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Hanson Underrates Democracy

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It's not often that I rise to democracy's defense.  But the last section of an otherwise thoughtful piece by Robin Hanson compels me.  Robin:

3. When people think about changes they'd like in the world one of their first thoughts, and one they return to often, is wanting more democracy. It's their first knee-jerk agenda for China, North Korea, ISIS, and so on. Surely with more democracy all the other problems would sort themselves out.

This is a baffling statement if you know the basic history of these three countries.  While the effects of more democracy for contemporary China are at least debatable, dictatorship was clearly essential for a quarter-century of Maoist horrors, including the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution.  North Korea's dictatorship has an unbroken history of pursuing almost-certainly unpopular policies, beginning with the invasion of South Korea and culminating in mass starvation in the 90s to maintain the Kims' Communist dictatorship after the loss of Soviet subsidies.  And ISIS is hated throughout the Muslim world; while free elections in Syria could easily elect authoritarian Islamists (indeed, fairly free elections already elected authoritarian Islamists in Iraq), they wouldn't sustain a totalitarian bloodbath.

But in fact scholars can find few consistent difference in the outcomes of nations that depend much on their degree of democracy. Democracy doesn't seem to cause differences in wealth, or even in most specific policies. Democracies today war a bit less, but in the past democracies warred more than others. Democracies have less political repression, and our moral spotlight finds that fact to be of endless fascination. But it is in fact a relatively small effect on nations overall.

Robin strangely fails to mention domestic mass murder, which dictatorships essentially monopolize.  And this outcome, more than any other, marks the hellish histories of Communist China, North Korea, and ISIS.

Nations today have huge differences in outcomes, and we are starting to understand some of them. But most of them have little to do with democracy. Plausibly larger issues include urbanization, immigration, foreign trade, regulation, culture, rule of law, corruption, suppression or encouragement of family clans or religion, etc. If you want to help nations, you'll have to look outside the moral spotlight on democracy.
I'll happily agree that democracy has little systematic effect on economic growth - and that economic growth is the closest thing humanity has to a panacea.  But if North Korea or ISIS were democracies, their true horrors would quickly cease.  And if China had been a democracy since 1945, its true horrors never would have happened.

Update: After I tweeted this post, Robin replied with refreshing forthrightness: "I accept your point; I had in mind less extreme variations, so North Korea was a poor choice on my part."  In conversation, I learned that Robin and I were thinking of two different ISIS hypotheticals.  I was picturing, "How would ISIS govern if it were a democracy?," and Robin was picturing, "If neighboring countries were democracies, how would they deal with ISIS?"

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Twitter: Bryan Caplan @bryan_caplan

COMMENTS (6 to date)
Niclas Berggren writes:

Acemoglu et al. claim that democracy does cause economic growth.

David Condon writes:

I think the issue is that North Korea, ISIS, and historical China are/were so terrible that any significant change could be/could have been expected to produce improvements. Successful monarchies such as Qatar, Vatican City, and the UAE in comparison would probably become a lot worse if they switched to a democracy. I'm certain you agree that attempts to make Iraq and many other countries more democratic have backfired. The major problem then is not democracy, but probably something more along the lines of free exchange of privately owned goods.

Randall Parker writes:

Communist dictatorships do massive killing. But are non-communist dictatorships anywhere near as bad? Absent a crazy ideology dictatorships seem more restrained.

Jon Murphy writes:

Very interesting post by Prof. Hanson and by you, Prof. Caplan. It seems to me, and correct me if I am wrong, that Hanson is arguing that democracy in an of itself doesn't cause economic growth.
Rather, it is institutional matters like urbanization, that cause growth. Whereas you, Prof. Caplan, are arguing that democracies increase the likelihood of these positive institutions and conditions arising.

Miguel Madeira writes:

Compare Free State of Congo under King Leopold (absolute monarchy) with Beligum under... uhm... King Leopold (democracy, sort of).

Yaakov Schatz writes:

The democratic process in Egypt in the past decade did not fare out well.

I think the question is not:

"what if country X is a democracy?"

bur rather:

"What if country X has democratic elections in year Y?"

The people trying to impose democracy do not have control over the first question, but they do tend to pressure for the second.

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