Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Democracy - Myopic Governance

The world has long been known to suffer from present biased thinking. Going back in time, it seems like a (pleasant) surprise that Democracy was generally a mistrusted word among the intelligentsia for most part of the history. Ancient Greek philosophers were ardent critics of democracy as also were several of the Enlightenment Age thinkers and the early American founders. Yet today all its faults are pushed under the carpet as it is glorified, eulogized and propagated or even imposed with a passion and frenzy akin to almost religious bigotry. Just not having a democracy by itself has become synonymous with lack of basic human rights, regardless of the fact that a premature turn to it often produces bigger civil catastrophes. Today's world view on democracy is dominated by the Western developed world's perspective – where the middle class has already formed a majority. That wasn’t so in the earlier times when these societies were also largely rural and poor and hence the harsher criticisms of democracy then. Besides, never before has mass media been such a force in shaping the world opinion. Media perhaps has a vested subliminal interest in not criticizing democracy as a system because it does share a symbiotic relationship with democracy. Anyhow, away from this present biased thinking, let us look at an aspect of democracy which could be considered as its near fatal flaw – myopic governance.

One of the criticisms leveled at democracy right in the Ancient Greek times was its tendency to be short term oriented. You can read an interesting post on Plato’s Criticism of democracy by Andy Hunter where he has tried to capture it in four key points:
“Criticism #1: Democratic leaders will seek popularity above statesmanship, public accord over balanced administration.
Criticism #2: These leaders have to pander to the people rather than do what they think is right.
Criticism #3: Leaders in a democracy will tend to focus on short-term goals, rather than the best course of action for the long term (think: the environment). After all, problems that are generations away will rarely figure with the masses in the upcoming election.
Criticism #4: Therefore, it is easier to give things to the people in democratic societies rather than ask them for sacrifice.”

The post captures the essence of Plato’s criticism rather well as relevant to the author’s present context – with the prevailing economic crisis in the Western developed world. While an economic crisis in an autocratic country proves that autocracy is bad, I wonder why an economic crisis (to the point of national bankruptcy) in a democratic country does not prove that democracy could also be bad.

Coming back to the developing world context and our usual basic bread and butter issues!
Poverty alleviation requires employment creation which in turn needs investment in infrastructure, education as well as stimulation of the economy. While a voter understands when a dignitary comes and hands him a free color TV set (India) or a bowl of soup (Venezuela), he is unable to appreciate the “invisible hand” of the government in a vibrant economy. If employment opportunities are created, he feels he worked hard to earn the salary; what did the government do? But if he gets something free he feels ingratiated to the party or the leader. Further benefits accruing from investment in infrastructure and education are rationalized over a long period of time. Their impact is not felt as sharply as receiving something free, instantly. The opposition parties are also lurking in this background, propelling him to believe that he would benefit nothing from these long term programs which are just anti poor and pro rich strategies. He is prone to believe it as he really does not see any immediate improvement in his wretched existence.

And just who are we talking about here? These are not the middle class professionals – teachers, doctors, nurses, traders etc. who try to plan their lives and make provisions for future. We are talking about a majority who is living on a meal to meal, day by day basis. Always in paltry debts, not having any money “whatsoever” in their pocket, having no access to any basic amenities – like clothes, water, sanitation etc., often subject to harassment and also living amidst a lot of violence and crime, they are truly living for the moment. Wondering where the next meal will come from, how many members will make it to the next day, how they will make it through the winter and such basic worries, does anyone expect them to ponder over long term investments and implications of alternate programs? But we do know that short term relief measures (whatsoever trickles down to them in reality) will not pull them out of destitution. Long term investments in infrastructure and education apart from other measures are crucial to alleviating poverty and misery. The governments understand this but find it very hard to communicate to this kind of a destitute and hopeless electorate, that too amidst suspicious political environment so typical of multi party democracies.

Even in China, which has now managed to eradicate poverty on a large scale, when the investment phase of development started about 2 – 3 decades back, people did not support those measures. They did not believe any benefits would accrue to them and there were large scale protests. But the Chinese government did not have to face the #2 problem listed above for democratic governments - These leaders have to pander to the people rather than do what they think is right. The Chinese government could do the right things despite "people's opposition" as well as (then)international criticism of its policies. A democratic nation can not do the former at least.

The issue here is not morality of politicians but voters’ inability to discriminate between a bribe and development. This does lead to short term oriented governance where investment needs of a nation are forsaken in favor of short term relief measures. Ideally there should be a balance between short and long term programs but voters’ perceptions of “what is good for them” drive it largely in favor of the former. Valuable resources are diverted from essential development projects to gratifying or bribing the voters instantly. Investment in education and infrastructure is dwindling as it is resource consuming yet not trusted by voters who dismiss it as empty promises or even pro rich strategies.

At this rate, Democracy will keep the developing nations underdeveloped, in all likelihood.

Plato, The Republic, Book VIII

Democracy on Trial, All Rise! Chapter 4 Wooing the Voters, Rules of the Game