by Pranab Bardhan
As the petro-authoritarianism of Russia flexes its muscles and the economic prowess of China struts in Olympic glory, developing countries in the world might start rethinking about the lectures on democracy and development they have heard all these years from the West. This is at a time when advanced capitalist democracies are reeling under the shock of unregulated financial overreach and years of living beyond their means, a far cry from the end-of-history triumphalism of capitalist democracy of less than two decades back.
The Chinese case in particular is reviving a hoary myth of how particularly in the initial stages of economic development authoritarianism delivers much more than democracy. This is also backed by the memory of impressive economic performance of other East Asian authoritarian regimes (like those in South Korea and Taiwan in the recent past). The lingering hope of democrats had been that as the middle classes prosper in these regimes, they then demand, and in the latter two cases got, the movement toward political democracy.
But the relationship between authoritarianism or democracy and development is not so simple. Authoritarianism is neither necessary nor sufficient for economic development. That it is not necessary is illustrated not only by today’s industrial democracies, but by scattered cases of recent development success: Costa Rica, Botswana, and now India. That it is not sufficient is amply evident from disastrous authoritarian regimes in Africa and elsewhere.
Even if we were not to value democracy for its own sake (or regard it as an integral part of development by definition), and look at it in a purely instrumental way, it is worth reiterating the several advantages of democracy from the point of view of development. Democracies are better able to avoid catastrophic mistakes, (such as China’s Great Leap Forward and the ensuing great famine that killed nearly thirty million people, or a massive mayhem in the form of Cultural Revolution), and have greater healing powers after difficult times. Democracies also experience more intense pressure to share the benefits of development among the people, thus making it sustainable, and provide more scope for popular movements against industrial fallout such as environmental degradation. In addition, they are better able to mitigate social inequalities (especially acute in India) that act as barriers to social and economic mobility and to the full development of individual potential. Finally, democratic open societies provide a better environment for nurturing the development of information and related technologies, a matter of some importance in the current knowledge-driven global economy. Intensive cyber-censorship in China may seriously limit future innovations in this area. All that said, India’s experience suggests that democracy can also hinder development in a number of ways. Competitive populism– short-run pandering and handouts to win elections– may hurt long-run investment, particularly in physical infrastructure, which is the key bottleneck for Indian development. Such political arrangements make it difficult, for example, to charge user fees for roads, electricity, and irrigation, discouraging investment in these areas, unlike in China where infrastructure companies charge full commercial rates. Competitive populism also makes it difficult to carry out policy experimentation of the kind the Chinese excelled in: for example, it is harder to cut losses and retreat from a failed project in India, which, with its inevitable job losses and bail-out pressures, has electoral consequences that discourage leaders from carrying out policy experimentation in the first place. Finally, democracy’s slow decision-making processes can be costly in a world of fast-changing markets and technology. The hopes of democrats relying on the middle classes in authoritarian regimes have not always borne fruit. Latin American or South European history has been replete with many episodes of middle classes hailing a supreme caudillo. The police state in China shows no signs of loosening its grip soon, despite the spectacular progress in the opening of the economy. While there has been some relaxation in controls over individual expressions of thought, and some open middle class grumbling over pollution and forcible acquisition of property, the state never fails to clamp down on political activities that have even a remote chance of appearing to challenge the monopoly of power of the central authority. Most people in the Chinese middle class are complicit in this in the name of preserving social stability, as long as opportunities for money-making and wallowing in nationalist pride keep on thriving. So markets and capitalism will not do their political cleansing job automatically. On the contrary, markets often sharpen inequality, and the resultant structures of political power, buttressed by corporate plutocrats and all-powerful lobbies, may even hijack or corrupt the democratic political process, a phenomenon not unknown in some industrial democracies. Thus both for democracy and development other social forces and movements for civil and economic rights for the common people have to be pro-active and eternally vigilant.
The author is a professor of economics at the University of California at Berkeley