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Eric X. Li

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Globalization 2.0: Democracy the Beautiful

Posted: 02/21/2012 1:47 pm

In response to a rebuttal:

A healthy debate on democracy seems to be emerging. The South China Morning Post published an article entitled Consent of the Governed is Only Means to Assure Power (February 19, 2012). It presents an argument that can be summarized as follows: Democracy gives the ruler the consent of the governed, which is the only source of legitimacy for political power in modern times. China's success is not a result of its political system but "a product of world peace, general world prosperity, foreign investment, technology transfer, and rapid communication". On the other hand, democracy has truly brought about successful economic development "across the world". Therefore, democracy shall triumph.

Some questions and fact checking may be useful.

The article seems to equate democracy with political legitimacy derived from consent of the governed. Such equation is in need of some verification. Most, if not all, public opinion polls indicate that a vast majority of governments in the world that came to power through elections carry substantially lower than 50% approval rating (check Pew Research). Most of them, including the recent governments of the United States and much of Europe, consistently fall below that mark soon after their elections and stay there throughout their terms. Is this the "consent" democracies produce? If so, such "consent" seems to be all procedure with little substance. In fact, social movements in America and Europe point to a decisive loss of legitimacy of their governments among their populations. It seems that even in the West, the birthplace of modern democracy, the so-called consent produced by elections is a legal form devoid of moral authority. Legally consensual but morally bankrupt do not legitimacy make.

It is certainly correct that world peace, general world prosperity, and rapid communications have blessed our time. But such favorable conditions are available to most parts of the world, including many democracies in Asia, Africa, and beyond. How come, then, many of those countries, with all their elections, are still mired in poverty and stagnation while China has been lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty? If China's all-powerful political system were so bad, why would free-willing capitalists inject so much foreign direct investment and technology transfers into the country? Or are they, at least in part, the results of the very capability of China's political system?

It is plausible to argue that democratic governance contributed to economic development in the Western world. There were many cultural and historical reasons that made it possible. But to extend that to "across the world" is problematic to say the least. Most of the non-Western polities that achieved first-world status in the last half century did so under authoritarian regimes (Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea) or some form of one-party rule (Japan). True, some of them have implemented electoral democracies after they became wealthy. But barely a generation has passed since they did so - much too soon to render judgment on their outcomes.

Ever since the onset of the 20th century, few things have caused more human suffering than historic determinism. Karl Marx mapped out what he claimed to be an inevitable path for human society ending at Communism. Those who implemented it with ideological fervor brought catastrophe to their peoples, the Chinese being among them. But history had its revenge and the Soviet empire went up in flames. China had, in practice, long since abandoned such grand end-of-history schemes. Now democrats seem to have taken on that same mantle, claiming the inevitability of liberal democracy as man's paradise on earth. Their moral certitude rivals that of their Soviet predecessors.

The end of the article says it all: the author has "few doubts of the eventual outcome". History may be repeating itself.