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If By Democracy, You Mean…

February 16, 2010

William Easterly expresses his love for democracy:

Many just can’t get that excited about majority voting. But the MECHANICS of democracy (majority voting among many others) are not the essence of democracy, which is about VALUES. The latter we care a lot more about than the former. The donors who try to promote democracy are unfortunately obsessive about the mechanics and silent on the values.

This comes after some very important points on measuring economic growth in the poorer regions of the world: sure, the practice of democracy doesn’t correlate with measures of economic growth rates, but it does correlate with higher economic levels. And this is no strike on democracy, Easterly says, because nothing correlates with growth. (More recent posts on this topic here and here.)

Leaving all that aside, I’m a bit puzzled by Easterly’s brief remarks on what constitutes democracy. When he praises democracy, Easterly cuts the philosophy in two, the means and the ends. You may think democracy means one man, one vote, but that’s incorrect. It’s just the mechanism we use to express or institute a much deeper value, which Easterly says is evident in this quote from Abe Lincoln:

As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy. Whatever differs from this, to the extent of the difference, is no democracy.

If by “democracy” you mean self-ownership and autonomy, then I’ll co-sign and notarize that baby.  I suppose this is the general “spirit of democracy.” (Tho the Tale of Slave demonstrates some inherent tensions between voting and autonomy, which makes Honest Abe’s assertion problematic.) At any rate, nowadays, democratization and democracy express two different things. Democracy is a system of governance; democratization has come to mean the decentralization of authority and power. I think Easterly conflates the two.

Ironically, competitive government is about the democratization of governance.  And it follows from the examples Easterly gives:

Scientific democracy: ANYONE, no matter how junior, can overturn wisdom of anyone, no matter how senior, using scientific method.

Technological democracy: ANYONE, any junior innovator, can overturn incumbent elites with something new that just “works.”

Social democracy: ANYONE can be a social reformer, as long as they persuade their fellow ANYONES of a social evil.

De Tocqueville opened his study of democracy with the observation that Americans are Descartes most devoted followers, even though they haven’t even read him. What he meant was that Americans tend to believe everything is open to doubt; that they are fit to judge; and that all is called into question. Easterly’s examples follow that trend. May I suggest another?

  • Political Democracy: ANYONE, any junior innovator in governance, can peacefully overturn incumbent elites with something new that just “works” and attracts new members.

If this be democracy, make the most of it!


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