Explaining Democracy

by John Quiggin on February 24, 2013

I’ve very much enjoyed the conversation about The Priority of Democracy, and learned a lot about various kinds of arguments in favor of democracy. I’d like to look at a couple of related questions: why does (representative) democracy exist, and why has it become the dominant form of government in the modern world? Here’s a two-part explanation, which doesn’t invoke any ideal theory or even much of a pragmatic case that democracy will produce good policies.

(A) Representative government, with elections and a party system is attractive to those competing for political power because it provides a peaceful way of displacing one set of rulers with another, and gives the losers the knowledge they will always have another chance. It’s stable because it provides a set of rules for succession that (nearly) always work

(ii) Representative systems tend naturally to universal suffrage, since both those who gain the suffrage and one faction of the existing electorate will always benefit from extension

An obvious question on (i) is why representative government took so long to emerge. I have some ideas but I’ll leave it to commenters to discuss if you want.

If the explanation I’ve given works to explain the existence and survival of representative democracy, it doesn’t say much about the character of that democracy. It’s obviously consistent with a duopoly made up of two more-or-less similar factions in an oligarchic ruling class, but it doesn’t preclude versions closer to the ideal where representatives actually represent their constituents.

I’m an econ-blogger, not a political theorist, so I won’t be surprised to learn that these thoughts are wholly unoriginal. But they seem to have some bearing on our recent discussion, and not to have been raised there, so I’m opening up to others.

{ 89 comments }

1

Harald Korneliussen 02.24.13 at 12:14 pm

Since the actual representativeness varies so much, I think it’s appropriate to speak of electoral democracy rather than representative democracy.

Your point 2 is interesting, especially in regard to non-electoral democracy. The democracy in Athens was for the most based on lots rather than elections, and they did certainly resist extending the franchise. Not only to slaves and women, but also to immigrants and people of immigrant ancestry – even when they had fought with Thrasybulus to liberate the city from the thirty tyrants, and the highly respected Thrasybulus argued for giving them citizenship.

But I should think point 2 only holds to the degree that politicians compete for discretionary power. If they are idealistic and actually want something in particular (rather that just freedom to decide), then both (or multiple) factions could certainly agree to deny franchise to a group, if that group is likely to oppose their ideal.

2

Hidari 02.24.13 at 1:54 pm

Surely the classic work here is by John Keane?

“Nobody knows who first spoke of ‘representative democracy’, though one political writer and thinker who broke new ground was the French nobleman who had been foreign minister under Louis XV, the Marquis d’Argenson (1694-1757). He was perhaps the first to tease out the new meaning of democracy as representation. ‘False democracy’, he noted in his Considérations sur le government ancien et present de laFrance (1765), ‘soon collapses into anarchy. It is government of the multitude; such is a people in revolt, insolently scorning law and reason. Its tyrannical despotism is obvious from the violence of its movements and the uncertainty of its deliberations. In true democracy , one acts through deputies, who are authorised by election; the mission of those elected by the people and the authority that such officials carry constitute the public power.

This was a brand new way of thinking about democracy, by which was meant a type of government in which people, understood as voters faced with a genuine choice between at least two alternatives, are free to elect others who then act in defence of their interests, that is,represent them by deciding matters on their behalf. Much ink and blood was to be spilled in defining what exactly representation meant, who was entitled to represent whom and what had to be done when representatives disregarded those whom they were supposed to represent. But common to the second historical phase of democracy was the belief that good government was government by representatives. Often contrasted with monarchy, representative democracy was praised as a way of governing better by openly airing differences of opinion – not only among the represented themselves, but also between representatives and those whom they are supposed to represent. Representative government was also hailed for encouraging the rotation of leadership guided by merit. It was said to introduce competition for power that in turn enabled elected representatives to test out their political competence before others. The earliest champions of representative democracy also offered a more pragmatic justification of representation. It was seen as the practical expression of a simple reality : that it wasn’t feasible for all of the people to be involved all of the time, even if they were so inclined, in the business of government. Given that reality, the people must delegate the task of government to representatives who are chosen at regular elections. The job of these representatives is to monitor the spending of public money. Representatives make representations on behalf of their constituents to the government and its bureaucracy. Representatives debate issues and make laws. They decide who will govern and how – on behalf of the people.

As a way of naming and handling power, representative democracy was an unusual type of political system. It rested upon written constitutions, independent judiciaries and laws that guaranteed procedures that still play vital roles in the democracies of today : inventions like habeas corpus (prohibitions upon torture and imprisonment), periodic election of candidates to legislatures, limited-term holding of political offices, voting by secret ballot, referendum and recall, electoral colleges, competitive political parties, ombudsmen, civil society and civil liberties such as the right to assemble in public, and liberty of the press. Compared with the previous, assembly-based form, representative democracy greatly extended the geographic scale of institutions of self-government. As time passed, and despite its localised origins in towns, rural districts and large-scale imperial settings, representative democracy came to be housed mainly within territorial states protected by standing armies and equipped with powers to make and enforce laws and to extract taxes from their subject populations. These states were typically much bigger and more populous than the political units of ancient democracy. Most states of the Greek world of assembly democracy, Mantinea and Argos for instance, were no bigger than a few score square kilometres. Many modern representative democracies – including Canada (9.98 million square kilometres), the United States (9.63 million square kilometres), and the largest electoral constituency in the world, the vast rural division of Kalgoorlie in the federal state of Western Australia that comprises 82,000 voters scattered across an area of 2.3 million square kilometres – were incomparably larger.

The changes leading to the formation of representative democracy were neither inevitable nor politically uncontested. Representative democracy was in fact born of many and different power conflicts, many of them bitterly fought in opposition to ruling groups, whether they were church hierarchies, landowners or imperial monarchies, often in the name of ‘the people’. Exactly who were ‘the people’ proved to be a deep source of controversy throughout the era of representative democracy. The second age of democracy witnessed the birth of neologisms, like ‘aristocratic democracy’ (that first happened in the Low Countries at the end of the sixteenth century) and new references (beginning in the United States ) to ‘republican democracy’. Later came ‘social democracy’ and ‘liberal democracy’ and ‘Christian democracy’, even ‘bourgeois democracy’, ‘workers’ democracy’ and ‘socialist democracy’. These new terms corresponded to the many kinds of struggles by groups for equal access to governmental power that resulted, sometimes by design and sometimes by simple accident or unintended consequence, in institutions and ideals and ways of life that had no precedent. Written constitutions based on a formal separation of powers, periodic elections and parties and different electoral systems were new. So too was the invention of ‘civil societies’ founded on new social habits and customs – experiences as varied as dining in a public restaurant, or controlling one’s temper by using polite language – and new associations that citizens used to keep an arm’s length from government by using non-violent weapons like liberty of the printing press, publicly circulated petitions, and covenants and constitutional conventions called to draw up new constitutions.”

http://johnkeane.net/36/topics-of-interest/democracy-a-short-history

3

Random Lurler 02.24.13 at 2:19 pm

In my opinion the big difference between modern forms of government and feudal ones is that in modern forms there is a big difference between office and ownership whereas in (ancient) feudalism the king was very much a sort of super landlord, with a weird form of property system based on personal relationships. When the economic power passed from landlords to merchants more bureaucratic forms of government emerged, with some forms of very little democracy like in the italian comuni.
In short first comes the “res publica ” then bureaucracy and in th
e end hopefully democracy.

4

James Wimberley 02.24.13 at 3:42 pm

Round about 1200 AD, it was normal for kings to have extended curiae, allowing them to consult the landed interest. The problem is more than representative institutions decayed in most of Europe apart from England, Poland and the Netherlands. French Etats généraux>/i>, Spanish Cortes, the German Reichstag, became insignificant and rulers more or less absolute. I have no theory to offer as to why. The English Parliament, an odd survivor, then first became powerful, then built an empire, so parliaments looked good.

5

philofra 02.24.13 at 4:31 pm

I am surprised that with all this talk about democracy there has been no mention of the ‘Arab Spring’ where many Mideast countries are trying to establish democracy. They are having big problems establishing democracy because they have no history or experience in it. They have not established the civil societies to support it. The Arab Spring offers us a great learning opportunity about democracy’s contingencies, things most academics have never thought about.

My point is that there seems to be a complacency here about democracy. People have experienced it for so long that the conversation here sounds superficial and smug . The conversation is too academic and doesn’t roll in the mud like the democratic process really does.

The fact that we have representative democracy rather than direct democracy is because most of us are lazy or too busy in our own bubbles to get directly involve. And most of us should not get directly involved because we are not sophisticated enough to be directly involve. I think a major problem in the ‘Arab Spring’ is that people there don’t understand representative democracy and because of people wanting to be directly involved without having any experience in it.

The fact that we rely on representative democracy as we do many not be a good thing or for the best. But that is the way it is . So to counterbalance the negative aspects of representative democracy on our individual democracy our system has developed contingencies and other levers so that we maintain overall democracy, like property rights, freedom of expression, mobility, separation of powers and just plain shit disturbing, so as to keep the system fluid and agile.

The main idea behind democracy is to keep the peace/stability and keep dictatorships at bay. In that event our democracies have done their job pretty well. Anymore that comes from it is gravy.

6

David 02.24.13 at 5:38 pm

Much of this only works when “other things are equal.” The electorate has to be relatively homogeneous, politics has to be essentially about class differences rather than ethnic or religious strife, parties have to accept going into opposition cheerfully etc. The reason why representative elections (let’s not call it democracy, which is a different concept) often don’t take as a model outside parts of the western world is that, in practice, other things are seldom equal. Representative democracy is better understood, in fact, as a special case of oligarchy, where elite factions vying for power have to persuade the majority of the electorate to vote for them, or at least not to vote for the opposition. This requirement affects the rhetoric, and to some extent the practice, of politics, but it does not of itself change the system from an oligarchic into a democratic one.

7

Random Lurker 02.24.13 at 6:15 pm

@philofra 5
“They have not established the civil societies to support it”
How do you know this? In fact I think that any country that became democratic had big, bloody problems during the transition.

Also, I believe that property rights predate democracy, in facts I suspect even the Arabs have property rights.

8

philofra 02.24.13 at 7:21 pm

@Random Lurker 7

Make the comparison between the transition to democracy in Eastern Block countries after the fall of communism and the Mideast and you will see the lack of civil societies in the latter in its transition to democracy. In Eastern Europe the transition was mostly peaceful and generally orderly. That is because the networks in anticipation of democracy were for the most part already in place, networks that were not only made possible by civil societies but because of homogenous ones.

Civil societies in Eastern Europe grew out of homogenous ones. Homogeneity is not in abundance in the Mideast since the region is still divided by tribalism, hence the lack of the civil societies that could make democracy a possibility.

Property rights are not universal in Mideastern societies. They are not shared by the majority and not sufficient enough to make the bases for democratic sustainability.

Another thing that seems to have made a difference between the transition to democracy in Eastern Europe and the Mideast is industrialization. Industrialization was a platform to build social networks like unions, committees and internal communication systems in Eastern Europe. None of that has really existed in the Mideast, that kind of social networking.

9

Hidari 02.24.13 at 7:45 pm

“In Eastern Europe the transition was mostly peaceful and generally orderly.”

If you look deeply enough into that transition you will quickly see that the words “mostly” and “generally” are doing a lot of work in that sentence.

10

Mao Cheng Ji 02.24.13 at 7:47 pm

Egypt already had a multi-party parliamentary system since 2000, and, in 2005, a direct presidential election (which is more democratic than the US). Mubarak won with 88%. Very low turnout, though.

11

Mao Cheng Ji 02.24.13 at 8:03 pm

…yes: they got the reform, the multi-party participation, the direct presidential election, the whole nine yards – and they still elect Mubarak and his party. They then go to the square and get rid of Mubarak – and right after that they elect a guy no one seems to want at all, even less than Mubarak. So, what’s the ‘ksplanation, again? And why was Bush elected in 2004? It’s all crazy.

12

Random Lurker 02.24.13 at 8:25 pm

@philofra 8
“In Eastern Europe the transition was mostly peaceful and generally orderly.”
I understand what you mean but it depends on when you put the beginning of the transition process: in theory the USSR was democratic. If you count the beginning of the process of democratization from october 1917 to date it seems a long and bloody process indeed.

“Property rights are not universal in Mideastern societies. They are not shared by the majority and not sufficient enough to make the bases for democratic sustainability.”
Maybe you mean something like “western (capitalistic) property rights”? Because I think that they have somehow different property rights, not that they haven’t any. Also, in this sense the ex soviets had even less property rights imho.

I think that the big difference is industrialization, as you also say – but not cultural differences IMHO.

13

Bruce Wilder 02.24.13 at 8:30 pm

The political economy of the modern state and industrial revolution is a chimera. It is not one thing, well-designed to a single principle, with one origin or one virtue, but an evolution of many conflicting parts jostling against one another.

Modern western civilization began to emerge from the dark ages, which had followed the fall of the Roman Empire, around 900 AD. With our hyper-awareness of climate, we know that a warming period in western and northern Europe provided support for an expansion of population, but the main event, in political and cultural terms, was the fusion of Franks and Vikings in Normandy and Anjou, the main technological “advance”, the moat and bailey castle, which enabled a small armed contingent of ruthless thugs to set up permanent domination over a subsistence farming community, and extract a surplus for itself and to engage in long-distance trade. (William the Conqueror subdued an England of 2 million with an army of, maybe, 6000).

The basic political-economic logic of the feudal elite — perpetual warfare, conquest, domination and pillage — was expansionary abroad and deeply conservative (in a what’s mine is mine, and what’s yours is negotiable kind of way) at home. Perpetual warfare, when conducted domestically, was so enormously and obviously costly and self-destructive, that the efforts to curtail it, by the elite itself, were multiplicitous and unrelenting as they were, for centuries, only marginally successful. Confirming and making sacred the claims of triumphant gangsters and their descendants is the foundation of the western worship of the rule of law.

In England, the focus of elite ambition on armed power struggles, domestically at least, finally burned out in the Wars of the Roses. Henry Tudor, a haute bourgeois king if there ever was one, operated his government like a merchant banking house, determined to maximize profit, and his son discovered the true joy of Protestantism in what remains to this day the largest transfer of private property in British history, the Dissolution of the Monasteries.

I bring up this history, to remind that representative democracy did not emerge as a singular principle of justice in the historical development of the West; other, darker, stronger principles drove that history, and representative democracy came along late as an adaptive constraint. The Ur-principle of modern western civilization is the elite domination and conquest of feudalism.

When Hobbes wrote of the war of all against all, as the alternative to the absolute power of the leviathan, the monarchical state, he knew whereof he wrote. This was a bloody, not a bloodless abstraction, for him.

Representative electoral democracy, in the prototype of Commons in Parliament, won out against Leviathan, by being a better, more reliable Leviathan. Simple voting, as Condorcet demonstrated, would seem to be fated to whimsical non-transitivity, but make complicated by electoral competition, rules of procedure, precedence, and so on, Parliaments become remarkably consistent and reliable. Parliaments are way, way better at strategic commitment than are absolute Monarchs, and the proof of this is that they pay their debts, which, reflexively, make them good credit risks. I don’t know what “second-order” democracy means exactly, but the creation of the Bank of England (and its deepening establishment following the South Sea Bubble), was a momentous event.

I don’t know if democracy is any “smarter” than the leadership of benevolent despot or philosopher-king. I remember the joke that a camel is a horse designed by committee. But, domination properly constrained and turned toward socially non-destructive, even beneficent purposes, is a definite improvement over the feudal model.

14

Hidari 02.24.13 at 8:32 pm

“I am surprised that with all this talk about democracy there has been no mention of the ‘Arab Spring’ where many Mideast countries are trying to establish democracy. They are having big problems establishing democracy….” becauase the United States (and other “Western” powers) continue to meddle and because the foundation (and continued existence) of Israel continues to send shock waves through the region that tend to overwhelm other issues.

Incidentally it’s only really the GCC countries that literally have no experience of democracy at all and of course none of them have yet succeeded in overthrowing their leaders, more’s the pity.

15

rf 02.24.13 at 8:43 pm

“the Mideast and you will see the lack of civil societies in the latter in its transition to democracy.. Homogeneity is not in abundance in the Mideast since the region is still divided by tribalism, hence the lack of the civil societies that could make democracy a possibility.”

I think this is a pretty simplistic and patronising perspective, tbh, and one used regularly by westerners on non-western societies. The idea that there is ‘no civil society’ in the ‘Mideast’ is ridiculous to begin with. As is the claim of a region divided by tribalism (while also apparently a mass homogenous bloc stretching from Tunisia to Yemen) Of course there are divisions, both internally in a number of countries and regionally through transnational identities, but there are also political, geopolitical, institutional, so on and so forth, factors complicating outcomes in the region. (In fact if you’re speaking about property rights then your speaking about institutions not culture)
It would also be useful to acknowledge that the uprisings have had different outcomes in different countries in different contexts, which undermines your claims of some homogenous regional dysfunction.

16

rf 02.24.13 at 8:50 pm

For example, with the disclaimer that I know nothing about Egypt, the continuing unrest there seems to be less the result of ‘no civil society’ or ‘tribal divisions’ and more likely the outcome of political posturing by various elites

17

Phil 02.24.13 at 8:54 pm

Representative government, with elections and a party system is attractive to those competing for political power because it provides a peaceful way of displacing one set of rulers with another

Why would a system with a built-in mechanism for getting kicked out be attractive to those trying to gain political power?

I think you’re assuming a kind of ideal type of representative democracy which isn’t necessarily particularly advantageous to groups capable of running modern states, & which consequently is far from universal. The ‘peaceful handover’ criterion in particular reminds me of a paper on “democratic consolidation” which I’ve cited before now (although it’s rather old and may have been superseded). It argues that democracy has been consolidated at the point:

where power has been peacefully transferred from one contender to another;
where political challenges consistently stay within the system & don’t challenge the legitimacy of the system itself;
and where groups with power bases external to the political system don’t have a determining influence on the system.

Q: what answer do you get if you apply that lot to Italy since 1948? Is it:

a) democracy was consolidated when Prodi peacefully conceded power to Berlusconi
b) democracy was consolidated for a while back there, but it’s come unconsolidated again
c) democracy will only be consolidated when Berlusconi peacefully concedes power (or is sent to jail, whichever is sooner)

18

Bruce Wilder 02.24.13 at 9:07 pm

Viva Beppe Grillo! *****

19

mud man 02.24.13 at 9:17 pm

It’s stable because it provides a set of rules for succession that (nearly) always work.

Stable for a time, eventually becoming infected with demagoguery with a transition to tyranny. Or so it seems to me, the current American situation being a case in point. Possibly a consequence of darwinian evolution, in that it is against nature for two species to share one ecological niche.

20

Watson Ladd 02.24.13 at 9:26 pm

You apparently didn’t read the New York Times on Friday. Kenya is preparing for an election with bloodbath to follow, as it always does every five years. “Democracy” isn’t what is needed, rather actual politics that could bring about democracy.

21

rf 02.24.13 at 9:50 pm

I also didn’t mean for that to sound as snarky as perhaps it did, philofra

22

stubydoo 02.24.13 at 10:10 pm

The answer is mass literacy. Universal representative democracy is more stable than other systems when the bulk of the population is literate. Asbent that condition, other systems are capable of being more stable.

23

Peter T 02.24.13 at 11:28 pm

I thought the discussion of democracy in the abstract glossed over a lot of crucial questions. Who, for instance, are the “we” that are delegating power, deciding between competing oligarchic factions, and why should this “we” be privileged to do these things? If you assume some collective interest/identity a lot follows, but why assume that? Why should an elite see itself as having common problems with the mass? The elite’s problems are often about how to extract more from the mass – why should they prefer a form of government that brings the problems of the masses with increased extraction? Again, collective interest is assumed. A number of comments have pointed to the growing divergence of elite and mass interests over the last 30 years or so, but this discussion takes the continued existence of a framework which forces a common discussion for granted. Why are the wolves interested in what the sheep think?

And can those throwing the term “feudalism” around please go and read some medieval history more recent than Marx and more nuanced than a high school textbook. They will find, among other things, that representation has very deep roots in Western European culture.

24

Bruce Wilder 02.24.13 at 11:36 pm

Representation of who?

25

John Quiggin 02.24.13 at 11:41 pm

“Why would a system with a built-in mechanism for getting kicked out be attractive to those trying to gain political power?”

Because the alternative is that when you get kicked out (and you usually get kicked out sooner or later), it’s highly likely that you also get killed.

26

Peter T 02.25.13 at 1:41 am

Bruce

Depends. The range of “representative” institutions in early medieval western Europe included fraternities and lay orders, manor courts, local assemblies (“things”, “moots”), parlements, communes, guilds and much else, as well as the various bodies through which kings and lords were advised. The maxim “what touches all must be decided by all” was a medieval commonplace. The conception of what touched all was different, and the conception of what and how things should be decided was different, but it wasn’t just “here I am with a sword”. In a deeply hierarchical society, there was strong resistance to acting above one’s station (so someone might have an acknowledged right to represent a local community but be punished for daring to offer advice to the king), but there was a web of collective discussion and approval that extended well down the social ladder. England is a bit of an outlier in several respects (including a much more turbulent national politics) – the conquest was itself a major exception, but even in England there was a lot of inclusive local political activity.

Our current democracy has evolved, and there’s a lot to be learned by tracing its evolutionary past. There’s also a lot of really good history about that past but, as usual, the popular books are 30 years out of date, the school histories 40 years out of date, and the popular myths 100 years or so out of date.

27

Mark English 02.25.13 at 2:39 am

In my view, it’s much more enlightening to focus on actual history and to avoid attempts to psychologize about what might be attractive to hypothetical, unsituated power seekers.

The Western model has been successful but seems to be failing on the economic front (sovereign debt problems, etc.). The big questions in my mind relate to how China and Russia are going to develop politically and economically, and whether perhaps more or less authoritarian political structures are going to prevail (and perhaps even reappear in the West).

28

Tony Lynch 02.25.13 at 3:06 am

Re #25: So its Hobbes’ “fear of death” that does the job? – Perhaps: but I’ve always thought it must be SOMETHING against this that so much of human history in its “civilizational” stage has seen so much competition for spots which, if lost, see you killed. Why was it only so recently that Hobbes’ fear saw representative democracy emerge?

29

Watson Ladd 02.25.13 at 4:57 am

Peter, democracy starts in modern Europe with the head of the King of France. (okay, Dutch Republic earlier, but you get the point). In particular, no matter how consultative medieval society was, there was a warrior caste with political power and a peasant caste essentially property of those above. Property with some rights, in particular they could not be sold, but essentially property.

Singapore has elections. But it doesn’t have a free press and has administrative detention. I’m not sure that should count as democracy. The fact is feudalism’s view of traditional rights is analogous to forms in other traditional societies, and quite unlike the bourgeois view of individual liberty.

30

Lawrence Stuart 02.25.13 at 5:07 am

It’s late, so allow me a Hegelian bedtime story.

The essence of democracy is nothing, um, democratic. The essence of democracy is the history of an idea, the idea that each human is an individual, and is thus not subject simply to species being. And as individuals endowed with self awareness and a desire to realize our uniqueness in life we are capable (driven, even) to improve a given condition in which our individuality and freedom are restrained to one in which they may be maximally actualized, not just for one person, but, ultimately, for all persons.

In representative democracy the logic of this idea is satisfactorily (potentially?) realized in a codependency between ‘second order’ elites, and ‘first order’ mass electorates. The electorate legitimates the power of the elites to administer the technical aspects of political life, and the elites undertake such functions so as to maintain a plausible subservience to the idea itself. So it’s the idea, or faith in the idea, that human beings are essentially free historical individuals, that makes modern democracy work.

Belief is the strongest power democracies can cultivate. And without real freedoms (political and civil) and real respect for individual rights, that belief will evaporate.

31

John Quiggin 02.25.13 at 5:32 am

@28 “Why was it only so recently that Hobbes’ fear saw representative democracy emerge?”

Since no one seems to have tackled this, I’ll put up two suggestions

1. It’s a genuine innovation – the various precursors in classical republics, medieval parlements and so on never got to the point of two parties peacably taking turns in office, so no one realised it was possible. As late as the early 18th century, changes in English governments were commonly brought about through impeachment, bills of attainder and the like

2. With more wealth and life expectancy, ambitious people are less willing to risk everything on a quest for unchallenged power, let alone on backing others in such a quest.

32

Bloix 02.25.13 at 6:31 am

#25 – “Because the alternative is that when you get kicked out (and you usually get kicked out sooner or later), it’s highly likely that you also get killed.”

In our time, this is generally not what has happened. Many dictators, from Franco to Papa Doc Duvalier, maintained power until they died. It appears that Robert Mugabe will probably maintain power for the rest of his life.

Many others lived out their lives in luxurious exile.
For most of the 20th century, it was reasonably well established that a deposed Latin American dictator would find asylum in another Latin American dictatorship. That changed to some extent when the Argentine junta relinquished power in 1983. In spite of their efforts to insulate themselves from the judicial process, most of them are currently in prison. But none of them were killed.

Pinochet surrendered the presidency in 1998, but remained commander in chief until 1998. After that he spent years under indictment but he died in his bed in 2006.

African dictators have tended to go to Arab countries. Idi Amin was deposed and lived in exile in Saudi Arabia. Tunisia’s Ben Ali is there now. Mobutu Sese Seko lived in exile in Morocco. Seku Toure died in the US, where he was receiving medical treatment. Ferdinand Marcos lived out his life in Hawaii. The Shah of Iran lived in exile in Egypt. Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier went to Paris, then returned to Haiti, where he is living freely and contesting criminal charges, which he may beat.

As a rule, the dictators who get themselves killed are those that are so capriciously blood-thirsty that their own inner circle can’t be sure of their personal safety.

33

ponce 02.25.13 at 6:50 am

3. Colonial revolts led to democracies…

34

chris 02.25.13 at 7:14 am

Because the alternative is that when you get kicked out (and you usually get kicked out sooner or later), it’s highly likely that you also get killed.

So? That just means that only highly self-confident people contend for the throne in the first place (aside from legitimate heirs in an established monarchy, who have the chance to succeed to it peacefully). They’d only prefer a peaceful exit if they had a pessimistic expectation of their own chances of holding on to power until their natural death.

Everybody dies, and most rulers of nondemocratic societies die of other causes before someone manages to overthrow them.

I don’t think fear by rulers has much to do with it — I’d be more inclined to say that once the people get used to having a voice in government, it’s difficult to take it away from them without prompting them to rise up and take it back. It may be possible to be subtle enough about it to make them think they’re still in charge.

It argues that democracy has been consolidated at the point:

where power has been peacefully transferred from one contender to another;
where political challenges consistently stay within the system & don’t challenge the legitimacy of the system itself;
and where groups with power bases external to the political system don’t have a determining influence on the system.

I would point out that the cradle of democracy arguably no longer satisfies the third condition (although I guess you could argue megawealth isn’t really external to the political system because of all the corporate welfare) and the second is looking iffy (between the birthers and the voter ID/fraud/suppression issues). So apparently the “consolidation” of democracy is reversible under at least some conditions.

35

Sprecheragentur 02.25.13 at 7:57 am

Remember the words of Winston Churchill: Democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time. I guess that`s always true…

36

Mao Cheng Ji 02.25.13 at 8:16 am

I think a peaceful succession of power has more to do with a ‘rule of law’. It can be facilitated by a College of Cardinals, or Politburo; any sort of Supreme Court-like entity. In the US, a supreme court justice administers the oath.

In fact, it’s probably better if an institution promoted and viewed as sacred would perform the transition, otherwise a close election might result in violence.

37

Phil 02.25.13 at 8:40 am

I tend to see pol sci issues through an Italian lens, partly because I’ve studied Italian politics for several years, but mainly (of course) because Italian politics is so outstandingly interesting and relevant. So I’ll second Bloix’s Mugabe and add the Italian Christian Democrats, who were in power when the first post-war election was held & were still in power 45 years later. This suggests that the answer to the “if this doesn’t work we’ll all get killed” worry may be to double down on staying in power and put backup plans in place just in case.

Bruce – I’m not at all convinced by Grillo. Italy has a long history of anti-political populism, and it tends to end badly. Italian democracy is in a very bad way at the moment, but a “sod the lot of them” candidate getting 15% in opinion polls looks more like a symptom to me than a cure.

Chris – those three criteria are surprisingly corrosive when you start to apply them to actually-existing democracies (this may make them less useful from a pol sci standpoint). The last one, in particular, needs defining with care – staying in Italy, is a powerful Catholic political party a sign of the Church interfering in democracy or is it just a party legitimately supported by a lot of Catholics? But I think they do help highlight shortcomings in representative democracy.

(The paper is Geoffrey Pridham (1990), ‘Political actors, linkages and interactions: Democratic consolidation in Southern Europe’, West European Politics 13(4), btw. Told you it was old.)

38

Phil 02.25.13 at 8:45 am

it’s probably better if an institution promoted and viewed as sacred would perform the transition

Better still if the rule of law is held in this sort of esteem.

In Italy (hey, why not) the President and the Constitution – and a specialist high court which rules on constitutional issues – have this sort of deus ex machina function: they speak, everyone shuts up (even Berlusconi), and the show gets back on the road. But it’s a mixed blessing – there wouldn’t be any need for an intervention from on high if everyone was acting as if they respected the Constitution in the first place.

39

Mao Cheng Ji 02.25.13 at 9:13 am

“Better still if the rule of law is held in this sort of esteem.”

Yes, but someone will have to interpret the law. Otherwise, I might think that my candidate is the legitimate winner, and you that yours. And then we must kill each other.

“(ii) Representative systems tend naturally to universal suffrage, since both those who gain the suffrage and one faction of the existing electorate will always benefit from extension”

I understand that, for example, James Madison, who is definitely an authority on the subject, had great reservations about the universal suffrage, even in the limited sense it was considered back then. Because a few are rich, and a whole lot are poor, and so the poor will become unhappy, and so the republic collapses, and anarchy ensues. I believe this is still a concern of the modern equivalent of “the territorial proprietors, who in a certain sense may be regarded as the owners of the country itself”, as Madison sees it. http://press-pubs.uchicago.edu/founders/documents/v1ch16s27.html

I suppose appeasing the poor (as Madison suggests) might be considered a case of (from the OP) “democracy will produce good policies”, but it certainly adds to the tension, makes the system more antagonistic.

40

Tim Worstall 02.25.13 at 10:43 am

“Remember the words of Winston Churchill: Democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time. “

Indeed. And it takes some amount of time to make those experiments and work that out.

If we posit that it takes a few thousand years to do so then the rise of democracy is simply the realisation that “Oh, that works then”.

As with, say, Soviet style state planning and out current western style mixed economy. The experiment has to be made before it’s possible to see the outcome. And experimentation with entire societies does take time.

41

Harald Korneliussen 02.25.13 at 10:50 am

Christ: Everybody dies, and most rulers of nondemocratic societies die of other causes before someone manages to overthrow them.

Statistics on this would be interesting.

42

Harald Korneliussen 02.25.13 at 10:50 am

Sorry for the typo, Chris.

43

rf 02.25.13 at 1:15 pm

“Statistics on this would be interesting.”

There’s some stats here on the links on this page.

http://www.rochester.edu/college/faculty/hgoemans/data.htm

For example:

“In Haiti, no fewer than 64% of previous leaders have suffered
post-exit punishments. Between Presidents Nord, removed in December 1908,
and Velbrun-Guillaume, removed in July 1915, Haitian presidents were, successively,
exiled, exiled, bombed and blown up, imprisoned, exiled, executed, exiled..”

44

Bill Harshaw 02.25.13 at 1:54 pm

I’m intrigued by the history of the governance of religious institutions and whether they have anything to contribute. Presumably the college of cardinals meets and votes so seldom as not to matter much as a precedent but perhaps the Reformed tradition, with its governing elders, presbyteries, synods, and general assemblies does? Or is the timing backwards, so that religious representation develops from political representation?

45

Lawrence Stuart 02.25.13 at 3:15 pm

Re: 31“ the various precursors in classical republics, medieval parlements and so on never got to the point of two parties peacably taking turns in office, so no one realised it was possible.”

When raw force (tempered by a veneer of virtu or Christian charity) structures the relation between ruling elite and society at large, it is not surprising that it should also structure the relationship between competing factions of the elites.

In the Hegelian narrative, the movement of Spirit is the transformation of the moral ideals of virtu and charity into the political force of liberty, equality, fraternity. This historical movement is itself bloody, but it does culminate in the great synthesis whereby all persons can participate meaningfully in the ethical life of the state, not least through democratic processes.

So History ends, and management begins. And managerial succession, legitimated by mass participation on many levels (or even identification–because when all are equal, and free to realize their individual potential, managerial positions are, in principal at least, open to all), should set the necessary preconditions for the realization of the best of all possible worlds.

Or so the story goes. But there is, plainly, many a slip twixt cup and lip. And we do, alas, tend to get bored and yearn for the good old days of history.

46

chris 02.25.13 at 3:27 pm

exiled, exiled, bombed and blown up, imprisoned, exiled, executed, exiled

In other words, five out of seven were *not* killed when they were ousted. As Bloix pointed out at #32, the exile of a dictator can be pretty comfy. Presumably the imprisonment was less so, but even that may be preferable to death.

And I’m pretty sure that any country that removes seven leaders in seven years is an outlier.

The category of “nondemocratic political systems” also includes monarchies, in which case ouster may be more likely to result in death, but many a king died of natural causes in office and the violence, if any, didn’t break out until it came time to decide on a successor. (A few were assassinated to help the succession along, but that happens sometimes in democracy too, I can’t speak to relative frequency.)

47

rf 02.25.13 at 3:37 pm

Look, I’m not offering an opinion one way or the other. I found the data through a link offered by one of the autors where he said his research on Haitian political leaders encouraged him to ask the question ‘why would anyone want to become president of Haiti?’
There are 700 odd pages there of 188 countries spanning the last 100+ years. The results are undoubtedly complex and contingent, but yes, dictators generally turn out worse than democratic leaders after leaving office.

Here’s maybe a better argument from the main article:

“Just as the leader’s expect manner of exit varies with manner of entry, the chances
of punishment after leaving ofce differ dramatically by the manner of exit. Table
2 demonstrates that although the majority of leaders do not suffer any punishment in
the year after leaving power—i.e., in about 75% of all cases—the chances of postexit
punishment are very high for leaders who lose office in an irregular manner at
the hands of domestic forces. In particular, only about 20% of such leaders manage
to avoid post-tenure punishment altogether, while almost half of all leaders who lose
ofce irregularly are quickly forced into exile (e.g., 43%). Hence, to understand the
incentives of individual leaders, we may need to consider the likely consequences of
policies beyond the mere loss of ofce.”

I also think Bloix’s history is selective, and probably wrong on the facts. Look at the goddamn data if you want, or don’t. I have absoultely no ball in this game

48

rf 02.25.13 at 3:40 pm

I mean from Bloix, the one leader I have any knowledge on (the Shah) died of cancer within months of being dispossesed

49

rf 02.25.13 at 3:41 pm

..deposed would be the word, I guess

50

Mao Cheng Ji 02.25.13 at 4:12 pm

I would say, a system with a safe orderly succession simply attracts a slightly different sort of ambitious person than a pirate-style model. Not necessarily a better kind, but probably a much wider pool of contestants. Fewer Bonapartes, more Clintons.

51

Harold 02.25.13 at 4:42 pm

German emperors (i.e. Holy Roman) were elected for hundreds of years and so were popes. Not, democratically nor always without strife, especially between pope and emperor, but it was a “rule of law”of sorts. Or preparation for one.

52

js. 02.25.13 at 4:54 pm

One thing I’m finding strange about JQ’s explanation is on this view, the primary motivation(s) for the establishment and preservation of representative democracy turn out to be those of the representatives: “those competing for political power”. (Won’t get killed when I leave office!) But surely this gets the political agency backwards. Representative systems of government exist because and insofar as the governed have demanded that those governing be responsive to them. Though of course at any given point, it’s only been some subset of the governed—a class, we might say, with sufficient social or economic clout—that have been able to effectively make this demand.

This would I think also help to explain why “it took so long”. It’s only under quite specific material and social conditions that you get the emergence of classes that can effectively demand representation.

53

Sebastian H 02.25.13 at 5:10 pm

“Civil societies in Eastern Europe grew out of homogenous ones. Homogeneity is not in abundance in the Mideast since the region is still divided by tribalism, hence the lack of the civil societies that could make democracy a possibility.”

I’m not sure if I buy this, except for very limited concepts of ‘grew out’. The Austria-Hungarian empire wasn’t remotely homogenous.

54

pjm 02.25.13 at 5:47 pm

Has anyone discussed the economic dimension of the emergence of democracy aside from the short hand of “property rights” (e.g., the commericalization of political elites). That extraction of the social surplus takes places largely through economic mechanisms and not direct coercion has clearly played a role in how militarized elites in the modern world are (are not) – and that is something that happens for multiple reasons. Wilder does get at the fact medieval ruling classes were just the latest innovation in the history of thuggery.
And in particular, also not mentioned is the degree to which positive-sum games have (presumably) increased or become identifiable in the process of modernization. Such things do affect the tendency of elites (and everyone else) to chose violence as a means to a social end.

55

Bruce Wilder 02.25.13 at 5:55 pm

Is “homogenous” civil society a reference to felt political solidarity, a sense of personal identity tied to a social group making up the membership of a nation, and that nation making a claim on the right to form the state?

I’ve noticed that some intellectual liberals find political solidarity, with its undercurrents of racism and populism, distasteful.

I am not entirely sure of the mechanisms, but representative democracy does appear to be dependent on political solidarity for its emergence and for its continued effective functioning.

Never mind the dictators on the rocks, don’t democracies sometimes go on the rocks, as well, because of ethnic tensions? (Sebastian H reminds of the Austrian-Hungarian empire.)

56

Bruce Wilder 02.25.13 at 6:09 pm

pjm @ 54: Isn’t the thesis of Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty, essentially that “failure” is some elites choosing extractive economic institutions, and “success” follows from the choice of cooperative economic institutions: the triumph of the positive-sum games made an option by the industrial revolution.

Korea would be a case-in-point: a country with few opportunities, in terms of natural resource endowments, to make a success of extractive economic institutions. Half the country chooses, through dictatorship at the top, cooperative economic institutions, even with, and really by means of, a culture of extreme social hierarchy. The other half of the country chooses dictatorial oppression and autarky.

57

ajay 02.25.13 at 6:13 pm

In our time, this is generally not what has happened. Many dictators, from Franco to Papa Doc Duvalier, maintained power until they died. It appears that Robert Mugabe will probably maintain power for the rest of his life.

Fair point: Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gaddafi, Laurent Kabila and Nicolae Ceaucescu all came to sticky ends, but they are about the only ones I can think of recently. Najibullah and Amin in Afghanistan, I suppose. Somoza was killed post-deposition, so he should be included; Milosevic died in prison, presumably he counts too.

58

Barry 02.25.13 at 6:46 pm

02.25.13 at 5:10 pm

“Civil societies in Eastern Europe grew out of homogenous ones. Homogeneity is not in abundance in the Mideast since the region is still divided by tribalism, hence the lack of the civil societies that could make democracy a possibility.”

Sebastian H : “I’m not sure if I buy this, except for very limited concepts of ‘grew out’. The Austria-Hungarian empire wasn’t remotely homogenous.”

And ‘Germany’ was a region with a set of sorta mutually intelligible dialects;
I recall reading that French was not the first language of a majority of people in France until the 1800′s (and maybe late in the century). Great Britain was both forged out of multiple countries, and ‘forged’ in the sense of ‘beating the sh*t out of the others’. The USA went though a massive civil war. Italy was unified rather late, and so on.

59

Barry 02.25.13 at 6:57 pm

ajay 02.25.13 at 6:13 pm

” Fair point: Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gaddafi, Laurent Kabila and Nicolae Ceaucescu all came to sticky ends, but they are about the only ones I can think of recently. Najibullah and Amin in Afghanistan, I suppose. Somoza was killed post-deposition, so he should be included; Milosevic died in prison, presumably he counts too.”

There are four things to consider:

1) “I’m special. Those fools were weak; I won’t be deposed.”
2) If you have no chance of getting into power legitimately, illegitimate power looks better.
3) Ruling for a few decades and then being killed might be a bargain many are willing to make.
4) For an outside power seeking to exploit a country, the only/most profitable route might be through a dictator(ship). Even when it fails, that failure might manifest decades down the line, so that the original decision-makers are dead (see USA, entire 20th century foreign policy).

60

pjm 02.25.13 at 7:28 pm

Bruce @56, haven’t read it yet but yeah the argument about the relation of authoritarianism extractive industries (and the category should probably include latifunda export agriculture, if it does not) seems of a piece. (I was commenting about the absence in the thread but thanks for the heads up).
Also, the development literature used to posit a connection between social equality and rapid development (e.g., Taiwan, Costa Rica). But the causal links are not clear. Does social equality lead to innovation/civil society etc or does the fact that social equality was possible indicate, e.g., the absence of a militarized parasitic ruling class. The last time I had any graduate poli sci courses (in the 90′s though I doubt it has changed) I used to find the narrative about the rise of democracy a bit tautological (triumphalist?), but I can imagine far worse outcomes than that bit of conventional wisdom being confirmed.

61

John Quiggin 02.25.13 at 7:52 pm

My impression is that the life of an exile is a pretty miserable one compared to that of an “elder statesman”, that is, anyone who’s held office for a significant period and is not out of office or, at least, not in charge. That’s true even in the (fairly common) case where the elder statesman’s departure from office took place on fairly humiliating terms (electoral drubbing or own-party dumping). Of course, I haven’t experienced it myself, but I can’t think of any positive connotations of the word “exile”, and plenty of negative ones.

62

BruceK 02.25.13 at 8:24 pm

Surely it’s not only whether the dictator is killed on losing office, but also his senior ministers and advisors.

How many of his ministers did Papa Doc relieve of their responsibilities and heads at the same time? Ditto Stalin and so on.

63

Brandon Kendhammer 02.25.13 at 9:03 pm

I guess that I’m surprised (almost) no one has referenced the copious political science literature on why authoritarian elites are willing to bargain in electoral institutions. Acemoglu and Robinson’s work (Robinson has a very good 2006 Annual Review of Political Science piece that summarizes the relevant bits) specifically addresses John Q’s point about the tradeoff that elites face between ramping up repression (a good choice for maintaining power, but likely to end poorly and violently) and negotiating a mass-elite powersharing/redistribution deal (give up some power and wealth for more security). Robert Bates and Avner Greif’s work on “Organizing Violence” makes basically the same argument (although more on the side of elite economic considerations).

For a more elegant and less math-y approach to how authoritarian regimes can evolve into multi-party democracies, my favorite is Guiseppe DiPalma’s To Craft Democracies. It’s my sense that the book has fallen out of favor along with much of the “transition theory” approach and is no longer widely read, but it’s a classic. Similarly, there’s a rather obscure 2008 essay by my old professor Ed Friedman and Joseph Wong that frames the transition from authoritarian to democratic rule in terms of elites “learning to lose,” which is to say, learning to accept the uncertainty of losing power in any given election in exchange for the knowledge that they’ll live to contest another day.

64

Bruce Wilder 02.25.13 at 9:16 pm

In our time, this is generally not what has happened. Many dictators, from Franco to Papa Doc Duvalier, maintained power until they died . . .

The fascist dictator — a latter-day thug, whose regime has shallow ideological and cultural roots and whose claims on legitimacy are entangled with complex reactions to the advent of modernity and the relatively recent fall of traditional institutions in the political society and culture that he rules — is a relatively recent phenomenon. The fragility of these regimes, especially the fragility of successor regimes in the same mode (which is what the OP mentioned), might be related to the transitions in the political culture, and economic foundations, of the society. If I were personally more conservative, I might even argue that authoritarian government of a non-totalitarian kind might even be necessary to keep the lid on a society threatening to boil over, due to rapid cultural, demographic and economic change.

We might consider the relative stability in European experience of the fortunes, not of dictators, but of oligarchic families. One of my personal favorites is the Fitzalan-Howard family; the present head of the family is the premier Duke and premier Earl and, of course, enormously wealthy. A number of Dukes have lost their title and/or heads over the years, since they first got the title, in 1397. A Duke died on Bosworth field. Three of Henry VIII’s wives were sponsored by a Duke, and it didn’t work out well, in the end, for him, though it made his father, great grandfather to Elizabeth I; Elizabeth still beheaded his grandson. The family kept re-claiming the titles, after each be-heading or attainment or whatever; they persisted as Catholics, accepting recusancy, and had a hand in Sheffield’s rise during the Industrial Revolution. And, it’s not just England. I met the current head of the Welf dynastry, Ernst August, Prince of Hanover once — a thoroughly unpleasant man; he’s the husband, unless they’ve divorced, of Princess Caroline of Monaco, and enormously wealthy. A Welf was Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire once, and they were Dukes of Bavaria and Electors of Hanover (and, therefore, Kings of Britain after the Stuarts, I guess); they gave their name to one of the Italian political parties of the Renaissance: the Guelphs. Hapsburgs and Hohenzollerns are still around. Just a few years ago, Hohenzollerns were litigating through the German courts their inheritance from the late Kaiser, who, even after being deposed and exiled, was one of the wealthiest men in Europe; an important issue in the case, was which princes had married women of “equal” station (I don’t make these things up, I promise).

Dictators might, or might not, last, but I’m not sure that, even in political regimes, where violence is a serious hazard, it’s not clear to me that a ruling family or ruling class can’t have ample means to maintain itself. The new President of South Korea is the daughter of a dictator, who was assassinated.

65

Bloix 02.25.13 at 10:09 pm

rf- the Shah was deposed in January 1979. He died of cancer in Egypt 14 months later, where, after visiting a number of countries in either an effort to find a place to live or a test of international support for his return to Iran, he’d come to make a home at the invitation of Anwar Sadat. My point is that he died of natural causes in a country that was willing to grant him permanent safety and comfort.

And you’re right, I’m being selective. I don’t have an index of 20th century dictators – I just looked up a bunch whose names I could remember. Obviously, there are plentywho did manage to get themselves killed: Hitler, Mussolini, Ceaucescu, Kabila, Sadam, Gaddafi. And plenty who didn’t, in addition to those I already named: Stalin, Mao, Batista, Rios Montt, Mugabe. I think the burden is on Prof. Q to justify his statement that a dictator is “highly likely” to be killed.

66

John Quiggin 02.25.13 at 10:31 pm

@BruceK #62 Agreed. I touched on this point above, but didn’t develop it

67

Bloix 02.25.13 at 10:32 pm

“I can’t think of any positive connotations of the word “exile”, and plenty of negative ones.”

Exiled dictators are generally wealthy men. They’ve enjoyed absolute power for decades, looted their countries, and are able to retire in comfort. Ben Ali is said to have $5 billion. You can buy a lot of respectful attention with that kind of money.

Some don’t lose their grip on power until they are so old and sick that succession issues can’t be avoided and their supporters desert them – Marcos, the Shah, Mubarak. These guys made two mistakes: they held on too long, and then they got visibly sick. If they’d managed their succession while they were still healthy, they could have maintained an elder statesman role.

Some dictators make new lives. Batista became a prominent businessman in insurance and real estate in Portugal.

And many don’t even go into exile – they do just fine in their own countries: Rios Montt, Pinochet, Suharto. The Myanmar dictators seem to managing their transition fairly well.

Do you really think it’s better to serve for three or four years, leave office with little or no money, see everything you’ve done reversed, and then get yourself imprisoned or murdered by your dictatorial successor? That’s what can happen in lots of fragile “democracies.”

68

rf 02.25.13 at 10:38 pm

Yeah I got a little carried away earlier, and I agree ‘highly likely to be killed’ is over the top, but I think there’s a problem with arguing exile is a positive outcome. (Even if you’re living in the lap of luxury in Saudi, or where ever it may be)

69

John Quiggin 02.25.13 at 10:45 pm

And, it’s also important to look at unsuccessful aspirants, which expands the field a lot.

Stalin died in bed, but nearly all of his Old Bolshevik rivals ended up getting shot, or fleeing into exile, still on the run from his assassins. And the same was true of the great majority of the Stalinist Congress of Victors.

Responding to Bloix, I’ll restate “highly likely” in the most relevant terms, namely, “much more likely than a losing politician in an electoral democracy”. An obvious case is Allende, but he’s something of an exception that proves the rule, since
(i) as the OP notes, democracy is fairly stable, and successful coups against established democratic governments are rare
(ii) Pinochet ended up pretty badly.

70

John Quiggin 02.25.13 at 11:01 pm

“And many don’t even go into exile – they do just fine in their own countries: Rios Montt, Pinochet, Suharto.”

Say what? Rios Montt is currently on trial for genocide, Pinochet died under house arrest, Suharto spent time under house arrest, before being released on health grounds (genuine since he died within a few years) and members of the Suharto family went to prison. Agreed, this is better than a firing squad, but a lot worse than what a democratic ex-President might expect.

71

Peter T 02.25.13 at 11:35 pm

I suppose I should thank Watson @29 for so nicely illustrating my remark about the persistence of myth.

Couple of points:

in western Europe from C11, political power was local and mostly familial – it was not contended for but inherited. By C13 or so, the rules of inheritance were fairly firm, and contests over succession were the exception, not the norm (counties, earldoms and baronies passed from father to son/son-in-law/nephew in almost all cases peacefully. The great driver of wider consultation and more formal representation was competition among different elites for local defence, for support in securing higher-level patronage, and for aggression beyond western Europe. In all these arenas, the members of the elite who could demonstrate mass support had an advantage, and they could build on established forms of representation.

State patronage, in a very nearly zero growth, land-based economy, was a zero-sum game. The person who secured the royal favour could only cement their and their family’s place permanently by taking land off current holders – not a recipe for amicable politics. Kings were secure in their kingships, but needed elite support while wary of being captured by one faction or becoming beholden to the upper nobility as a group (as happened in Hungary, Poland and Bohemia). The more astute often favoured able outsiders because they divided the nobility and encouraged other groups. But the able outsider was liable to meet a sticky end when royal protection was withdrawn – and their fates (Gaveston, Cromwell, Stafford, Olivier le Daim…) speck the pages of history.

The point of the detail is that western Europe had a very distinct trajectory, in which security of inheritance and of the highest offices, the dominance of the local, multiple but stable political units and the idea of representation all played a part in a slow evolution towards wider formal mass representation. Most of this was accident, not design.

If I had to draw out a generalisation, it would be that lack of intra-elite competition coupled with low-growth tends to increased extraction and more elite fighting over access to and control of the state. Which we are seeing now.

72

Peter T 02.25.13 at 11:40 pm

I would add that “growth” should be understood to include taking things off foreigners and lucking on to natural wealth.

73

Bloix 02.25.13 at 11:57 pm

“Rios Montt is currently on trial for genocide…”

Rios Montt is 86 years old. He left office as dictator in 1983. Since that time he’s been president of the legislature, a presidential candidate, and a legislator again (until 2012). He was indicted on genocide charges only a year ago, and it remains to be seen if he is ever tried. He’s unlikely to spend any time in prison. So he did just fine for 29 years and he’s still doing okay.

Pinochet left the dictatorship in 1990 and was not indicted until 2000, when he was 85 years old. The supposed prosecution ambled along, was dismissed, was reinstated, etc., until his death in 2006. He was placed under house arrest less than two weeks before he died. He received a military funeral as former commander in chief. So he did a lot better than the democratically elected president he replaced, Salvador Allende. You remember what happened to him?

Suharto spent some time under nominal house arrest, was never tried, and received a state funeral with full honors. A few of his family members spent a few years in prison (for financial crimes) and emerged with reduced sentences, with the family fortune intact.

Its true that there’s been a sea change in the way the former dictators are treated. But this is a very new phenomenon, and can’t be used to explain the historical advantages of democracy.

74

Bloix 02.26.13 at 12:09 am

And yes, being a dictator may be more likely to result in your being dead than being an elected head of government. But driving to work in your Civic is less likely to get you killed than racing in the Daytona 500, and I don’t see any shortage of applicants for the job of race car driver.

We’ve really gone down a rabbit hole here. The point is not that peaceful transition of power is less likely to lead to the death of the powerful. The point is that, given the proper conditions, institutions can develop that are strong enough to resist the efforts of would-be dictators. If those institutions don’t develop, there will always be a brave, unscrupulous, and ambitious nascent dictator ready to take the chance.

75

Tony Lynch 02.26.13 at 3:54 am

I think the lesson of all this is that JQ’s Hobbesean claim isn’t at all robust.

76

js. 02.26.13 at 3:56 am

The point is that, given the proper conditions, institutions can develop that are strong enough to resist the efforts of would-be dictators. If those institutions don’t develop, there will always be a brave, unscrupulous, and ambitious nascent dictator ready to take the chance.

This entirely. And (as before) I’d add that a necessary condition of the emergence and maintenance of such institutions is fairly widespread popular demand and agitation for them. Without which it is quite difficult to see why those in positions of power would come upon the happy idea of ceding that power.

77

js. 02.26.13 at 3:57 am

Sorry, HTML fail there. First para is a quote from Bloix. Next para is me.

78

Hidari 02.26.13 at 6:00 am

This discussion is becoming one of these dehistoricised discussions much beloved of academics.

The first modern proto-parliament was of course the Icelandic Atheling, still the oldest continuous (almost continuous) Parliament on Earth. In the quote below this guy argues that the Althing did indeed lead to a reduction in violence.

“Far less than a duty, violence under the Althing system became only
an option. Recourse to violence was in most instances more costly than
using the services of advocates and arbitrators to resolve dispute, and
reinforced proto-democratic tendencies and contributed to the
centuries long continuance of the Althing system. Many ‘headless’
societies around the world mitigated and to varying degrees controlled
the ravages of feud and regulated their internal politics. However, few
did this as successfully as the Old Icelandic Free State, where
freemen saw their rights and independence protected by the
operation of the Althing system of law and government. “

http://www.viking.ucla.edu/publications/articles/icelandic_allthing.pdf

As far as other benefits of the system lets return to Keane:

” Compared with the previous, assembly-based form, representative democracy greatly extended the geographic scale of institutions of self-government . As time passed, and despite its localised origins in towns, rural districts and large-scale imperial settings, representative democracy came to be housed mainly within territorial states protected by standing armies and equipped with powers to make and enforce laws and to extract taxes from their subject populations. These states were typically much bigger and more populous than the political units of ancient democracy. “

But representative democracy is about more than that and it occurs to me that what we really want to be looking at is the rise of the political party system and for that you have to look at the English Civil War.

79

Hidari 02.26.13 at 6:00 am

“The first modern proto-parliament was of course the Icelandic Atheling”

Should have read Althing.

80

Peter T 02.26.13 at 6:13 am

The lesson of history is that elites don’t fear the masses – they fear other elites. If mass support helps you in court, in impressing your peers, in guarding your castle, in increasing and stabilising your revenues or – as in the first half of the C20, in waging industrial war, then that support will be bid for and there can be some bargaining. Over much of the world, elites were able to regulate or avoid competition among themselves effectively enough to avoid bargaining. In western Europe, for a variety of contingent reasons, they were not so able.

BTW, the threat of death is not, empirically, a really good motivator to obedience for humans. As species go, we are rather lemming-like in this.

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Peter T 02.26.13 at 6:23 am

The Iceland example is instructive. The Althing (and the many lesser things) started as a parliament/court for all free men, loosely grouped under local notables. It functioned pretty well for a while, then became the instrument of an oligarchy as the local notables first secured control over land holding, then over the local assemblies. Power fell into the hands of a few families leading large gangs of retainers. They sold out to the crown of Denmark in return for support and trade. Familiar trajectory?

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Patrick Sunter 02.26.13 at 7:34 am

John Keane was mentioned in the 2nd comment – another great book to get your head around this stuff I found is David Held’s “Models of Democracy” (www.polity.co.uk/modelsofdemocracy/).

Whilst incidentally Held was later caught up by the scandal of a UK university taking $$ from Gaddafi’s family and awarding one of his sons a questionable degree that came out at the start of the Libya crisis – it doesn’t detract from this being a great text!

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novakant 02.26.13 at 8:37 am

If there was any justice in the world Bush and Blair would have faced the same fate Ceaucescu or preferably, since I’m against capital punishment, Milosevich. On a related note: it’s curious that we tend to focus on how “democracies” treat their own people and ignore what they do to others – if we paid more attention to all those killed and maimed by democracies our evaluation of “liberal democracy” would have to change.

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Tim Wilkinson 02.26.13 at 12:31 pm

JFK

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rf 02.26.13 at 8:02 pm

Where does the consensus stand on JFK these days, as in who killed him?

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Hidari 02.26.13 at 8:27 pm

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Lefreak 02.27.13 at 6:39 am

I have similar questions regarding the evolution of democracy. I come from more of a social science background but my main concern is with the power religion has played in the formation of society. In religion, at least mono-theistic religions, there are two competing philosophies. One that we are all equal, created by god, and the other that we are all inferior and must succumb to that all powerful god. Perhaps these conflicting beliefs are part of our human nature and play out in representative democracy or perhaps we have been indoctrinated by our mono-theistic religions to believe that each vote is equal yet we still need leaders because we are somehow inferior.

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Tony Lynch 03.01.13 at 7:38 am

I reckon those who aspire to, and exercise, power and who are afraid of death in the overpowering way JQ thinks when it comes to the emergence/virtue of representative democracy are those who – through the exercise of that power – are the most distant from the killing effects of their power… Rule by the Chicken Hawks.

Is that really it?

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Tony Lynch 03.01.13 at 7:40 am

“Send in the Drones.”

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