Boy campaigning in Mannar. When asked if he cared about democracy, his father said no. They want a road.
Humanity is a strange thing. We literally say one thing and do another. Our economics is predicated on rational actors, yet our actions are anything but. Our great faiths are predicated on great morality, which only seems to emerge in one person every few thousand years. It is as if our language has a life of its own, while our loins keep springing life infernal. International discourse, for example, is dominated by ideas – democracy, dictatorship, diplomacy. Indeed, for much of western history its seemed that there’s been a stead progression from feudalism to monarchy to democracy. Marx said the next steps were socialism and communism. Yet, what if rather than being an abstract progression, these systems were actually adaptive?
People often think of evolution as constant improvement. It’s not. Evolution is adaptation, so improvement is always relative to the environment. The dinosaurs were pretty awesome, but they weren’t very well adapted to an asteroid winter. Rat creatures, however, were, and that’s what we evolved from. Are we better than dinosaurs? In hindsight, perhaps, but only in terms of relative adaptation, not linear progress.
In this way, is it perhaps not possible that systems of government are adaptations to economic realities?
This is all a roundabout way of saying, all people really care about is a bit of stability and their next meal. Or, it’s the economy stupid. Democracy and other systems are relevant in that they are often a better route to prosperity and stability, but part of what has made western democracies so successful is the ‘western’ more than the democracy. Centuries of taking in foreign capital and labor (through colonialism and slavery) and millennia of environmental circumstances (as per Jared Diamond’s Guns Germs and Steel) have led them to this position as much as their system of government. Indeed, that system may have evolved for distributing relative plenty. The most pre-eminent example, America, also evolved in isolation. When finally hit by terrorism on its own soil, it began to recoil.
I’m not sure that selling democracy on moral grounds is the most convincing argument. It certainly is among the classes that have the economic benefits, but the ones that don’t simply want the benefits and don’t much care how. I remain convinced that dynasties and dictatorships, while seeming stable, don’t transition well and do suffer because they deny human dignity, equality and freedom. I just think that democracy advocates may need to get down off the moral high horse and engage in a bit of hard selling. While morality may be mental, I think reality is largely economic. There is a marketplace of ideas out there, and democracy needs to compete.