Do you remember the purple thumbs? They came with the initial elections in Iraq and Afghanistan. We were treated to photos of voters holding up their purple thumbs showing they had voted. The voters were generally smiling and I think we were supposed to smile as well because we had just brought democracy to these previously oppressed people.
Elections without the rule of law is not real democracy
I hate to come across as a cynic but I wasn’t smiling because I knew something many people don’t fully understand. Elections are only part of a real democracy. There are many other important elements, not the least of which is the rule of law. Poor countries like Iraq tend to have weakness in the rule of law and stepping into a voting booth doesn’t change that. Iraq’s elections might have given them new leaders, but without the rule of law, there was little reason to expect much in the way of democratic governance. Unfortunately that would prove to be the case over time.
DINO’s: Democracy In Name Only
The world actually has a fair number of countries that have elections but not the rule of law. Those living in advanced democracies would have a hard time recognizing these so-called democracies. Scholars have coined the term “ineffective democracy” to describe states like India, Nigeria, Turkey, Brazil, and others that hold elections but are otherwise not terribly democratic. I personally prefer the term “DINO,” “Democracy In Name Only.”
Weakness in the rule of law is rampant in poor country democracies
Freedom House is an NGO that tracks and ranks democracies around the world. They do great work but I am a bit dubious of their scoring system because it relies too heavily on institutional arrangements and not on how the democracy actually functions. Freedom House prepares a written description for each country it assesses and those descriptions are very telling. Below are some random comments I found in the latest reports relative to democracies such as Turkey, Nigeria, Brazil, and India:
Pervasive corruption, sentencing political detainees to death, violent police tactics, sham trials, armed forces involved in drug trafficking and other criminal ventures, jailing of opposition leaders, human rights activists, journalists, and other perceived enemies, procedural irregularities during the vote count, little transparency and accountability in government, and the use of force and prison sentences discourage protests.
Poor countries have far more corruption than rich countries
The above is just a sampling. There are actually many other negative non-democratic behaviors described by Freedom House that are typical in some democracies but not in others. But if you want something a bit more tangible, consider the Corruption Perception Index (CPI) which is produced annual by another NGO, Transparency International. The CPI is based on surveys of business people and government officials. A score of 100 means “No Corruption” while a score of “0” means “Total Corruption.” Interestingly, there is virtually no high income country that scores below a 70 (the US, Japan, and Germany are all about 73-74) and no developing country with a score higher than 40 (China and India about 37-38, Russia 28, Brazil 43). This pattern is remarkably consistent, with the correlation between prosperity and low corruption (eliminating oil rich but non-advanced countries) of about 80%. It is also important to note that elections don’t seem to impact corruption. Poor “democracies” are as corrupt as poor non-democracies, with perhaps the best evidence being India which has remained widely impoverished and corrupt despite almost 70 years of elections. In reality, the CPI can be used as a barometer for the rule of law overall. Countries that are rife with corruption have weakness in the rule of law across the board.
Economic development improves the rule of law
While elections do not seem to impact corruption and the rule of law, as was alluded to above, there does seem to be one factor that correlates strongly with low corruption and strength in the rule of law—economic development. Rich countries are more honest. This is in part because the market rewards honesty (people won’t buy twice from someone who rips them off).
This is why we are so often disappointed when we try to support democracy in places like Iraq. Elections are not too difficult to arrange and can be held relatively quickly. Economic development is difficult to start and takes decades to show real results. Looking for the quick fix, we focus on elections and assume the rule of law will take care of itself. It never does.
We overlook the rule of law because we already have it
There’s another reason we neglect the rule of law. We already have it, not perfectly mind you, but pretty darn good. No one alive today remembers when we didn’t. But they didn’t call the Western part of the US “The Wild, Wild West” because that was where the buffalo roamed. It was because justice was often served at the end of the barrel of a gun. It took decades to bring the rule of law to all of America, just as it would take decades for any country today. Elections wouldn’t be enough. It takes economic development to strengthen the rule of law, which is why economic development is absolutely necessary for the development of true democracy. This is something we need to keep in mind the next time we confront a situation like Iraq. We need to focus more on the long-term development of capitalism and prosperity, and less on purple thumbs.