Sunday, January 27, 2008

Democracy in retreat?

The previous post about Waving Goodbye to Hegemony called into question the future role that the United States will play in world affairs. Germain to that argument is the role that democracy will play in the future.

An old professor I once had, told his world history classes that it all boils down to "it's the money stupid." Kinda sounds like a political slogan.... that always the case?

A recent article in the Financial Times by Niall Ferguson entitled, Feature: Slow but sure looks at the current state of democracy in the world.

He asks:

Has the democratic wave broken? Is the tide of political freedom now ebbing after the spectacular flow that began in 1989? Recent events on nearly every continent certainly give real cause for concern to those who dream of a world governed by the ballot box rather than the bullet. But they may also provide an overdue opportunity to think more realistically about the way the process of democratisation works.

The article goes on to highlight the countries that have retreated from democracy and those who have found economic success, sans a democratic system.

However, recent economic developments have weakened such arguments. The world economy as a whole has never enjoyed a boom like that of 2001-07. Yet democracy has gained little from all this prosperity. Moreover, the most rapidly growing economies in the world since 2000 have not been the democracies

Ferguson offers a different view to explain the success of democratic systems by examining England's democratic heritage.

The England of the 1860s was, in short, hardly a model democracy, quite apart from its still-restricted franchise. Was there corruption? By today's standards, certainly. Were the rich over-represented? Without a doubt. Yet three things are striking about the system Trollope so vividly describes. First, the political elite were agreed in condemning any kind of political violence - even the threat of it - out of hand. Secondly, those in government did not hesitate to leave office, and all its perquisites, if they felt their parliamentary position to be untenable. Thirdly, the overwhelming majority of MPs on both sides accepted the sanctity of the constitution and supremacy of the law.

Ferguson offers only one panacea for ensuring democracy's will again flourish. That being the respect for the rule of law.

The key to spreading democracy is clearly not just to overthrow undemocratic regimes and hold elections. Nor is it simply a matter of waiting for a country to achieving the right level of income or rate of growth. The key, as Stanford political scientist Barry Weingast has long argued, is to come up with rules that are ''self-enforcing'', so that the more they are applied, the more respected they become, until at last they become inviolable.

Our own system on some days calls into question whether those with wealth and power are willing to leave the stage gracefully. As the election approaches all concerned Americans should pause and consider the future they want for their children.

No comments: