Despite its limitations, democracy beats other types of government

George Cautherley says studies show people in dictatorships live shorter, more miserable lives

PUBLISHED : Friday, 24 January, 2014, 11:18am
UPDATED : Friday, 24 January, 2014, 11:00pm

Last month, Professor Wong Chack-kie of the Central Policy Unit said that democracy was no panacea for social problems, a view not many will challenge. But, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, the reason for pursuing democracy is not because it is perfect but because it is the best among all known forms of government.

Robert Dahl, the renowned theorist of democracy, held a similar view. He observed that the risk of making mistakes exists in all political systems, but the worst blunders of the 20th century were made by leaders in non-democratic systems.

Importantly, Churchill's and Dahl's view that democracy outperforms all other forms of government is not without empirical support.

In this regard, research by Adam Przeworski and his colleagues is worth particular attention. Their study - Democracy and Development: Political Institutions and Well Being in the World, 1950-1990 - looked at the experience of 135 countries during this period. It says the picture of non-democratic regimes is "bleak" and lives under these regimes are "miserable", "grim" and "short". The researchers concluded that the "Churchillian view may be not enough, but it is accurate".

Przeworski and his colleagues found non-democracies to have higher mortality rates and even higher infant mortality rates. On average, people can expect to live five years longer in a democracy than in a non-democracy, even when income levels and the age structure are similar.

One major factor accounting for the difference in mortality rates is the disparity in social spending. The proportion of gross domestic product spent by governments on social security and welfare is much higher in democracies (10.4 per cent) than in non-democracies (2.1 per cent). Democracies spend twice as much on public health as non-democracies - 3.3 per cent of GDP against 1.7 per cent. Strikingly, even when matched for time frame, per capita income, age structure, labour force in agriculture and social spending, people in democracies still live 3.4 years longer than those in non-democracies.

Could it be that the respect for freedoms and rights in democracies gives their people a general sense of dignity and well-being, which in turn induce longer lives?

Przeworski also found that higher social spending does not hinder economic growth in democracies, contrary to popular belief.

Could it be that the respect for freedoms and rights gives people a sense of well-being?

Yet, Przeworski is not blind to the limitations of democracy. Its impact pales in the face of poverty. One possible explanation is that "when a society is poor, so is the state, and when the state is poor, it cannot extract resources and provide social services required for development".

Even so, there is evidence that low-income countries with established democratic governments do prevent poverty from worsening. Sceptics need to be reminded of economist Amartya Sen's observation that "no substantial famine has ever occurred in a country with a democratic form of government".

Democracy does not bring change overnight, either. Research indicates it will not automatically reduce state repression. Below a certain threshold of institution building, democracy has no effect on human rights protection. Researchers have found that "only those regimes which fully develop institutional practices and mass political behaviour consistent with democratic principles will yield any pacifying effect on state repression".

Admittedly, democracy is very fragile, especially in poor societies or those divided along ethnic or religious lines. It takes time to establish and consolidate democracy.

A fully functioning democracy requires a complex set of institutions, practices and conditions. Apart from free and fair elections, democracy requires a regime of civil and political rights, open government, and civil society to flourish.

One major reason why some democracies do not work or even fail is very likely that they are not democratic enough.

As a form of government, democracy has no doubt disappointed people from time to time. As Przeworski suggests in another context, "citizens' control over politicians is at best highly imperfect in most democracies. Elections are not a sufficient mechanism to [ensure] that government will do everything they can to maximise citizens' welfare".

Nonetheless, he argues, this is "not an argument against democracy but one for institutional reform and for institutional innovation".

Among all known forms of political systems, democracy is the one that allows the people the greatest extent to participate in determining the conduct of their government. As power only listens to power, and when unchecked, tends to corrupt, democracy as the form of government that empowers the people to keep power in check is the best hope we have.

George Cautherley is vice-chairman of the Hong Kong Democratic Foundation