Bryan Caplan  

Reformers Against Democracy

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A recent piece by Joshua Kurlantzick in Foreign Policy argues that middle-class reformers around the world are turning against democracy:
Despite its name, the People's Alliance is explicitly antidemocratic. In its platform, the group seeks election reform measures that are basically meant to slash the power of the rural poor, who comprise the majority of Thais. In the minds of the Thai middle class, poor voters only vote for politicians like the populist Thaksin because they're offered incentives such as a few baht on voting day. One former U.S. ambassador to Thailand puts it bluntly: The middle class "disdain[s] the rural masses and see[s] them as willing pawns to the corrupt vote buyers." Instead of fighting for democratic rights, in other words, the People's Alliance is protesting against them.

This shift from a reformist middle class to a reactionary one over a mere two decades should be surprising. But, unfortunately, Thailand is not alone. Across the developing world, from Russia to Venezuela to Mexico, as democracy faces new threats -- elected leaders who disdain its institutions, rising corruption, and nationalistic economic plans -- middle classes, once the vanguard of democracy, have increasingly turned against it.
Why "unfortunately"?  On Kurlantzick's account, the middle classes are turning anti-democratic out of narrow self-interest; democracy costs them their "privileges":
Soon after acquiring democracy, urban middle classes often grasp the frustrating reality that political change costs them power. Outnumbered at the ballot box, the middle class cannot stop populists such as Thaksin or Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. Once the middle class realizes it cannot stop the elected tyrants, it also comes to another, shattering realization: If urban elites can no longer control elections, all of their privileges -- social, economic, cultural -- could be threatened.
Isn't it possible, though, that the middle classes, having witnessed "elected leaders who disdain its institutions, rising corruption, and nationalistic economic plans," might correctly determine that overall well-being - not just their own - would be higher if democracy were more limited?  Suppose middle-class reformers were fighting for anti-majoritarian protections for free speech.  Wouldn't international observers take their side?  Indeed, they would probably describe them as "pro-democracy" reformers despite their opposition to majority rule.  So why not here, too?

HT: George Paci


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COMMENTS (7 to date)
Jim W. writes:

"Across the developing world, from Russia to Venezuela to Mexico, as democracy faces new threats -- elected leaders who disdain its institutions, rising corruption, and nationalistic economic plans -- middle classes, once the vanguard of democracy, have increasingly turned against it."

This sentence seems to be "doublespeak". One one hand democracy is threatened by corruption, no respect for law, and nationalistic economics. On the other, those who are against these things have turned against democracy. Wouldn't those who are opposing the threats to democracy actually be supporting democracy? I wonder if the author sees the contradiction in his own statement.

I think most would agree that democracy needs to be restrained by protections for individual and/or minority rights. Otherwise, you will get the kind of abuses that have prompted the middle-classes to revolt. It seems like the author does not consider this in his treatment of what's happening.

Political Observer writes:

This was exactly the issues that were debated by our founding fathers and why our republic was not set up as a democracy. The founders were concerned that democracy would lead to mob rule and the breakdown of the rule of law. Thus they deliberately limited the involvement of the people by setting property ownership as a requirement for voting (there were other qualifications based on gender, race etc. but the foundation of their thinking in controlling government's potential for excess was to only allow those with property at stake to decide who will have the power to govern). The founders also believed that the closer government was to the people the more latitude it should have to address the peoples needs. Thus the U.S. constitution spelled out a limited role for the federal government and then clearly limited that power by granting to the states and the people all rights and powers not specifically spelled out for the federal government in the constitution.

I suspect that what is going on in those countries that wish to limit democracy is the recognition of the concners that our founding fathers tried to balance in their creation of our governmental system. Pure democracy allows the mob to trample on the rights of the individual. When that happens - anarchy is the immediate result with totalitarianism the inevitable outcome.

Dr. T writes:

Democracy is overrated. Unless there are strong protections, tyrannies of the majorities arise universally. When the majority is poor, as in Thailand, elections are easily bought with direct bribes or with promises of robbing well-off Peters and distributing (some of) the loot to the poor Pauls.

The USA, with its republican government, used to have strong protections against the tyranny of the majority, but most of those protections were whittled away over the past two centuries. I can easily see us becoming another Venezuela in the near future.

Steve Roth writes:

This all hinges upon semantic confusion, as explicated best (to my knowledge) in Fareed Zakariah's The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad.

Democracy (aka majority rule) is not synonymous with constitutional liberalism. (The latter being the thing that most of us are mostly in favor of.)

As this post points out quite clearly, the former often prevents/interferes with the latter. (More examples: Hamas. Hitler.)

Bryan have you still not read this? It's *so* up your alley...

Mr TeeTee Gabor writes:

This is awesome.

I hope this turns into a worldwide revolt against left wing elites. Heads on pikes outside "studies" departments would make my day.

After we are done with them we can move onto stringing up right wingers.

David T writes:

This problem comes about when democratic government is not balanced with other legal protections for minority and property rights. Any society will eventually self destruct if it is allowed to take away the rights of a minority, either through political sanctions or excessive taxation. Taxing the rich is always seen as a "fair" way of creating a egalitarian society, but it will ultimately drag everyone down by destroying incentives for those who create the most wealth and have the highest productivity.

Curt Doolittle writes:

Democracy is simply communism by slower and more evolutionary means.

The emerging world middle class can see this without the need for a vast leap in reasoning.

It's also out in the literature. The literature is full of 'Death Of Democracy'.

It's not democracy that makes the world a happy and prosperous place. It's property rights.

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