When I wrote my first commentary on this blog, I outlined three common myths that people frequently believe without question when they think about democratic governance. Obviously, an idea as blindly and fervently worshiped as ‘democracy’ will have far more than just three myths associated with it. I continue my exploration of this ideology by discussing another myth that is frequently accepted without critical examination.
MYTH #4: Rich countries prospered by adopting liberal democracy and free markets
This myth is largely unsupported by history. In fact, in the last 500 years or so when democracy has gained prominence as a political ideology, NO COUNTRY has managed to uplift themselves from the status of a developing country to that of a developed country by adopting the combination of liberal democracy and free markets.
If one were to look at a list of highly developed countries (regardless of metric, be it per-capita income or human development index), or to ask people to name a few countries in that category, the US, EU, and other OECD member states are probably the first ones to come to people’s minds. It is hard not to notice the fact that almost all countries on such lists are fairly stable liberal democracies (according to traditional western standards) with relatively mature and open capitalist economies. It is also not surprising that the combination of liberal democratic political governance and free market economics (which I’ll sometimes abbreviate as ‘LD+FM‘ in this post) is the only model of development publicly promoted by the US and EU in academics, media, government, and international institutions (i.e. World Bank, IMF, etc.), and the only model prescribed to developing countries.
The US, above all others, is most frequently touted as an example of democratic development. But those who advance that view more often than not ignore the fact that until the early 20th century, meaningful political participation was limited to males with the “proper” racial and economic backgrounds – in other words – white, land-owning males of Western European descent. Furthermore, during America’s period of rapid economic development (mid-19th to early 20th centuries), political and economic outcomes were monopolized by the likes of Rockefeller and Carnegie, whose power and wealth were greater those of oligarchs in post-Soviet Russia (i.e. Berezovsky, Gusinsky, etc.). The US, for most of its history, including its period of emergence onto the global stage, was in fact a de facto oligarchy, and NOT a democracy.
What if we examined other countries’ political and economic models during their respective periods of rapid developmental ascent? Well, here is a short-list (click on the picture for a larger version):
Of course, it would be exhausting and overly complicated to catalog the developmental history of every single nation-state in the world (especially given that most of them didn’t exist until the last hundred years or so), but if we were to look at the most prominent examples of developmental success, NONE of these countries adopted the LD+FM combination. Only two countries arguably had democracies of ANY kind (Japan and India), and only one MAY qualify as a “liberal” democracy (India) by traditional western standards. There are plenty of examples where a greater degree of participatory governance was instated AFTER economic development reached a certain height, but as long as a country was under-developed relative to world standards, the LD+FM model was NEVER used to propel a society forward.
In sum, the liberal democracy + free markets combo propagated by the West is a developmental model that has NO RECORD OF SUCCESS for poor, developing countries. While I do not discount the possibility that LD+FM may work in the future under the right circumstances, but it is certainly NOT the “silver bullet” that it’s advertised to be by US/European-dominated political and civil institutions.