Democracy, disillusion and development

by Anis Chowdhury
July 15, 2013

S43The absence of democracy’s constructive role denies citizens an opportunity of what the leading philosopher John Rawls calls ‘the exercise of public reason’. They cannot participate in political discussions to be in a position to influence public choice. Nor can they learn from one another, and help society to form its values and priorities. In other words, instead of inclusionary and participatory, the new democracies often become exclusionary and plutocracy or, in the extreme, ‘mafiacracy’.
The Nobel Laureate economist Amartya Sen has identified the rise of democracy as the pre-eminent development or the most important thing that happened in the twentieth century. He also argued that ‘in the distant future, when people look back at what happened in this [20th] century, they will find it difficult not to accord primacy to the emergence of democracy as the pre-eminently acceptable form of governance.’
Thus, there is little wonder that people across the world — ranging from advanced to least developed countries — are willing to lay down their lives for democracy. This has happened more than once in Bangladesh, the epitome of which was Nur Hussain’s death with ‘down with autocracy; liberate democracy’ imprinted on his body.
We have seen the same during the ongoing Arab Spring. Amidst years of oppression, people dared their lives against the regimes that looked strong and indestructible.
When such is the appeal for democracy, quite often people become disillusioned soon after its arrival. There are many causes for this. Many new democracies, including Bangladesh, are often limited to mere elections, which can be deeply defective. Even when elections are fair and free, the new democracies often become a tyranny of the majority or what some call ‘illiberal’ democracy where political differences are not resolved through discussion, but by violence.
S46In other words, most new democracies such as Bangladesh are not what the leading public choice theorist James Buchanan defined as ‘government by discussion’. In such a polity there is a lack of interest in the acceptability of the principle of ‘agreeing to disagree’. Thus, these new democracies lack what Sen calls the ‘constructive’ role for which democracy is valued in the first place.
The absence of democracy’s constructive role denies citizens an opportunity of what the leading philosopher John Rawls calls ‘the exercise of public reason’. They cannot participate in political discussions to be in a position to influence public choice. Nor can they learn from one another, and help society to form its values and priorities. In other words, instead of inclusionary and participatory, the new democracies often become exclusionary and plutocracy or, in the extreme, ‘mafiacracy’.
When citizens’ ability to meaningfully participate or engage in decision making is restricted, democracy loses what Sen terms ‘intrinsic value’. According to Sen, citizens’ ability to exercise civil and political rights or political and social participation as social beings has intrinsic value for human life and well-being.
Preventing citizens from participation in the political life of the community is a major deprivation which also causes democracy to lose what Sen calls ‘instrumental value’. Citizens cannot enhance the hearing that they want in expressing and supporting their claims to political attention. Therefore, their demands for economic needs and justice go unheard or unmet when elites and mafia linked to the ruling party amass wealth through pillage and coercion.
Thus, democracy’s intrinsic, instrumental and constructive values are intertwined. When one value is lost, other values also fade away and the appeal for democracy vanishes and people who were ready to lay down their lives for democracy become disillusioned.
The root cause of democracy’s degeneration and disillusion is the personality-based politics. Political parties in these new democracies are organised along individuals or hero worshiping. Even though parties may display some leanings towards political or religious ideologies, they do not have serious economic or social programmes.
Thus, in the political discourse, parties do not offer alternative visions. Elections are not fought on economic and social programmes, but on personal popularity of candidates derived from their some past heroic and patriotic acts or from the blessings of someone who attains political or religious sainthood. Political patronage bought through largesse, made possible by pillage of state assets, becomes the key to electoral success.
Nevertheless, democracy’s disillusion can be avoided if democracy, even if illiberal, brings quick economic dividends. Here, too, the evidence is mixed. The vast academic literature on democracy and development has failed to convincingly prove that democracy enhances the process of development.
For every reason found by authors to support democracy’s positive contributions to economic growth or development, there are counter facts to prove the opposite. For example, it is often claimed that democracies are ideologically more hospitable to the rule of law and predictable government behaviour, which are conducive for investment and hence economic growth. However, it is not always clear that an authoritarian regime cannot provide the framework for a predictable set of contracts.
The authoritarian regimes of Chiang Kai-shek in Taiwan and of Park Chung-hee in South Korea provided a reasonably predictable and durable contractual environment for private business to thrive. One can also cite President Soeharto’s Indonesia before it imploded in the 1997-98 financial crisis. On the other hand, in spite of the existence of an admirable legal contractual structure on paper, the courts are awfully clogged in some democratic regimes.
The superior economic performance of authoritarian regimes in East Asia led Singapore’s Lee Kuan-yew to claim that countries need discipline more than democracy for accelerating development.
Put together illiberal democracy and inferior economic performance, and one wonders whether a country like Bangladesh is fit for democracy.
But according to Amartya Sen, it is the wrong question to ask. Instead, a country has to become fit through democracy.
Can Amartya Sen be right in Bangladesh?
Probably yes. Why this guarded optimism?
First, on the economic development front, Bangladesh’s economic performance has been consistently better during the democratic regimes despite their illiberal character and concomitant political violence, plundering of economic surplus and inefficient judiciary.
This is consistent with the global findings that democratic regimes exhibit a smaller variance in economic performance than autocracies. That is, economic growth rates may be lower in democracies but they are more stable. In the case of Bangladesh, though, economic growth rates have been not only more stable, but also higher than the autocratic regimes. Political parties, therefore, have to ensure economic progress for claiming legitimacy. Sooner or later they have to have economic and social programmes.
Second, on the political front, the guarded optimism for democracy in Bangladesh arises from its inherent ability to correct itself. As the veteran Polish democracy activist Adam Michnik has pointed out, ‘only democracy—having the capacity to question itself—also has the capacity to correct its own mistakes.’

Anis Chowdhury is a former professor of economics at the University of Western Sydney, Australia.

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