On democracy

Posted in democracy, politics by jrahman on April 26, 2007

In this post, I argue the case for democracy, starting with some abstract ideas and then relating them to today’s Bangladesh. Nothing here is original, but reading some comments over the past few days, I feel that it is worth reiterating various arguments for democracy.

Let’s begin with rights.

We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal, that they are endowed … with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. … [T]o secure these rights, Governments are instituted … deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed … whenever … Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it, and to institute new Government…

Anyone taking human rights seriously cannot argue with these words. If we think that human rights matter, then it follows that any government that violates these rights loses its legitimacy. We could alter or abolish an illegitimate government through a revolution. And then if the revolutionary government trampled on our cherished rights, we could try a counter-revolution. Alternatively, we could have competitive elections at regular intervals. Any government traducing too many rights could be thrown out by voters. This suggests that democracy, by which I mean a political system where the government is representative of and responsible to those governed, is more likely to respect people’s rights than a non-democracy.

So far we have assumed that rights are what most voters care about. This need not always be the case. In fact, a majority of voters may very well decide to actively persecute some minorities. Democracies can become dictatorships of the majority. From this, it follows that democracy, defined as above, is not sufficient for the preservation of rights. To guarantee that the individual’s inalienable rights are protected from the tyranny of majority, we need measures like the separation of powers between different branches and different layers of the government, independence of the court system and free and inquisitive media. When these measures are present, we have a liberal democracy.

But why this emphasis on rights? One can make a serious argument that the inalienable rights of the US Declaration of Independence are grounded in the European civilization, and other civilizations have different concepts of rights and obligations. For example, a declaration with its roots in Islam could very well be based on ‘self-evident truths that all men are created equal and endowed by the Almighty with certain responsibilities, and governments are established to uphold these…’ Or one can argue that to the impoverished ‘wretched of the earth’, rights are irrelevant — faced with acute hunger, can someone be concerned about the right to free speech?

The liberal emphasis on individual rights is by no means the only possible foundation for a political system. There are various types of socialism, nationalism, environmentalism, fundamentalism and all sorts of other isms to choose from.

‘To choose from’, that’s the operative phrase here. So long as there is a choice, we are still in the realm of democracy. One cannot stress enough the freedom of choice here. Every non-liberal ideology imagined anywhere in history, taken to its logical conclusion, would produce a totalitarianism where all other ideas are banished. To the believer, such a pure world is paradise, but to everyone else it is hell. Therefore, even those not so keen on rights as an end in itself should still care about rights to choose as a means to the end of their likings. That is, being a socialist or ‘Islamist’ (I use the word very reluctantly, but can’t think of a better word right now) shouldn’t stop one from supporting democracy.

One shouldn’t, however, over sell democracy. There is no guarantee whatsoever that a democracy will produce a stable society. Social stability depends on many factors — technological changes, environmental challenges, economic developments can all destabilize a society, and not always for the worst. In an already changing society, democracy can create more tensions. But if the society is already changing, an absence of democracy can create even more instability. Revolutions typically happen when democratic reforms are denied.

Some argue that democracy is not conducive to economic development. For example, they argue that ‘benevolent dictatorships’ have presided over economic growth unparalleled by any democracy. But then again, for every Korea or Taiwan, we have dozens of African or Latin American countries, for every Mahathir there were many Mobutus.

It is true that with cumbersome decision-making processes, necessary reforms can be more difficult in a democracy. But there is a flipside to this as well. While democracies may take a long time to make the right choice, they typically make less costly errors. For example, China liberalized its economy a decade earlier than India did, and as a result the average Chinese is much richer than the average Indian. However, independent India has never experienced a famine or massive dislocation of people because of economic reasons. Policy experiments like the Great Leap Forward or the Cultural Revolution killed millions in China during Chairman Mao’s era.

So much for abstract arguments, let’s talk about today’s Bangladesh. For anyone concerned about human rights, it’s hard to argue that there is a system better than liberal democracy. While we don’t have democracy today, we definitely did not have liberal democracy before 1/11. But then, what is closer to liberal democracy, the current still-evolving non-democracy or the peculiar democracy we had earlier? The regime has talked about liberal reforms — note Dr Fakhruddin Ahmed’s first speech to the nation. But then Lt Gen Moeen U Ahmed has also talked about an ‘indigenous model of democracy’ which reminded me of various other models of democracy — basic, socialist, Islamic, guided — that civilian and military rulers of Pakistan and Bangladesh peddled in the past.

And even if one is not that concerned about human rights per se, one should still want an eventual return to democracy. We saw earlier that it’s not clear that dictatorships are better at improving living standards. Historically, democracies have been better at this in Bangladesh. For example, according to the IMF data, GDP per capita increased by 1.4% a year during the Ershad era, it grew by an annual average of 2.2, 3.1 and 4% under the three subsequent governments. Why should we think that a military backed non-democracy be better at improving people’s lives in Bangladesh?

And then there is the question of whether economic growth is all that matters. What about the impact of growth on the environment? What about the way the growth process has fuelled inequality? Might it not be better to have an equal distribution of poverty than a grotesquely unequal distribution of wealth? And what about the way economic changes are tearing down the traditional fabrics of our society?

As it happens, I think that economic growth, managed properly will help the environment or social inequality. And frankly, I am not that concerned about traditional social norms. But it doesn’t matter what I think. What matters is what most Bangladeshis think. And I know of only one political system that will reflect the views of what most Bangladeshis think about economic growth, environmental degradation, social inequality or the loss of tradition: democracy.

We don’t have democracy today. It’s not quite a full-blown dictatorship yet, though could very easily become one. What we had before 1/11, while more democratic than what we have today, was in bad need of repair. Going forward, what should we do? Do we persevere with the non-democracy hoping that it doesn’t turn into tyranny? Or do we fear the onset of tyranny and urge for a return to what we had on 1/10? Do we wait for the regime to deliver a ‘democracy suited to the genius of our people’, or do we prepare for a ‘struggle for democracy’? I don’t presume to have the answer for these. These should be vigorously debated. But I do think that our ultimate aim should be a return to democracy. To paraphrase Benjamin Franklin, trading democracy for stability or development will result in us losing everything.

(First published in UV).


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