Woodrow Wilson justified entering World War I by promising that it would “make the world safe for democracy.” I think he had it backward. It is democracy that will make the world safe. Well, at least safer.
Nowadays we have lots of worries about the world and how to save it — or even whether it can be saved. But oddly, we don’t pay much attention to the factor that can best brighten the human prospect: democracy. Here I want to celebrate it instead of taking it for granted.
There is no one single definition of democracy, but the core experience that it embodies is that of freedom. Indeed, some organizations, such as Freedom House, use the terms interchangeably. Scholars who do quantitative comparative research on governments usually classify them as democratic by rating them on four factors: 1) the protection of human rights, especially the rights of minorities; 2) existence of free and fair competitive elections; 3) freedom of expression and association; and 4) adherence to a rule of law.
However it is measured, democracy is a relative, not an absolute condition. There has never been a perfect democracy, though some states are definitely more democratic than others. Moreover, we must not expect that democracies will necessarily make better political decisions than other forms of government. People are fallible, both individually and in their collective decisions. However, if the citizens lack accurate information because the press distorts the truth, they are more likely to make serious political mistakes.
Let’s consider democratization historically. As T. H. Marshall pointed out, democracy arose in England in three different stages. The 18th century mostly saw the development of civil rights. The 19th century was about the establishment of political rights; and the 20th century was about social and economic rights. Initially only upper class persons enjoyed them, but today ordinary citizens in all high-scoring democratic countries can exercise all three types of rights freely.
Moreover, democracy has spread geographically, According to Freedom House’s latest survey, in 2006 there were 90 free countries, 58 partly free countries, and 45 countries that are not free. If we divide up the human population into those three categories it works out this way: 47 percent of the world’s inhabitants live in a free country; 30 percent live in a partly free country; and 23 percent live in countries that are not free.
Globally, democracy has spread in three successive waves. †he first one occurred in the century between 1826- 1926 in Europe, North America, and the Pacific. Then, after World War I, there was a reverse wave or trough as several European states collapsed and dictatorships came to power, particularly in Italy, Greece, Poland, the Baltic republics, and Germany.
The second wave of democratization occurred after World War II, notably with the occupation of Germany, Austria, Italy, Japan, and Korea. Also there were new democracies in Latin America and where newly emerging countries won independence from colonial regimes such as India, Pakistan, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Philippines, Nigeria, and Ghana. Also, Israel was founded as a democracy during that wave.
But this second wave was followed by a second trough from about 1958 to 1975. Authoritarian regimes came to power throughout Latin America and in almost all the newly independent African countries. Freedom declined in Pakistan and Korea, Greece, and Turkey.
Then in 1974 the third wave of democratization began in Portugal. In the eighties, regimes all over Europe, Asia, and Latin America were turning free, and then in 1989, with the collapse of the former communist states of Eastern Europe, the most amazing wave of democracy began to crest. When the Soviet Union itself broke up, the 1990s were marked by the proliferation of new democracies.
Today, we are probably in the trough — or at best a plateau — following the third wave. Freedom House, which assesses all countries every year with surveys, using a check list of about 200 items, notes that the number of free countries reached its high point in 1998 and has not changed much since then. They call this disappointing period one of “freedom stagnation.” Some of the most repressive states declined further last year: Burma, Zimbabwe, Somalia, Eritrea, and Iran. Moreover, there is a concerted effort on the past of several authoritarian states, including Russia, Venezuela, China, Iran, and Zimbabwe, to roll back the big democratic achievements of the past thirty years.
Still, social scientists are continuing to study the social conditions that go with freedom. The main areas of research involve the connection between democracy and economic development, on the one hand, and between democracy and peace, on the other.
In 1959 Seymour Martin Lipset published a highly influential paper, “Some Social Requisites of Democracy,” in which he argued that “the more well-to-do a nation, the greater the chances it will sustain democracy.” He did not claim that a nation’s economic development was necessarily a prerequisite, for it might occur at the same time as democratization, which it would then help to sustain. Virtually every subsequent study of the determinants of democracy has identified economic development as a powerful factor.
We are now sure that a flourishing economy improves the prospects for democracy. What became controversial was whether we could add this phrase: “and vice versa.“ In other words, does democracy also improve the prospects for economic development? Does the causal relationship run in both directions? Marxists, especially the Chinese leaders, emphatically deny it, arguing instead that they must defer democratization so that the centralized government can push the economy forward. They believe that democracy — at least if introduced prematurely — will not help but actually hinder economic development.
This question is still being debated, but Amartya Sen argues that democracy is good for the economy. Sen is a Nobel laureate in economics and he addressed this question in a book titled Development as Freedom. He insists that democracy is both a means and an end. As he and his colleague Jean Dreze have shown, no famine has ever occurred in a democracy. Politicians know perfectly well that they will lose their posts if voters begin starving. Thus political freedom promotes economic security.
But democracy is not merely a means to security, according to Sen, but also an end in itself. Others often ask, “Do democracy and basic political and civil rights help to promote the process of development?” He thinks this question misses the larger point, since these rights actually constitute development. Being free to choose is an important aspect of human well-being. If someone gives you everything you need but gives you no choice, you will not consider it as a favor. We want democracy, not just because we’ll make better decisions, but because the wrong decisions will at least be our own mistakes. From Sen’s perspective, China might conceivably get rich without actually developing.
So we want democracy because it promotes economic security and also because it is supports people in fulfilling their personal capacities and aspirations. But to me there’s a third astonishing reason for wanting democracy: the quest for peace.
Back in 1785 Immanuel Kant (see photo) published an essay, Perpetual Peace, in which he suggested that if all nations were to become republics, war would end, since most people would never vote to go to war except in self-defence. There would no longer be any aggressors to start wars.
Oddly, his “democratic peace“ theory has won much empirical support. Hundreds of studies have been published on the subject since Dean Babst published the first statistical analysis of the relationship in 1964. It seems clear now that democracies almost never go to war against other democracies. (Any exceptions involve only new democracies less than about three years old, where the political culture has not taken root yet.) Democracies do make war against non-democracies, and of course non-democracies also make war against each other.
Furthermore, as Rudolph Rummel has shown, democracies are unlikely to kill their own citizens. Rummel invented the term “democide,” which refers to “the murder of any person or people by a government, including genocide, politicide, and mass murder.” He estimates that six times as many people have been killed by governmental officials than have died in battle. But democide is vastly more common in countries run by concentrated political power than in democracies.
So if all the countries in the world were well-established democracies, economic security, personal freedom of choice, and peace would prevail, both between and inside nations. Therefore, would anyone in his right mind not want to promote democracy?
Yes, lots of people, unfortunately. Lots.