Saturday, August 1, 2015

Political and Civil Rights, Liberal and Illiberal Democracy, Punching up and Kicking Down

If anyone actually follows this site, they will know that I am becoming obsessed with how democracies fail.  But how democracies end cannot be separated from the subject of how they begin. Thus I highly recommend this excellent article on the subject.  It addresses some of the same issues in the origin of democracy that I do in their failure and presents its own hypothesis that I will have to start incorporating in my own analyses.

The authors propose that liberal democracy depends on three sets of rights -- property rights, political rights, and civil rights.  Property rights mean the security of property ownership and are the main concern of the elite.  Political rights mean elective government and majority rule and are the main concern of the general public.  Civil rights mean "equal treatment before the law and equal access to public services such as education" and are the main concern of minorities -- racial, ethnic, linguistic, religious, geographic or even ideological, the things that the authors lump together as "identity."  The authors define a "democratic" regime as one that respects political rights and a "liberal" regime as one that respects civil rights.  Government can be one without being the other.  In particular, a government that respects property rights and political rights but not civil rights is an "electoral democracy" or an "illiberal democracy."  A government can hold fair elections and allow majority rule, but not respect the rights of minorities (in other words, it can kick down).  It can also subject political opponents to "censorship, persecution, or wrongful imprisonment."

The authors point to an uncomfortable aspect of democratic development.  Electoral democracy may be seen as a bargain between elites and the general public.  Elite have the power of wealth and the general public has the power of numbers.  In case of a showdown, they can strike a deal whereby the elite has its wealth guaranteed and the general public gets elections and majority rule.  But despised minorities have no power to bring to the table and are therefore apt to be cut out of the deal altogether.  In other words, electoral democracy kicks down, and, indeed, may relish treating a minority as scapegoat.  The real question, then, is not why electoral democracies are often illiberal, but how liberal democracy came about at all.

The authors present the same hypothesis in an academic rather than popular format in this paper and attempt to answer their question -- one that makes heavy use of social equations that are hard to follow and give the illusion of rigor more than actual rigor, but their hypotheses are nonetheless interesting.  Rather dubiously, they admit, the authors treat each bundle of rights (property, political, civil) as an all-or-nothing choice that government either does or does not respect.  Starting from this oversimplified assumption, they pose eight different types of regime based on which bundles of rights are or are not respected.

The authors make short shrift of any system that does not respect property rights.  A system in which none of the rights a respected is either anarchy or a personal dictatorship. Doubtless the authors are right that such a regime is not a fruitful field for democracy, liberal or illiberal.  A government that respects political rights only but not property or civil rights they name the dictatorship of the proletariat.  Another way of looking at it is, violent revolution.  Although the authors do some calculating to figure out when violent revolution might be worthwhile to the broad public, certainly elites see it as a great evil to be avoided, and the authors seem on the whole to agree.  As would I. Violent revolution is a less promising future for democracy than negotiation and compromise. A regime that would respect political and civil rights but not property rights the authors treat more as a utopian vision than anything that has actually happened in the real world.  And as for a government that respects civil rights only but not political rights or property rights, the authors cannot even imagine such a thing.  The other reason the authors make short shrift of systems that ignore property rights is that they assume democracy is a compromise between elites and the general public, but the elite would never agree to any compromise that does not protect property.

Among systems that respect property rights, the authors designate as right-wing autocracy a system in which the elite run government for the sake of their own property and ignore the political and civil rights of the broader public.  This, the authors emphasize, is the preferred regime for the elite, and the form most governments have historically taken.  Elites move away from right-wing autocracy only in the face of a realistic threat of violent revolution (dictatorship of the proletariat).  As an alternative, they may offer in exchange for their property rights to respect civil rights but not extend political rights (liberal autocracy), to extend political rights but not civil rights (electoral democracy) or both electoral and civil rights (liberal democracy).  The general public would be better off under any of these three regimens than under right-wing autocracy, but best off under an electoral democracy.

It is at this point that the authors start using their elaborate mathematical formulas, some of them based on a dubious assumptions.  They define "civil rights" as " equal treatment in the provision of the public good."  And they define "public good" as including such things as "health, education, and public security, as well as the administration of justice."  They do include in their definition of civil rights free speech, free assembly, and other protections of dissent, even though they elsewhere include suppressing dissent as one of the hallmarks of illiberal democracy.  They also assume that all actors are perfectly rational, which seems a dubious assumption in the real world, especially in the case of potential revolution.  But above all, they treat public goods as a zero sum game, or at least as rival goods, and that they are largely paid for by a tax on the elite.  Are these necessarily so?  Some public goods, such as defense are non-rival and non-exclusionary.  If the army protects the country from invasion, then everyone benefits and no one can be excluded.  Other public goods have externalized benefits, as everyone benefits from the reduced crime rate if there is good law enforcement, society as a whole is wealthier with a good education system, and society as a whole is healthier with a good public health system.  And do the elite necessarily pay disproportionately for public goods?  In many cases, yes, but in others (like Social Security), the burden on the elite is comparatively light.  But the authors assume that the general public is always better off under electoral democracy than liberal democracy because they don't have to share public goods with minorities, and liberal democracy necessarily provides fewer public goods than electoral democracy and therefore has lower taxes.  And yet it cannot be denied that many majorities do appear to think of public goods as a zero sum game (or at least as rival goods) and to assume that any advance in the status of the minority must come at their expense.  And scapegoating minorities is often good politics.  All of this requires further investigation.

Thus the authors see right-wing autocracy as always the elite's preferred regime and electoral democracy as always the general public's preferred regime.  Liberal democracy and liberal autocracy are intermediate compromises.  The authors' question is, when the masses can pose a threat of revolution credible enough to make the elite willing to compromise, what conditions make for each of the three alternatives that the elite will agree to?  They propose that if the elite is a minority in identity (as with white South Africa), it will insist on liberal democracy as a way of protecting its rights from the majority.  If the elite and majority share a common identity, and their ties of identity are stronger than their differences in wealth,* then the elite will prefer electoral democracy.  If the minority is strong enough that the majority cannot wage a successful revolution without it.  In that case, if the division between majority and minority are not too deep, they may stand together and insist on liberal democracy.  If it is deep, the elite may co-opt the minority by offering liberal autocracy.  Finally, when there are no significant minorities and the division is purely one of class, the authors appear to assume that there is no significant difference between electoral democracy and liberal democracy, so the latter can emerge.**

Finally, the authors move on to historical examples.  First, they ignore classical antiquity and focus purely on modern democracy.  This limitation is sound.  This analysis does not properly apply to classical antiquity because under even the most democratic regime then, citizens were always a minority.  Second, they argue that liberal democracy succeeded in Europe in the 19th Century because (1) European countries had few identity divisions so the difference was purely one of class and/or (2) the elite had adopted liberal autocracy in Europe as a result of intra-elite struggles before the serious movement for democratization got started, so liberal democracy was the natural conclusion.  Their account is too brief to tell whether they believe liberal autocracy had come to prevail in all of Europe or only in Britain, nor do they spend much time on countries like Austria that had significant divisions in identity.  They also seem to say that democratization squeezed liberals out, as demonstrated by the decline of liberal parties in Britain and Germany.  More accurately, democratization squeezed out liberal autocracy.  The unions and working class parties that arose for the most part accepted liberal endorsement of civil rights and dissent, although they contained significant illiberal aspects that later split off and became the Communist Party.  And the authors are not libertarians who reduce liberalism to minimal government:
The welfare states of the postwar era were based on a very different type of bargain between employers and employees – providing the latter with much expanded social rights – but they were constructed on the same elite/working-class cleavage that had instigated the 19th century rise of democracy in the West. Some would say that these regimes had given up on liberalism in expanding the economic and social powers of the state. But judged by criteria such as the rule of law, non-discrimination, and equality in the distribution of public goods, the welfare states of Europe and North America were indeed liberal democracies.
By contrast, Third World democratization movements after WWII mostly sprung out of anti-colonialism.  As such the social divisions were primarily ones of "identity" (race, ethnicity, language, religion, geography) rather than class, and they tended toward electoral/illiberal democracy.  The authors cite three main exceptions in which liberal democracy arose.  In South Korea, it arose under similar circumstances to Europe -- an ethnically very uniform country in which democratization was mostly a struggle against the dictator with unions and labor organizations playing a leading role.  In South Africa, the dominant elite was a racial minority and therefore insisted on liberal protections of civil rights before it would cede power.  In Lebanon, liberal democracy was maintained for a time as a balance among different identity groups, none large enough to dominate the others.  Lebanon's experiment ended badly.  South Africa's endures, but has been shaky.  But liberal democracy in South Korea by now is well-established and looks to be as strong and stable as any in Europe.***  The authors suggest that this is because democratization in Korea most strongly resembles the European pattern, although there are differences as well.  For one thing, although Korea lacks ethnic divisions, the authors concede that it has significant divisions in religion. (About 23% of the population is Buddhist, 29% Christian, and the rest either no religion or traditional religion). For another, the Korean dictatorship did not embrace liberal autocracy before it democratized.

And one country is conspicuously absent from the discussion -- the United States.  Although the US had strong protections of dissent from the very start, we have often been the very model of illiberal democracy in our treatment of minorities -- most particularly in the South, but with regard to immigrants in many parts of the country.  I think it fair to say that we achieved political rights earlier than Europe, but often lagged behind in civil rights.

In this post, I have stuck mostly to reporting, with some criticisms.  In my next post, I mean to discuss how this analysis applies to failures of democracy, and to populist movements within democracy.

*The authors say, if the differences in wealth are not too great.  But I am inclined to think that the strength of identity and emotional ties may be the more important factor.  See, the US South.
**In this they ignore their previous comment that civil rights include not only equal distribution of "public goods" but also the right of dissent.  In the absence of differences in identity, there is no struggle over the distribution of public goods, but there may still be an issue over the right of dissent.
***That is not as reassuring as it used to be!

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