Development and Democratization

I’ll be the first to tell you that I am neither an expert on development nor democratization. However, I think I may have a few relevant thoughts.

It is my belief that development lends itself to the promotion of democratic ideals (perhaps not specifically Western democratic ideals, but the point still stands.) As a general rule, it is the most developed nations that can and have sustained effective democratic governments, however, there are always exceptions to the rule.

I think this is the case for several reasons.

  1. Decentralization of government is part of democracy, meaning that there are more people in government making more decisions based on the opinions and thoughts of more people. In order to be able to sustain a government like this, revenue is one of the most important factors. Not even mentioning armed forces (which is a huge revenue drain), the cost of employing multiple levels of government and all the bureaucrats needed to support them is costly. A strong, consistent revenue stream is important.
  2. Democratization does not happen overnight, or even in the course of a decade. It happens, at its fastest, over a generation. The best way to foster democratic ideals is to create education opportunities for the young. Successful revolutions have rarely been ignited by uneducated field-hands (I’m not trying to diminish or demean the role of blue-collar workers, I’ve done construction work, it’s hard and takes a lot of specific skills… which I don’t really have.) The American Revolution (arguably the poster child for liberal democracy) was started, supported, and followed through by the cultural elite of the day. They are the people who wrote the Declaration of Independence, led the American armies, drafted, promoted, and defended the Constitution, and took up governance after the British were repelled. Even then, it almost failed. My point is that education is necessary. Thoughts of popular governance started in the smoking rooms and universities of Europe, not in the grain fields.
  3. In order to have effective education people have to have time to go to school. That means strong urban populations with people who not only work but have time to read, write, think, talk among other things. This means a strong internal infrastructure with roads, hospitals, and other forms of transportation. In traditionally liberal democratic societies, the vast majority of the population is urban with an ever-increasing proliferation of education. To sum up, people must be able to move past subsistence living.

With these things in mind, there are very real and tangible cultural obstacles which make democratization harder in many areas of the world. I won’t get into these right now, but just a few off the top of my head are women’s rights, minority rights, religious freedom, etc.

One last thought. The implementation of liberal democracy is only a little bit over 200 years old. In comparison to world history, this is a minuscule amount of time. While it has had a grand effect on the course of world history, we still have not seen if this form of government can really stand the test of time. (I’m not going to get into what my definition of liberal democracy is at this time, that’s a can of worms for another day.) Regimes come and go, empires come and go, the only consistent thing about history is that it keeps going, we can try to read between the lines and get a glimpse of what the future may hold. As Mark Twain said, “History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”

The American experiment is still an experiment, with as fast as the globe is changing it will be interesting to see where the world is after 50 more years of political thought.


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