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The Middle-class vs. Democracy

May 6, 2009

Bryan Caplan at EconLog points us at a piece by Joshua Kurlantzick in Foreign Policy – The Bourgeois Revolution:How the global middle class declared war on democracy.

For years, political theorists have argued that developing a healthy middle class is the key to any country’s democratization. To paraphrase the late political scientist Samuel Huntington: Economic growth and industrialization usually lead to the creation of a middle class. As its members become wealthier and more educated, the middle class turns increasingly vocal, demanding more rights to protect its economic gains.

But over the past decade, the antidemocratic behavior of the middle class in many countries has threatened to undermine this conventional wisdom. Although many developing countries have created trappings of democracy, such as regular elections, they often failed to build strong institutions, including independent courts, impartial election monitoring, and a truly free press and civil society.

The middle class’s newfound disdain for democracy is counterintuitive. After all, as political and economic freedoms increase, its members often prosper because they are allowed more freedom to do business. But, paradoxically, as democracy gets stronger and the middle class grows richer, it can realize it has more to lose than gain from a real enfranchisement of society.

Soon after acquiring democracy, urban middle classes often grasp the frustrating reality that political change costs them power. Outnumbered at the ballot box, the middle class cannot stop populists such as Thaksin or Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. Once the middle class realizes it cannot stop the elected tyrants, it also comes to another, shattering realization: If urban elites can no longer control elections, all of their privileges — social, economic, cultural — could be threatened.

This cycle of protest and counterprotest, then, could be the most damaging blow inflicted by the middle class. Where rich and poor once worked together in fighting for democracy, they now wind up pitted against each other, leaving a permanent rift in society and an ominous cloud over their country’s democratic future — and over the future of democracy-building efforts around the world, as we struggle to come up with a new blueprint for making democracy work.

 Rule by the ballot box tends to work better than rule by aristocratic or religious elites, but there is no guarantee that the majority will not exploit its power.  While a return to monarchy or military rule will usually end up being a step backwards, I’m certainly sympathetic to the dissatisfaction that drives it.

One Comment
  1. Boyang permalink
    May 7, 2009 1:10 am

    This piece of writing hit the nail on the head, as far as I can tell. The only and most alienating piece of evidence I have is the disregard for democracy amongst the wealthy and educated middle-class in China.

    Many of Chinese expatriates believe that the Chinese people is not ready for democracy. Those living in China, knowing the corruption and evil of the bureaucracy, tend to have a more pessimistic view of the current government, yet they won’t endorse democracy.

    By the way, not that Jacky Chan is important, but he reflects the current opinion.

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