Monday, August 22, 2005

Principles of Modern Autocracy

Here's an interesting article via IH Tribune that argues against the conventional wisdom that market liberalism leads to democracy. It presents a theory of how modern autocrats successfully side-step democratization while reaping / spreading the benefits of economic growth, which perversely serves to strengthen their autocracy. The article is a sneak preview of the detailed version in next month's Foreign Affairs. A few snippets:

Economic growth has traditionally been thought to promote democratization by making strategic coordination easier, as communications technology improves, news media become more diverse and the citizenry more educated. But in recent years some savvy regimes have learned how to cut the cord between growth and strategic coordination, allowing the former without having to worry about the latter.

Their trick is to ration carefully the subset of public goods that facilitate political coordination, while investing in others that are essential to economic growth. The "coordination goods" that they need to worry about consist of things such as political and civil rights, press freedom and access to higher education. "Standard public goods" include public transportation, primary and secondary education, and public health; all of which contribute to economic growth and pose relatively little threat to the regime.

This provides fresh insights into the reasons for the continued longevity of the Chinese and Pakistani regimes, in our neighborhood, among a long list of other accomplished autocrats worldwide. Seems like business is the new gladiatorial-bloodsport and the stock exchange is the new Colosseum. To quote from the recent hit movie Gladiator:

I think he knows what Rome is. Rome is the mob. Conjure magic for them and they'll be distracted. Take away their freedom and still they'll roar. The beating heart of Rome is not the marble of the senate, it's the sand of the coliseum. He'll bring them death - and they will love him for it.

This is a disheartening article for those looking for practical tools to fight autocracies. It calls for a re-think of the engagement strategy, whether U.S. with China / Mideast or India with Pakistan. At a minimum, it requires abandoning the naive hope that economic and cultural engagement will somehow auto-magically transform autocracies. We need to find new levers to push for rights and liberties that ought to be self-evident truths everywhere. We need to push for this, if not for their peoples' sake, then for our own, as Sep 11 and Dec 13 showed all too well the consequences of not doing so.


libertarian said...

This is an interesting framework for analyzing autocracy. Hopefully, it gets noticed and put into practice by the bastions of individual freedom.
The drawback is that the fruits of the idea are in the hazy future, and the costs (of using leverage) are incurred immediately.
It would be interesting to hear opinions on why India did not end up as an autocracy, defying all conventional wisdom.
It may turn out that our mind-boggling diversity (which in reality should have necessitated several nations) is the key. There may be no other way for the concept of India to survive, except through accommodation of different ideas, facilitated by the availability of "coordination goods" to a surprisingly large section of a developing country.

reformist_muslim said...

Interesting challenge to the conventional wisdom although I'm still not convinced.

It's one thing for small states like Dubai and Singapore to not democratise and another for bigger more complex countries.

Despite recent economic development, China is still poor and even then cracks appear to be emerging in the regime and it seems that political change will appear sooner rather than later.

Also you can't really compare China with Pakistan as there's a big difference with a country ruled by Mao for 30 odd years and one which has been democratic for slightly under half of its existence.

General Musharraf may not be a saint, but he's not your conventional tyrant either. Pakistan has never really had a serious problem regarding press freedom and access to higher education so I'm sure that those examples work that well.

As to why India didn't become an autocracy, one has to think that sustained leadership at its outset by people committed to democracy must be an important factor.


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