Saturday, February 18, 2012

Democracy the Dandelion II: Power and Peace

I have written a lot here recently about order and instability in society, comparing the chaos of 3rd century AD Rome with modern stability, and wondering what separates them. In Rome the emperor was whoever managed to rush his army to grab the capital first, or whoever bribed the Praetorian Guard the most to murder the sitting emperor. The old republican order that had carefully limited the amount of power any individual could hold was long gone, and any taboo on harming the imperial family had run out in generations of violent upheaval that saw low-born non-Roman soldiers seizing control. Power was up for grabs and governments lasted months before new rebellions and assassinations swept them away.

I also remarked that democracy seems stubborn, tending to stabilise once it is established for a few generations. Democracy has, for some reason, expanded dramatically over the last century, with lots of old autocracies shifting to democracy and few long-term democracies reverting the other way. A year ago I pointed out that the Chinese government's repeated justification of oppressive policies in terms of 'social stability' seemed odd since liberal democracies appear to be more stable:
Yet the unrest in Arab autocracies show how vulnerable those states which prioritise stability can be. Mubarak's Egypt had 100,000 secret police agents, with an estimated 300,000 informers, yet it failed to stand up to popular protest. Decades of oppressive Ba’athist rule in Syria, designed to create stability with an iron fist, may be about to collapse.

Meanwhile fairly low-income democracies like Indonesia, Malaysia, Bosnia and Herzegovina seem to have escaped the revolutions. Far from securing stability, oppressive government policies may endanger it. Liberal democracies have a modern history of high stability with power changing hands peacefully at regular elections. Perhaps the Chinese government should reconsider their antipathy towards "Western" democracy, if stability really is their concern.
Doing a little digging on this last night I started to come across studies which began to tie these observations together.

First, I had noticed that the political instability of the Roman Empire greatly increased its vulnerability to external enemies. When frontier soldiers proclaimed their general Augustus, he would rush his army away from the border to attack the sitting emperor, who in turn had little option but to suck troops away from the Rhine, Danube, or Persian borders to defeat the usurper. Goths, Franks and Persians wasted little time in taking advantage of the regional vacuum created by the vanishing troops to raid Roman territory, prompting further chaos, economic crisis, and rebellion in Rome. The civil wars themselves were often bloody and destructive, with Roman troops even sacking Rome's own cities. In a single dreadful battle between Emperor Constantius II and the usurper Magnentius in 351AD up to 50,000 Roman soldiers were killed.

So, I thought, a stable political system with a clear hierarchy where the military always obeys the government would probably be better at fighting foreign enemies. Right?

Right. From The Journal of Conflict Resolution, 2004, (the full article may not be accessible without payment) Democracy and Military Effectiveness: A Deeper Look by Stephen Biddle and Stephen Long:
Why are democracies unusually successful in war? We find that superior human capital, harmonious civil-military relations, and Western cultural background are largely responsible. These traits correlate positively with democracy, and account for democracy's apparent effectiveness bonus.
So, as expected, democracies are better at war, though the authors hesitate to assign clear explanations: the relationship between democracy and human capital, harmonious civil-military relations and so on could be causal in either direction.

It confirms the intuitive sense that a stable and popular political system would be better able to fight external enemies, though, probably in part because it need not fear internal insurrection. In a democracy a strong minority know they need only wait until the next election for their shot at power. In an autocracy their only option is murder and rebellion. From American Political Science Review, 2001, Harvard Hegre, Tanja Ellingsen, Scott Gates and Nils Peter Gleditsch write that:
Coherent democracies and harshly authoritarian states have few civil wars, and intermediate regimes are the most conflict-prone. Domestic violence also seems to be associated with political change, whether toward greater democracy or greater autocracy.... In the long run, since intermediate regimes are less stable than autocracies, which in turn are less stable than democracies, durable democracy is the most probable end-point of the democratization process.
So democracies are better at winning wars and more stable internally. The United States need not fear about rebellion or secession at home while it projects power abroad. (By the way, does China count as an intermediate country experiencing political change, or a stable "harshly authoritarian" state, I wonder? Do its rapid economic and cultural changes make it more stable or less?)

The authors' final suggestion, that the relative stability of democracy makes it the likely end-point of democratisation processes, is a crucial one and related to my earlier observation that established democracies don't tend to revert to autocracy, while established autocracies are under grave threat from the rise of democracy.

Here in Ireland discussions of democracy often focus on the sense of fairness about it, of people being properly or improperly represented by the government. When commentators talk about popular uprisings abroad they use a moralistic language: the people (good) are fighting for freedom from the dictator (bad). Of course democratic governments can be destructive and oppressive too, there is nothing inevitable about the people making better choices than monarchs or dictators.
An underestimated part of democracy, though, is this incidental role in stabilising society. By offering a peaceful change of government every few years it makes civil wars and assassinations fairly pointless except for tiny minority groups who can't win elections. An evicted government knows that it will not be purged by the new government, and they need only wait a few years to get another crack at the throne. In the past they had to get good at killing; now they just need to be good at talking.

When most of us also value democracy for those moralistic reasons about representation and fairness, this seems to be good news. Far from being delicate political systems always under threat from fascist autocracy within and military conquest without, democracies seem to be tough, naturally more resilient than the autocratic alternatives.

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