Metta Spencer

A Century of Democracy

from Dream World magazine, Toronto 2003.

By Metta Spencer

The twentieth century can well be called the "century of democracy" because during those years, the world largely adopted democratic systems of governance. By democracy, here I mean to include: regular elections between competitive political parties for the most powerful government positions, nearly universal franchise, secret balloting, and civil liberties and political rights.

In 1900, there were no countries in which the government was elected by universal adult suffrage. ("Universal" includes women.) By the end of the century, there were 119 such countries -- 62 per cent of all countries. At the beginning of the century, about five percent of the world?s adults had the right to choose their top national leaders through competitive elections. By the end of the century, over 58 per cent of all adults could democratically elect their leaders. This is a stunning change -- and yet we rarely hear much discussion of its implications. Why not? Why is democracy so often treated as an irrelevant matter?

There are several possible explanations. For one thing, even though Marxism as a functioning political system is almost completely defunct, many of the intellectuals who were brought up to believe its ideology are still hanging onto it as a myth that they have not publicly examined. I want to contribute to a public discussion of it here. Marx taught people that democratic institutions were meaningless. What counted far more were the economic changes and the class system that reflected the patterns of ownership and, hence, of domination. Marxists still believe that poverty and inequality are the true issues in every society, and that democracy itself is unimportant. This is not the case. Democracy is crucial for peace and the economic development of all countries. I will consider both factors.

Consider, for example, the assumption that poverty is the most important cause of all social problems, including warfare. Actually, the poor, as a group, tend not to go to war but to suffer in silence, mostly because they are so powerless. Wars are too expensive for most poor people. Within the poor countries, it is not the poor themselves who make war, but the affluent elites, who can (often illegally) amass sufficient money to pay for weapons. During the second half of the twentieth century, there were 47 civil wars and, according to the World Bank, the key determinant of them is the availability of commodities to plunder. Oil and diamonds, to name the most conspicuous examples, can be appropriated by a dictator or his small circle of friends and used to buy weapons. Most of the major oil-producing countries are dictatorships for that very reason. Countries that depend on other commodities that have to be grown or fished or manufactured are less susceptible to control by a small powerful circle, so they tend to be democratic.

Moreover, there is not a great tendency for countries with high economic inequality to be disproportionately involved in war. Nor do developing countries with little inequality necessarily avoid war. For example, Rwanda had a fairly decent distribution of wealth and income, but it underwent a terrible genocide.

Then what is a more important factor in determining the probability of war in any given country? The quality of its governance. When the government lacks control over its resources and agents can illegally defy the government and sell those resources, that is a precondition for tyranny. Also, when the political institutions are not transparent or accountable to the people, certain ethnic or religious leaders may be able to gain disproportionate power. The prevention of war must begin by strengthening democratic institutions.

There is, in fact, an empirically-established relationship between democracy and peace. Historically, democracies do not (or virtually never) make war on each other. Moreover, democracies have, by far, less violence in general. That is, democratic governments are vastly less likely to murder their own people, and there is less collective violence within democratic states (e.g. riots). Political scientists such as Rudolph Rummel have kept records and calculated statistics on these matters over a long period of time. Rummel shows that there have been no wars between democracies since 1816.

Of course, that does not mean that democracies never go to war. They do. When they fight, it is against non-democratic states. Moreover, non-democracies also go to war against each other. One can argue that some democratic states have pressed other countries to fight proxy wars for them. Clearly, the CIA, for has carried out covert actions that are extremely war-like, albeit not as an accountable branch of the U.S. government. And democratic societies and businesses can be plenty exploitive. Democracy is not a synonym for paradise.

Here, I am not asserting anything more than this: Democratic countries do not go to war against each other. But that is saying a lot! Extrapolating from this principle, it is logical to conclude that if all countries were democratic, there would be no international wars. (Fortunately, there would still be enough other problems in the world to keep us occupied!)

No one can give a full explanation for this astonishing result of democracy. However, the simplest explanation may be the best one. It was originally proposed by Immanuel Kant --namely, that in a democracy, people will resist going to war and will be able to use societal checks and balances and cross-pressures to inhibit belligerence. Kant expected that democracy would promote a culture of negotiation and conciliation. Maybe so. Or maybe it is just that we respect other states as legitimate only if they too are democratic.

Despite all the aforementioned facts, the importance of democracy continues to be under-estimated. There must be another reason. I believe it is because people are so conscious of the importance of social and economic development, and they believe that democracy is not helpful in fostering development.

That too is a mistake. As the Nobel laureate economist Amartya Sen insists: "Freedoms are not only the primary ends of development, they are also among its principal means." By analyzing cost-benefit relationships, Sen has shown that rich countries would benefit by paying for humanitarian aid to enable people to be more free and to live in democratic systems. He has shown that no famine has ever occurred in a democratic society. (Contrast that fact to the famine that is going on now in North Korea, one of the few remaining communist regimes.)

Since all these benefits flow from establishing a democratic system of governance, people would be well-advised to make that goal their top priority. But what are the conditions for the attainment of a successful democratic government? I will mention only four factors. First, there is a need for basic education throughout the society. To participate in a democratic government and to use the opportunities that it makes possible, one at least needs to be literate.

Second, there is a need for a flourishing set of private institutions -- non-governmental bodies ranging from churches to trade unions, from clubs to business associations. Civil society brings people into relationships with each other in ways that enable them to mobilize political opinions to protect their own interests.

Third, the military should be subordinate to elected civilian members of the government. Under no circumstances should the military attempt to take charge of political matters. Possibly it is in this area that Africans can make the most progress, given the history of military control there.

Fourth, the society needs ethnic pluralism. In many African countries, a particular ethnic or religious group possesses too much power. By excluding others from positions of authority, they actually prompt the disadvantaged groups to mobilize and attempt to reverse the unjust circumstances of their lives.

There are terrible obstacles, to be sure. In Africa, particularly, both economic growth and the prospects for democracy are impeded by the HIV epidemic and recurring drought. In China, which accounts for one-fifth of the world?s population, little progress is being made toward democracy. Nevertheless, history of gives reason for optimism and for celebration. Despite all the obvious difficulties that have taken place during the past century, democracy has been surging ahead. May that wonderful development continue!