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January 28, 2011


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Hey David. First, thanks for the thoughtful post.

Having said that, I take issue with some of the points you raise. I base a lot of what I say on a class I took in University some years ago ("Religion, Science, and Secularism" with Prof. Carlo Strenger) and a book I'm reading ("The future of Freedom" by Fareed Zakaria), so apologies upfront if I sound soapboxy, but this is a topic that occupies me quite a bit.

Starting from the premise you start with, that autocracies are inherently unstable, while, presumably, democracies are stable.

I'll start with the end. The notion that democracies are inherently stable is demonstrably false. Tanzania, Ghana, Kenya, and of course the German Wiemar Republic are but few examples of democracies gone awry. There is no guarantee that democracy leads to pragmatism, moderation, stability or modernization.
What is true is that liberal democracies, with a significant middle class, respect for rule of law and modern institutions are very stable. But, just to qualify this point, Adam Przeworski and Fernando Limongi looked at every country in the world between 1950-1990. They calculated that in a democratic country that has a per capita income of under $1,500 (in today's dollars), the regime on average had a life expectancy of just eight years. With between $1,500 and $3,000 it survived on average about eighteen years. Above $6,000 (6,500 in today's numbers), the regimes become highly resilient. Which is fantastic, but to be clear, democracies are far from stable, so while thirty-two democratic regimes in the study with GDP per capita above roughly $9,000 seemed to be immortal, by contrast, of the 69 democracies that were poorer -- 39 have died, a death rate of 56%.

So, democracy does not mean stability. This however, doesn't mean that autocracies do either. After all, those regimes collapse too no?

Well, again, history can teach us valuable lessons here. At the beginning of the twentieth century, there were but a handful of proto-democracies (no adult universal suffrage, but getting there). Before the era of democracy, there were regimes that lasted centuries without collapsing. In modern times, some of the longest-standing regimes are autocracies, and there's no guarantee they'll ever collapse.
I'd argue this has to do with economics more than anything else.

Countries like Saudi Arabia don't give their citizens much freedom, but also don't take much from them either. They have no incentive to modernize their institutions because they do not encourage or engage with the local market business bourgeois. Basically it's no taxation and no representation. This is why adult literacy rates in these countries are shameful, and despite being some of the most resource-rich countries in the world, are still essentially pre-industrial tribal societies. They will not go through modernization without a substantial shift in government policy, and government has no incentive to enact any changes as it does not rely on the local market for its revenue.

What happened in Tunisia and Egypt is extraordinary, make no mistake, but both countries, despite having external sources of income (charging for ships going through a canal, etc.), still developed liberal market policies, enacted rule of law, and modernized their judicial and civil institutions. What I argue is that it is a liberalization of the market, rule of law, and an independent judiciary which creates the platform for modernization and ultimately leads to democratization.

I'd argue that it is these policies that eventually lead to that magic number, where democracy spurts out of a liberalized and modernized market (somewhere around $6,500 GDP per capita).

These policies are happening in some other countries, like China, but without them, it's hard to imagine other autocracies collapsing.

Re: Egypt specifically, you attack the US for providing military aid to Egypt. I think you have it completely backwards and upside down. First, a bit of history. Until the 70s, Egypt was a fierce opponent of the West (when that term actually meant something), leading the Arab world to an alliance with the soviet Bloc. A nice exemplar of this type of policy lead Britain, France and Israel to attack Egypt during the Suez Crisis in the 50s.
The historic peace agreement between Egypt and Israel (which is why Egypt receives this military aid), was not only a victory for pragmatism, it was a cold war blow to the USSR. Egypt switched alliances, and gave the US a strong foothold in the largest Arab state. Egypt's move to the Western sphere of influence cost it dearly -- it was kicked out of the Arab league and condemned by virtually all of its previous allies. An annual military aid is really the least the US could do in compensation. But I think it's important to remember, they were an autocracy before you even knew them. The US didn't make them that way, this is how they were. The alternative was to have them as enemies, and beyond the cold war strategies which lead the West to do a variety of morally dubious things to score local victories against the communist threat, this, I believe, was not one of them.

It's also important to understand the role the military has in Egyptian life. Since the end of the war with Israel, Egypt's standing army of conscripts has become the beacon of modernization and social mobility in the country. It is a people's army, not a mercenary army whose loyalty is to the authority. The military is a significant force in the Egyptian economy. If the Egyptian society is now on the threshold of that magic GDP-per-capita (the GDP-per-capita in Egypt is $6,200, very close to the $6,500 threshold), if anything it has a lot to do with the US military aid.
See: here and here for more info on the Egyptian military's role in Egyptian life.

And just to add a final point, a lot of people have commented on the "dangers" of rapid democratization in Egypt leading to something akin to Iran with the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood. While I'm more optimistic, I think these are valid concerns, if not immediate ones. Democracy does not mean liberal democracy. We have countries in the world like Venezuela or Russia or Iran where elections ostensibly take place, but we find it difficult to call them democracies. What we mean is we find it difficult to call them liberal democracies. These countries can be thought of as post-modern authoritarianisms, with little checks and balances, independent judiciary, and no free press. There are other factors to consider, but I think it's worth considering at least this -- Without a liberal tradition and modern institutions, there is no guarantee that democracy will mean anything good for Egypt or the world.

In Egypt's case, as well as Tunisia's, I allow myself to be more optimistic. For Libya, I fear civil war is the likely outcome of ousting the madman Ghadaffi.


Hmm, it killed my links and styling. I think you'll live without the occasional emphasis, but here are all the things I linked:






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