There’s an interesting post about whether development or democracy comes first, on the Global Voices website .
The fact that China has enjoyed such phenomenal growth for so long would seem to undermine any view that democracy is a prerequisite for economic growth. It all depends, it seems, on how the given non-democratic Government run things.
Before people are able to spend time considering the finer points of their ideal society, and whether or not their Government is doing well by their country, they need to be able to feed and shelter themselves. To do this, they need land to grow food and the means by which to construct a home. They also need a market. Markets have been around since the dawn of the agricultural revolution. I’ll swap this much cassava for that much maize. Or I’ll give you one fifth of the produce from my land in exchange for four weeks of your oxen ploughing my land.
Natural environmental constraints aside, these are the basics. But they need some sort of societal framework. Land tenure rights. Rule of law. Perhaps a currency. It doesn’t matter what body of authority establishes and provides these, as long as they exist. Then a society can start to flourish.
Then things get complicated. There’s a desire to move beyond subsistence. Having satisfied their basic requirements, people begin to innovate in order to gain advantage. Competition emerges and an hierarchy takes shape. So economic growth appears, as increasing wealth amongst innovators generates different forms of employment, which in turn generates further wealth and enables further innovation. The hierarchy acquires more levels.
Now a distance is opening up between those innovators who have power, and those lower down the hierarchy. Now a voice in the way things are run becomes a desirable objective for those without power. How desirable an objective this is depends upon how generous and inclusive are the existing power brokers. As absolute power corrupts, the power broker’s benevolence may be seen as inadequate, or patronising.
And so, an emerged society that has moved from chaos, though subsistence to adequate provision for all, then moves to competition for power. The only way such competition might be utilised satisfactorily is though the democratic process.
Bu this requires that all members of society respect that process. Which, in turn, requires that everyone is content to accept a result that doesn’t reflect their own vote. For this to happen, they need to be able to continue to achieve, in their own lives, material and philosophical goals regardless of who it is that’s in Government. The poorer a society is, the harder it is for any Government of any disposition to achieve this, simply because of there being fewer resources available.
In a society where the disparity between the best off and the worst off is extreme, and resources are few to enable to Government to moderate this difference, those lower down the hierarchy will always feel discontented. Discontented people will always be less inclined to accept the jurisdiction and policies laid down by the Government, which will be mainly populated by those at the upper end of the hierarchy.
In other words, the poorer the electorate is, the less likely they are to accept the democratic process. So it must be that economic growth is a prerequisite for democracy.
Conversely, it might be argued, that where a society contains levels that are frustrated and are therefore disinclined to democracy, their best interests are served by a benevolent dictatorship. Or at least a Government that is less concerned with democracy and more concerned with raising general standards of living. The problems occur when said dictatorship doesn’t care about such niceties and is instead happy to maintain the status quo. Of course, the irony is that such governments can’t be removed precisely because of the lack of democracy.
However, a society can become sufficiently wealthy such that the relative planes of wealth within the hierarchy all move upwards. So the poorest are now actually quite wealthy relative to the poorest in a less affluent society. A welfare state provides for basic needs, and the people at the top of the pile are very wealthy indeed. The whole dynamic now changes, as economic growth is, to an extent, a given. Or rather it’s considered less of an issue, or is even considered a bad thing as perfectly adequate amounts of wealth are perceived to already exist. The issue becomes one of wealth distribution rather than generation. Now, democracy becomes the higher objective, in the search for more equitable wealth distribution and more distributed control.
So, growth is a prerequisite for democracy, but once sufficient levels of growth have been achieved, democracy becomes a prerequisite to growth.