Sunday, March 02, 2008

What really makes a democracy. 

Foreign Affairs magazine, (no not the one run by Venezuelan right-wingers - that is Foriegn Policy), had so much to say about Venezuela in its most recent issue that it could have almost been a special issue on the oil rich country.

First, we have a Venezuelan expat economist, Francisco Rodriguez, explain to us how Chavez's revolution is "empty" and his efforts to help the poor either non-existent or smashing failures. Sure, poverty is way down, incomes are way up, social indicators are improved - but they haven't improved as much as they should have according to the author.

Thing is, for an article ostensibly about economic performance there are remarkably few economic statistics. There is even less real analysis. For example, Rodriguez states that while the economy has grown 50% since 2003 poverty has "only" dropped by 25 percentage points. This, he claims, is less than the drop in poverty in other countries in relation to growth in their economies.

I suppose that could be. Thing is though, this one paragraph assertion provides almost no data to back it up. For example, what other countries have done better? What was their poverty rate to begin with and what has their growth been?

Even more importantly, how do they measure poverty? In Venezuela it is measured purely with respect to cash income - all the in-kind benefits of Chavez's social programs such as free medical care, free education, and heavily subsidized food don't factor into Venezuela's poverty calculations at all. Do other countries calculate poverty in the same way? And do they have the extensive non-cash transfer programs that Venezuela does? If the answer is "no" to either of those questions than Rodriguez's claim clearly is flawed and meaningless.

The handfull of other statistics offered by Rodriguez suffer similar flaws and some even more obvious ones. For example, in evaluating a president who has served from 1999 to the present why would you pick 2000 and 2005 as your years of comparison? Maybe using those years gives the result the author wanted?

Finally, the central claim of Rodriguez, that the Venezuelan poor have not been the primary beneficiaries of Chavez's economic boom, is patently false. Rodgriguez states:

...there is remarkably little data supporting the claim that the Chávez administration has acted any differently from previous Venezuelan governments -- or, for that matter, from those of other developing and Latin American nations -- in redistributing the gains from economic growth to the poor.

Yet a major data and polling firm, Datanalysis, showed the evolution of income for all social classes, "E" being the poorest and "A" being the wealthiest, from 1998 to 2006 - in other words essentially over Chavez's entire tenure.

And what do we see? That the poorest have far and away had their income grow the fastest and that the higher you go up the income scale the slower the growth.

And in fact, other data from other firms such as Datos and AC Neilsen have shown the same trends.

It is therefore evident that the Chavez administration has been able to manage Venezuela's economic growth in such as way that it has disproportionally benefited the poor.

This is crystal clear from the data. Yet Rodriguez chooses to ignore this. One has to wonder why.

Next we get an article from Larry Diamond that is about the tough time democracy is supposedly having around the world. According to Diamond democracy is threatened in, among other countries, Russia, Poland, Chile, South Africa, Nigeria, and, you guessed it, Venezuela.

In fact, while many of us agree with the Brazilian president when he said that if anything Venezuela has an excess of democracy, Diamond singles out Venezuela for special treatment.


In Venezuela, President Hugo Chávez narrowly lost a December 2 referendum that would have given him virtually unlimited power, but he still does not allow the sort of free and fair political process that could turn him out of office.

Ok, so if he doesn't allow "free" elections that he could presumabely lose then how did he lose the vote this past December 2nd - one that means he won't even be able to stand in the next presidential election?

In point of fact, this has nothing to do about elections. Witness Diamond's next sentence:

Despite two decades of political scientists warning of "the fallacy of electoralism," the United States and many of its democratic allies have remained far too comfortable with this superficial form of democracy.

This is a curious statement, coming from a person who was one of the U.S. overlords in Iraq and assured the world that Iraq was a democracy precisely because it held elections.

But lets go along with his arguement and ask if elections don't a democracy make, what does?

Here is what Diamond says:

For a country to be a democracy, it must have more than regular, multiparty elections under a civilian constitutional order. Even significant opposition in presidential elections and opposition party members in the legislature are not enough to move beyond electoral authoritarianism. Elections are only democratic if they are truly free and fair. This requires the freedom to advocate, associate, contest, and campaign. It also requires a fair and neutral electoral administration, a widely credible system of dispute resolution, balanced access to mass media, and independent vote monitoring.

Good thing this was written for a periodical that virtually no-one reads, or at least that the general public doesn't read. After all, Diamond just pointed out that the United States suffers from "electoral authoritarianism". To see that, lets just look at a few of Diamonds requirements for a true democracy:

"It also requires a fair and neutral electoral administration"

The U.S. has no pretense of having that. In Florida in 2000 the state electoral authorites had been apointed by George Bush's brother and were led by the openly partisan Kathleen Harris - who later ran for congress as a member of Bush's party. In Ohio in 2004, the state electoral authority was run by the very same person who was the head of the Bush campaign in Ohio!!!! It would be hard to find a less nuetral system than that.

a widely credible system of dispute resolution

Considering that the dispute resolution is handled by the same partisan authorities who run the elections it is debatable as to whether this exists in any meaningful way in the U.S.

balanced access to mass media

This clearly doesn't exist in the U.S.. Essentially all media is privately owned and aligned with the dominant political parties. All other parties and candidates are completely shut out, unless you are a rich billionaire who can buy your own air time.

and independent vote monitoring

In the U.S. there is no independent vote monitoring at all nor any independent audits of the voting system. The partisan electoral authorities simply announce the results and you can either believe them or not. And there are certainly no foreign observers allowed to review the voting process as has been continiously done in Venezuela and many other countries.

Of course, Venezuela's democracy is imperfect, as are all democracies. But it certainly does a better job of adhering to Diamond's requirements for true democracy than does the U.S. After all, Venezuela's results are audited by all involved parties, the elections are closely monitored by outside observers, and all sides have access to the mass media (if not to the same mass media). Perfect? No. But certainly much better than the giant to the North.

So why does a country like Venezuela get singled out for attack while all huge problems facing democracy in the U.S. don't merrit mention? Later, we get clue as to why when Diamond gives a list of musts for building strong democracies:

Finally, reforms must generate a more open market economy in which it is possible to accumulate wealth through honest effort and initiative in the private sector -- with the state playing a limited role. The wider the scope of state control over economic life, the greater the possibility of graft by abusive and predatory elites. Reducing administrative barriers to doing business and implementing corporate-responsibility initiatives can address the supply side of the corruption problem. Strong guarantees of property rights, including the ability of owners of small farms and informal-sector workers to obtain titles to their land and business property, can provide the foundation for a broader institutional landscape that limits government corruption.

So we go from a discussion regarding political systems to an assertion that one type of economic system has to predominate - capitalism based on private property ownership.

If you think that way of course you will see Venezuela (and Bolivia, and Ecuador, and Thaksin's Thailand, etc) as not democratic no matter how many elections they have. Diamond has just in effect said you can only have true democracy with a market economic system. That is, you can have elections but people who advocate socialist policies need not compete - any victory by them will, a priori, be seen as illegitimate and not democratic.

And of course this helps explain why countries with very troubled voting systems , such as the U.S., are seen as flawless examples of democracy - if nothing else they respect property rights.

Now, if only he had said that up front, I could have saved myself reading the whole tortured article!


This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?