offend my anti-economic-development friends, for they would clearly like to see birthrates reduced everywhere. Economic development does so, consistently, as I said before. However, it seems that living in a democracy also directly and strongly tends to reduce birth rates.
Have I covered everything? I think so.
Have I influenced anyone’s opinion? Almost certainly not.
But I will persevere.