What a Difference a Demos Makes


Less than you might think, actually—or so say the authors of the new NBER paper "Do Democracies Have Different Public Policies than Nondemocracies?" A 30-year international comparison reveals that (excluding communist regimes) undemocratic governments don't differ systematically in their policies from democratic ones, except in that the former are prone to implement political "barriers to entry." (Since those "barriers" often include "disappearing" your political opponents, that's still a significant point in democracy's favor.) That conclusion dovetails with recent challenges raised against Amartya Sen's famous contention that democracy innoculates countries against the risk of famine.

NEXT: Doctoring the Numbers

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  1. I propose that the ready availability of AK 47s (and RPGs, for that matter) all over the globe accounts for tyrants aligning their interests with their populace in most cases.

    When there is a radical difference in available firepower, tyrants get ugly as they have no necessary interest in keeping people happy.

    Just a thought.

  2. I agree with Russell Hanneken. I see considerable barriers to entry in our democratic society, which explains how two almost equally inept parties have dominated the political landscape for over a century now. I’ve often said that if the government held itself up to its own “anti-trust” laws, the Democratic party and the Republican party would be seen as the most threatening “duopoly”.

  3. “That conclusion dovetails with recent challenges raised against Amartya Sen’s famous contention that democracy innoculates countries against the risk of famine”.

    This does not make sense. What Sen aruged was that in case of famines, democracies respond better. If you look at large scale famines that existed in India under British rule it was mostly due to the rulers’ indifference. During the Bengal famine of 1942 churchill notoriously remarked that “they breed like rabbits” and did nothing until millions of people perished. If you look at India’s record afer independence, there has been no famines that resulted in millions of deaths. This is because politicians (since they want to be reelected) moved fast and took corrective action as soon as famine-like conditions emerged.

    I think part of the confusion is because people often confuse between poverty and famine. The point is famine, like hurricane, is an emergency. A Mao would have no compulsion to respond (in fact, he did not, remember great leap forward?) but a Nehru cannot afford to say “they all breed like rabbits” and do nothing.

  4. Another indictment of “democracy” in my book.

    Democratic institutions, carefully confined and restricted, are likely an indispensable part of a free society. Necessary, but not sufficient, if you will. However, a free society is all about restraining government.

    Democracy is not really about restraining government, it is just a relatively peaceful way of getting your guys in control. It is the best method anyone has ever come up with to manage succession and regime change, but in and of itself it really doesn’t do much for liberty.

    Lots of people like to think that certain ancillary pro-liberty features of US society are a necessary part of democracies. However, democratic Europe gets along just fine in the absence of anything resembling guaranteed freedom of speech, separation of church and state, and the like. The pro-freedom parts of US society are there to restrain the demos, not to empower it.

    Democracy, because it legitimizes the state and creates the illusion of “social” consent to state action, can fairly be considered a potential danger to a free society. Thus, the need to confine and control democratic institutions.

  5. RC, your post assumes stable majority and minority factions. But in a country where people swing between Dem and GOP, or Labour and LibDem, “your guy” becoming too much of a threat to liberty means he and his cronies get voted out of power.

  6. Apparently freedom makes you fat.

  7. “[U]ndemocratic governments don’t differ systematically in their policies from democratic ones, except in that the former are prone to implement political ‘barriers to entry.'”

    I can believe that barriers to entry are worse in undemocratic systems, but let’s remember that democratic governments erect their own barriers–for example, ballot access rules and campaign finance laws.

  8. The implication seems to be that if we could just learn to keep our mouths shut other than when facing totalitarianism, then it doesn’t much matter who rules us or how they got there?

  9. Of course, what are the chance we could ever learn to keep our mouths shut!!! Perhaps we could chalk that up to human nature just as we would the desire to get ahead rather than to just take “according to our needs!”

  10. ” Mr. Banik said by phone from India, he found 300 starvation deaths in six months”

    I’m not sure that 300 deaths over six months in a population of 846.30 million constitutes proof that democracies do not prevent famine. It’s not something that a nation of India’s caliber should be proud of but it hardly points to a complete breakdown of the food delivery system.

    I doubt that it is democracy per se that prevents famines but rather well-functioning markets. Democracies are better at creating such markets but they are still prone to destructive intervention. Although they have made stunning progress in the last decade, India is still saddled with a heavily socialized economy with extensive government intervention in the markets. Like most nations, India intervenes in the market to make food more expensive and harder to get.

    I wonder if anyone has studied the correlation between the degree of state intervention in the food markets to incidences of famines?

  11. Barriers to entry are leveled in democracies. Illinois for example. To run for all the state and federal level offices in 2004 (163 total positions), if you are from the two old parties you need a total of 163 petition signatures. To run as a Libertarian or other party, you need 539,145 petition signatures and only have 90 days to gather them. It’s 3,300 times more difficult for opposition parties just to get on the ballot. Independents actually need double the amount to run for state rep and state senate than even the opposition parties do. Illinois’ Constitution Article III, Section 3. “All elections shall be free and equal”. Our Constitutions were meant to limit the excesses of democratic rule. It isn’t.

  12. EMAIL: draime2000@yahoo.com
    DATE: 01/26/2004 08:27:46
    It is dangerous to confuse children with angels.

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