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[Andrew Sheng] Is democracy in decline, retreat or under siege?

Is democracy in decline, retreat or under siege? This is a soul-searching question by many who agonize over a lost golden age of democracy, freedom and rule-based world order.

Notice that democracy was rarely granted by the British Empire, which never granted democracy to her colonies (other than white Canada or Australia) until forced to give independence after she became exhausted by two World Wars. Democracy was adopted as part of American tool-box to be pushed so that more people would be like Americans, free and equal, at least in theory.

This is not to say that the idea of democracy does not appeal to peoples of different cultures and political background. The Chinese idea of democracy, first expressed by Sun Yat-sen (1866-1925) embodied in “San Minzchu-I” or the “Three People’s Principles,” embraced citizens of common culture defined by nationalism, governance rights (constitutionality), and people-centered welfare.

In a survey of 50,000 people in 53 countries polled for the Alliance of Democracies Foundation, 71 percent of Chinese surveyed agree that China has the right amount of democracy, whereas only 33 percent of Russians thought so. Indeed 81 percent of those surveyed agreed that it was important to have democracy in their country. What was remarkable was that 44 percent of those polled thought that the US threatens democracy in their country, as against Chinese influence (38 percent) or Russia (28 percent). The biggest threat to democracy is seen as inequality (64 percent) and big tech companies (48 percent).

Democracy in practice today is built around the process of procedural democracy, in which people vote openly, freely and regularly to choose their government. The best governance arrangement is presumed to be the Montesquieu trinity of executive, legislature and judiciary where mutual checks and balance deliver what the people want. In the last decade, economists like MIT professor Daron Acemoglu argued that democracy fosters economic growth. But if growth has not been equally shared, democracy comes under threat from populist authoritarianism, which often is democratically elected into power.

Freedom House, which annually produces a report on global freedom, claims that 2020 was the 15th consecutive year of long-term global democratic decline. Two important trends mark this decline -- US domestic political problems and the reclassification of India, the world’s most populous democracy, from Free to Partly Free status.

Is this democratic backsliding real or scientifically proven? Political scientists, Waldner and Lust (2018), argue that the health of global democracy can no longer be adequately measured by simply counting democracies and autocracies. There are a group of countries they call WINDS or weakly institutionalized new democracies that easily backslide to military coups or autocratic politics due to poor institutions that cannot deliver. The poorer the country, the more vulnerable to political change it becomes.

In short, democracy as an ideal depends on the quality of institutions and if these institutions corrode, become politically captured or are unable to deliver what politicians promise, then democracy or whatever ideology is in power will inevitably be subject to change by peaceful or violent means.

In my view, the Austrian philosopher/economist Joseph Schumpeter remains spot on in his classic diagnosis of “Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy” (1942). The 18th-century definition of democracy was an institutional arrangement to realize the common good through procedural arrangements that delivers “the will of the people.” But how do we define the “common good” and what arrangement ensures that is delivered? Schumpeter foresaw that “whenever individual wills are much divided, it is very likely that the political decisions produced will not conform to “what people really want.” That is exactly why people are disillusioned with politics, because the politicians are unable to deliver what they really want.

Schumpeter, the innovative genius, saw that just as the entrepreneur engages in “creative destruction,” so political competition creates the leadership that delivers what the people want. He saw that dynamic leadership and the contest of ideas and execution deliver this or fail in the process. Indeed, what the people want at different times and place may be different. Political leadership is all about understanding the mood of the moment, seizing the opportunities and organizing the institutions to deliver. The trouble is that democracy alone does not ensure that the government will be any better in the delivery of outcomes than any other arrangement, such as autocracy.

That failure to deliver is why democracy is retreating, or at least re-grouping. As globalization, technology, demographics and climate change have made life much more complex, demanding instant decision-making, even the best of the democracies have seen concentration of power in presidential executive power, over-riding judicial or parliamentary checks. When institutional checks and balances fail due to corruption, corrosion or incompetence, then new forms of political leadership arise to challenge the old.

We should not fear change, but welcome it.

As Hayek, the foremost market philosopher, recognized, “a limited democracy might indeed be the best protector of individual liberty and be better than any other form of limited government, but an unlimited democracy is probably worse than any other form of unlimited government, because its government loses the power even to do what it thinks right if any group on which its majority depends thinks otherwise (Letter to The Times, 1978).”

Democracy is a work-in-progress, not carved in stone to be worshiped. Each country and community has to find its own form of democracy to arrive at what is best for the community as a whole. To survive, it has to meet the Darwinian test of evolutionary competition from many different modes of governance. Darwin never said the survival is of the best, but only of the fittest.

Andrew Sheng
Andrew Sheng writes on global issues from an Asian perspective. The views are entirely his own. -- Ed.