“Democracy is the worst form of government.”

Churchill(1)

In my last post I suggested that there were serious, fundamental problems with America’s (and Europe’s) democracy fetish. By “democracy fetish,” by the way, I mean simply the idea that democratic elections are the only legitimate way to form governments anywhere and everywhere. (This is the common wisdom among international experts in the West and is official US and EU government policy.) Consequently, one of the serious and fundamental problems is the arrogant and patronizing tone we use in chastising other societies that are having trouble establishing true liberal democracies. But since that tone is due mainly to an unconscious-but-preposterous Eurocentric superiority complex, we’ll skip over it.

More important is that we seem to have forgotten that democracy is not an end in itself but a means to an end, that end being the improvement of the human condition. If it could be shown that, for one reason or another, democracies didn’t improve the human condition, or actually worsened it, it would be hard to make the case for democracy, at least in that particular instance.

As an inconvenient example, consider the best head-to-head comparison we’ve had in the last century: India and China. Both were “new” countries, or at least newly formed after World War II. Both were very large and very poor. India was a democracy and China wasn’t. Flash forward seven decades and I don’t have to tell you who won the race.

But I’m going to tell you anyway. At independence, India’s average worker earned 25% of that of the world’s average worker. By 1980, after 30 years of being The World’s Largest Democracy, India’s average had dropped to 14.5%. Thirty years ago India and China had the same GDP per capita: $300. Today, China is at $6,750 while India is around $1,700.

Staggering as those differences are, some will argue that the race isn’t over yet, that India could get its act together – maybe under Narenda Modi – and catch up and surpass China. Well, maybe, but not in anyone’s lifetime reading (or writing) this blog. More important, what about the roughly one billion Indians who’ve already lived and died in squalor thanks to the economic and social incompetence of The World’s Largest Democracy? Do their lives, their pain and sickness, the wasted human potential, not matter? And if they do matter, what does that say about democracy as a means to an end?

The India-versus-China comparison is the most imposing indictment of our democracy fetish, but there are many others. In many countries the public is – or was – so hopelessly divided that democracy simply couldn’t work. This was especially true between World War I and World War II, when radical elements loyal to Communism or fascism vied for supremacy, both willing to undermine any government that was weak enough to be undermined.

In some countries – Russia, for instance – Communism prevailed, while in others – Germany and Italy – fascism prevailed. But in many other places the struggle between these two ideologies caused endless chaos. Consider Spain, which fought a vicious civil war on the subject before dumping democracy for Franco.

Or consider Portugal. When the Portuguese First Republic – a democracy – was formed in 1910 it was attacked from both right and left. Between then and 1926 Portugal suffered through no fewer than eight presidents and no fewer than forty-three different governments. None lasted more than a year. Hyperinflation was the norm and the currency collapsed. Terrorism and assassination became commonplace. Finally, in the spring of 1926 the public had had enough and a coup ended the terrible – and terrifying – experiment in democracy.

In 1930 António Salazar – one of the most remarkable men of the Twentieth Century(2) – became president and he served as the autocratic leader of the country until his final illness in 1968. There was a lot wrong with the Salazar regime, but to the Portuguese people whatever it was it was far superior to anarchy. Salazar’s Estado Novo government finally fell in 1974, and since that time Portugal has suffered through twenty-five governments and an epic economic collapse.

My point is not that democracy is a bad idea, but only that the view that it is always and everywhere the only acceptable option is simply wrong. In my next post we’ll look at more reasons why it’s wrong.

(1) Yeah, yeah, I know, the remainder of the sentence said, “except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” But Churchill’s point, in 1947, wasn’t that democracy was terrific. His point was that democracy sucked. After all, he’d just won World War II against all odds and the good democrats in Britain had shown their gratitude by voting him out of office.

(2) Salazar was a professor of finance and a modest man “literally dragged from a professorial chair … in the venerable University of Coimbra … in order to straighten out Portugal’s finances,” in the words of Carlton Hayes, the American Ambassador to Spain. Salazar infuriated democrats, fascists and communists in roughly equal measure, kept Portugal crucially neutral during World War II, and, most astonishing of all, after nearly four decades in power died poor, never having been tempted to use his clout to amass personal wealth. Of how many American presidents could we say the same?

Next up: Do We Have a Democracy Fetish? (Part 3)

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