Three Cheers for Democracy


By Francesca Speke

As seen in Pegasus Pages (Summer 2014)

Nowadays, we seem to have a pre-conception that democracy is simply the best thing for everyone. We must implement it here, there and everywhere, in our quest to ‘bring justice and equality to all nations.’ But I want to put to you this question: is democracy really the answer? It cannot be denied that democracy has worked in more developed countries, such as the UK, the USA and much of Western Europe, and is an entirely plausible political system.

It provides us not only with the rights to vote, but also various other freedoms, such as freedom of speech that would not be enjoyed under a totalitarian regime. What I am denying, however, is the belief that democracy must be the best political regime for every country.

Let us consider India. India, the world’s largest democracy suffers from some of the highest rates of poverty, HIV and inequality in the world; its’ GDP per capita lay at a meagre $1,550 in 2012. Talk to many of the people in India, as Humphrey Hawksley does in his book ‘Democracy Kills’, and you will find that the overwhelming majority would happily trade their rights to vote for the basics of human existence, such as clean water, adequate food and shelter.

Yet China, a country under a somewhat totalitarian regime, where there is no right to vote and few freedoms of expression, is enjoying rapid economic growth, and its’ GDP per capita and therefore average standard of living has sky-rocketed in the last 20 or 30 years, to $5,720 in 2012, more than triple that of India. Unemployment is indiscernible, and the life expectancy is 75, thanks to a lack of widespread disease as a result of state healthcare and better living standards.

The marked differences between these two countries’ political regime and consequently their levels of development certainly suggest that it is vital that we re-consider our western societies’ belief that democracy is the solution to the problems we face as a global society – such as terrorism, poverty and religious conflict. Take Iraq, for example. Although I am in no way an advocate of Saddam Hussein, or any other similar regime whereby human rights are violated, it is clear to see that political instability in Iraq outwardly began after the execution of Saddam Hussein. What followed his execution has been years of bloodied war, with deaths on all accounts. Perhaps more important than the deaths of soldiers, however, are the deaths and appalling living standards endured by millions of ordinary citizens as a result of the West’s determination to bring democracy to the Middle East.

Once again, I am not arguing that governments such as that of Saddam Hussein should be allowed to operate. They should not. Instead, what I am suggesting is that growth is an essential factor in preparing a country for democracy. If a country is reliant on trade, such as Taiwan, it is practically impossible for civil war to occur, as the negative repercussions would be too great. Thus, I believe that the best way forward in creating a more equal, democratic world is to, in the meantime, allow non-democratic regimes to remain or take control of countries. Controversial, I know, and somewhat counter-intuitive, you might think. However, economic growth and development is far more likely under an authoritarian regime, such as those in Singapore or China. This increase in growth will mean that countries become more reliant on trade, and so in the long term will be able to make a gradual transition to democracy as civil war becomes a practical impossibility, such as what is occurring in Taiwan at the moment. As suggested by Hawksley in his book, many have now concluded that in numerous cases, democracy is only possible once average income surpasses a certain level, and I think this view is entirely valid. If people are already relatively satisfied with their lives, and are not denied of their humanitarian needs, they are far less likely to support the extremist parties that are the main cause of civil war.

Therefore, I hope that this article has helped question the somewhat doubtable pre-conception that we have in the West that democracy is best. Democracy can kill, and has killed many a time. What is needed to bring democracy to the world is time and patience, not western intervention.

Image: Adam Fagen on Flickr. Sculpture by W.F.Herrick

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