Belarus is the pariah of Europe for the authoritarian control of its leader, Alexander Lukashenko (the other leader of an authoritarian state, the Pope, is considered a moral leader). United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice even labeled Belarus one of the six nations of the global “outposts of tyranny”. There is something to this – Belarus is a profoundly undemocratic state, and yet Belarus has challenged my concepts on the importance of democracy.
Despite not being a functional democracy, Belarus struck us as being a rather nice place to live. People on the street appeared happy, society is comparatively liberal (the authoritarian control of Lukashenko over the economy is not extended over the private life of its citizens) and our guides felt comfortable arguing politics with each other in our presence. Minsk was surprisingly clean and beautiful, with grand buildings, well manicured parks throughout the city and artistic statues along the main boulevards. Even the Soviet Era apartment blocks ubiquitous in the outer suburbs of post-Soviet capitals were freshly painted and well maintained, rather than being in a crumbling and decrepit state as is common across the former USSR. Out in the small towns the housing was not as polished, but we did not see any third world hovels, and, indeed, the houses would not be out of place in any small town in Australia. The safety rating of Belarus on the Australian government website is the highest level – above that of Belgium!
So what is the purpose of democracy? George W. Bush had a naïve and simplistic view, that democracy was an end in and of itself, believing that the simple institution of democracy would bring about all the positive traits of civilization. Ronald Reagan, on the other hand, had a much more cynical view, in that democracy was only desirable when it resulted in the election of people he liked, thus justifying the overthrow of democratically-elected left-wing governments in South America.
I can see two advantages of democracy. The first, and strongest, advantage is that democracy can increase the likelihood of a stable state that respects that rights of its citizens. The second advantage would be the less tangible benefit of allowing people to have control over the political aspect of their lives.
But how do these advantages stack up when unstable democracies like Iraq and Colombia are compared to non-democratic stable countries like Cuba, China or Belarus? Democracy is not the first step that inevitably leads to civilization. Other aspects of statehood are arguably more important – having a judiciary independent of the executive, the development of an independent and thoughtful media, consistent provision of state services in health and education, protection of individual rights through a Constitution (which is, in effect, profoundly undemocratic in that it prevents the rights of the minority to be infringed by the majority), and so forth. A state that succeeds in all or most of these aspects is going to provide its citizens with all the necessities for a civilized life – and it is hard to imagine these citizens turning to rebellion just because they don’t have the vote, as long as they have food, jobs and health and education for their children. After all, in many established democracies enormous effort is required by the government to get a bare majority of citizens to even turn up and vote. Perhaps democracies are like trade unions – victims of their own success. Trade union membership is greatest when conditions for workers are worst – and success in improving conditions decreases incentive to join a union. Likewise, the push for democracy is highest when conditions are worst, when the people change the state so that it meets most of their criteria they have less incentive to turn up. Thus, while democracy may aid the development of a civilized state, that is not to say that a civilized state cannot develop without democracy, and if an undemocratic state reaches this condition the drive for democracy may be weak.
How about the second advantage of democracy, allowing people to have control over the political aspect of their lives? At face value, the power of democracy is unarguable – self-determination is an intrinsic right. But does democracy actually equate to self-determination? Democracy could equally be considered the giving up of individual self-control to that of the whole population. An individual voting in the US has around 0.000001% control over the government, if “control” is the right word when the two dominant parties are indistinguishable on many issues and the political media is superficial. Furthermore, not all votes are equal – a hand-full of voters in Ohio and Florida heavily swing outcome, while 100 million US residents have no right to vote, either due to age, criminal record, immigration status or due to living in a territory rather than a state. As an immigrant in the US, my voting power was identical to that I would have in Belarus – zero. The greatest power in a democracy is in fact not the vote, but having influence over the voting pattern of others. Perhaps it is being too dogmatic to assume that democracy is the only viable model to a civilized state. That said, a vote is a right that I treasure and always exercise.