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Democracy as a Universal Value

Extracts from Keynote Address by Amartya Sen, Nobel Laureate, Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, United Kingdom and University Lamont Professor Emeritus, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, United States

Full text available in July 1999 issue of the Journal of Democracy and http://muse.jhu.edu/demo/jod/10.3sen.html

Democracy in the twentieth century

Some time ago, I was asked by a leading Japanese newspaper what did I think was the most important thing that had happened in the twentieth century. I found this to be an unusually thought-provoking question, since so many things of gravity have happened over the last hundred years.Yet, from the great variety of developments that have occurred in the 20th century, I did not, ultimately, have any difficulty in choosing one as the pre-eminent development of the period: the rise of democracy. This is not to deny that other occurrences have also been important, but I would argue that in the distant future when people look back at what happened in this century, they would find it difficult not to recognise the primacy of the emergence of democracy as the preeminently acceptable form of governance.

The universal relevance of democracy The idea of democracy as a universal commitment is quite new, and it is quintessentially a product of the twentieth century. Indeed, throughout the nineteenth century, theorists of democracy found it quite natural to discuss whether one country or another was yet "fit for democracy." That changed only in the twentieth century, with the recognition that the question itself was wrong: a country does not have to be judged to be fit for democracy, rather it has to become fit through democracy.It is also in this century that it was finally accepted that "franchise for all adults" must mean all--not just men but also women. We have at last reached the point of recognition that the coverage of universality, like the quality of mercy, is not strained. While democracy is not yet universally practised, nor indeed uniformly accepted, in the general climate of world opinion democracy has now achieved the status of being taken to be generally right. The ball is very much in the court of those who want to rubbish democracy to provide justification for that rubbishing.

In this acceptance of democracy as a universally relevant system, which goes in the direction of seeing it as a universal value, there is a major revolution in thinking, and this is one of the main contributions of the 20th century.

Democracy and economic growth

It is often claimed that non-democratic systems are better in bringing about economic development. This belief sometimes goes by the name of "the Lee hypothesis," after the presentation of this point of view by Lee Kuan Yew, the leader and former President of Singapore. But the "Lee hypothesis" is based on sporadic empiricism, drawing on very selective and limited information, rather than on any general statistical testing over the wide-ranging data that are available.

There is, in fact, no convincingly general evidence that authoritarian governance and the suppression of political and civil rights are really beneficial in encouraging economic development. Indeed, the general statistical picture does not permit any such induction. Systematic empirical studies (for example, by Robert Barro or by Adam Przeworski) give no real support to the claim that there is a general conflict between political rights and economic performance.

Development and economic security

We must also go beyond the narrow confines of economic growth and scrutinize the broader demands of economic development, including the need for economic and social security. In that context, we have to look at the connection between political and civil rights, on the one hand, and the prevention of major economic disasters, on the other. Political and civil rights give people the opportunity to draw attention forcefully to general needs, and to demand appropriate public action. The governmental response to the acute suffering of people often depends on the pressure that is put on it. The exercise of political rights (such as voting, criticizing, protesting, and so on) can make a real difference to the political incentives that operate on a ruling government.

Famines are easy to prevent if there is a serious effort to prevent them, and a government of a democratic country--facing elections and criticisms from opposition parties and independent newspapers--cannot but make a serious effort to prevent famines. Not surprisingly, while India continued to have famines under British rule right up to independence (the last famine was in 1943), they disappeared suddenly, after independence, with the establishment of a multi-party democracy with a free press.

Asian economic crisis

The recent problems of east and south-east Asia bring out, among other things, the penalty of undemocratic governance. This is so in two striking respects. First, the development of the financial crisis in some of these economies (including South Korea, Thailand, Indonesia) has been closely linked with the lack of transparency in business, in particular the lack of public participation in reviewing financial arrangements. The absence of an effective democratic forum has been consequential in this failing. Second, once the financial crisis led to a general economic recession, the protective power of democracy--not unlike that which prevents famines in democratic countries--was badly missed in some countries, such as Indonesia and Thailand. The newly dispossessed did not have the hearing they needed.

The demands of democracy

Democracy has complex demands, which certainly includes voting and respect for election results, but it also requires the protection of liberties and freedoms, respect for legal entitlements, and the guaranteeing of free discussions and uncensored distribution of news and fair comment. Indeed, even elections can be deeply defective if they occur without giving the different sides adequate opportunity to present their respective cases, or without giving the electorate the freedom to obtain news and to consider the views of the competing protagonists. Democracy is a demanding system, and not just a mechanical condition (like majority rule) seen in isolation.

Universality of values

Democracy's claim to be valuable does not rest on just one particular merit. There is a plurality of virtues here, including: first, the intrinsic importance of political participation and freedom in human life, second, the instrumental importance of political incentives in keeping governments responsible and accountable, and third, the constructive role of democracy in the formation of values and in the understanding of needs and rights and duties. In the light of this diagnosis, we may now address the motivating question of this lecture, namely the case for seeing democracy as a universal value.

I know of no value to which no one has ever objected. The claim of a universal value is that people anywhere may have reason to see it as valuable. Any claim of a universal value involves some counterfactual analysis, in particular whether people may see some value in a claim that they have not yet considered adequately. It is in this presumption--often implicit presumption--that the biggest attitudinal shift towards democracy has occurred in the twentieth century. In considering democracy for a country that does not have it and where many people may not yet have had the opportunity to consider it for actual practice, it is presumed that the people involved would approve of it when it becomes a reality in their lives. Whereas in the nineteenth century, this assumption would have not been typically made.

Democracy is not a luxury

Some who dispute the status of democracy as a universal value base their argument not on the absence of unanimity, but on the presence of regional contrasts. The alleged contrasts are sometimes related to the poverty of some nations, arguing that poor people are interested--and have reason to be interested--in bread, not in democracy. This argument, which is often repeated, is fallacious at two different levels.

First, as was discussed earlier, the protective role of democracy may be particularly important for the poor. This applies obviously to potential famine victims who face starvation. It also applies to destitutes thrown off the economic ladder in a financial crisis. People in economic need also need a political voice. Democracy is not a luxury that can await the arrival of general prosperity.

Second, there is very little evidence that poor people, given the choice, prefer to reject democracy. It is, thus, of some interest to note that when an erstwhile Indian government tried out a similar argument in the middle 1970s, to justify an alleged "emergency" which had been declared (with denial of various political and civil rights), an election was called that divided the voters precisely on this issue. In that fateful election, the suppression of basic political and civil rights was firmly rejected.

Asian values and lesser tales

There is also a different argument in defense of an allegedly fundamental regional contrast, related not to economic circumstances, but to cultural differences. Perhaps the most famous of these claims relates to what has been called "Asian values."

It is very hard to find any real basis for this intellectual claim in the history of Asian cultures, especially if we look at the classical traditions in India, the Middle East, Iran, and other parts of Asian civilizations. For example, one of the earliest--and most emphatic--advocacy of the tolerance of pluralism and of the duty of the state to protect minorities can be found in the inscriptions of Ashoka, the Indian emperor, in the third century B.C.

Even east Asia itself has much diversity, and there are many variations to be found between Japan and China and Korea and other parts of east Asia, and even within each particular country: Japan or China or Korea. Confucius is the standard author quoted in interpreting Asian values, but he is not the only intellectual influence in any of these countries.

Furthermore, Confucius himself did not recommend blind allegiance to the state. Indeed, Confucius provides a clear pointer to the fact that the two pillars of the imagined edifice of Asian values,namely loyalty to family and obedience to the state, can be in severe conflict with each other.

Diversity within each culture

The monolithic interpretation of Asian values as hostile to democracy and political rights does not bear critical scrutiny. It is not, of course, hard to find authoritarian writings within the Asian traditions. Nor is it in Western classics, and one has to reflect only on the writings of Plato or Aquinas to see that devotion to discipline is not a special Asian taste. To dismiss the plausibility of democracy as a universal value on the ground of the presence of some Asian writings on discipline and order would be similar to rejecting the plausibility of democracy as a natural form of government in Europe or America today on the basis of the writings of Aquinas or Plato (not to mention the vast medieval literature in support of the Inquisitions).

The importance of democracy

The value of democracy includes its intrinsic importance in human life, its instrumental role in generating political incentives, and its constructive function in the formation of values. These merits are not regional in character. Nor is the advocacy of discipline or order in contrast with freedom and democracy. Heterogeneity of values seems to characterize most--perhaps all--major cultures. The cultural argument does not foreclose, nor indeed deeply constrain, the choices we can make today.

Those choices have to be made here and now, taking note of the functional roles of democracy, on which the case for democracy in the contemporary world depends. This case is indeed strong and not regionally contingent. The force of the claim of universality for the value of democracy lies ultimately in that strength.

Source: World Movement for Democracy


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