The simplest definition of democracy is one given by Abraham Lincoln, a former president of the USA: democracy is government of the people, by the people and for the people. It is all about the people.
It sounds better than other forms of government, such as monarchy, in which a single family rules from generation to generation. The power is vested in one person, the monarch. Or oligarchy, in which all power resides with a few people or in a dominant class or group within the society. Or authoritarianism, where the people do not participate, and have no say in what happens. When you add powerfoam, you get totalitarianism, where power and authority are concentrated in one person, such that he/she controls government and, therefore, the people. Dictators tend to be authoritarian or totalitarian.
However, democracy does have its weaknesses. It is not easy to represent more than one person and reach consensus. Aristotle asked two simple questions when classifying states. Question one: who rules? How many people exercise supreme power? Question two: in whose interest? Self-interest or that of the community? So he classifies states into six: where one person rules for the benefit of the community, it is a monarchy. Where a few rule for the benefit of the community, it is aristocracy. Where many rule for the benefit of the community, it is polity.
On the other hand, when one person rules for his or her own benefit, we get tyranny. Where a few rule for their own benefit, we have an oligarchy. Where many people rule for their own benefit, we have democracy. We can see that Aristotle believes that democracy is perverse in a way. Democracy is selfish in his view, while polity is selfless. Whether we will ever attain polity is a question that may boggle the mind for years to come.
Why is democracy the form of government most associated with development? Is it because democracy is inherently and instrumentally good? Because it facilitates free human choice and it furthers political participation? Because it enables people to live freely and autonomously? Democracy provides institutional guarantees that the policies and laws created by a government will have a reasonable fit with the fundamental interests of the people. How? Because the people vote for the people in government.
The debate about the relationship between development and democracy is long and unending. Martin Lipset noted a positive correlation between wealth and democracy. But correlation does not mean causation. Does democracy lead to development? If one thinks about development through purely economic terms, then any form of government we’ve discussed before should lead to some level of development.
Even a dictatorship can witness growth in the productivity of labor, agriculture, and capital, leading to growth in per capita incomes and per capita assets, and ultimately GDP. Take for example China, which is not a dictatorship, but is more of an oligarchy according to some, and an aristocracy according to others. There was a general assumption when they opened up their economy that this economic liberalization would lead to political liberalization which would eventually lead to democracy.
The theory? That economic growth leads to a larger middle class that is more empowered. This middle class then begins to demand control over its destiny, and eventually even repressive governments are forced to become democratic. But here we are over 35 years later: China is not a democracy but still continues to develop economically. Authoritarian regimes around the world continue to prove that you can have economic development without relaxing political control.
Amartya Sen, a Nobel Prize winning economist, however, classifies development as freedom. This moves past economic indicators and looks at the wellbeing of the human. It includes human rights and freedoms, political rights, access to social opportunities through education and employment and so on, transparency guarantees, social security, protective security and so on. If we look at development as freedom, then democracy does lead to development.
According to Joseph Stiglitz, development is understood as a ‘transformation of society’ that goes beyond economic growth alone to include social dimensions like literacy, distribution of income, life expectancy and so on. These aspects are known as human development. To add on to human development, we must also have redistribution of wealth, otherwise poor people are doomed to remain poor, in which case what is the point?
In Kenya, the top 10 percent richest households in Kenya control more than 40 percent of the country’s income, while the poorest 10 percent control less than one percent. We have inequality when it comes to access to resources. Houses in urban areas are five times as likely to have piped water as those in rural areas. Only 1% of those who enroll in primary school go on to complete university. 80% of our unemployed are aged under 35, so much for access to opportunities. The list of worrisome statistics goes on and on.
It would be great if we moved away from the narrative prevalent in Kenya that development equals roads, the Standard Gauge Railway, a port, an additional runway at JKIA. The view that economic development is the only kind of development is narrow and not beneficial. It has been shown that low income democracies outperform autocracies over time when it comes to development indicators. So when we witness our government trying to shrink our democratic space, we should be concerned because in the long run this does not bode well for us.
The impact of democracy on development is many times indirect, but can be felt through policy certainty, political stability, the establishment and enforcement of rules that protect property rights, the promotion of education, the ability to promote private capital, and the reduction of inequality. These are the sorts of things Kenya says it wants to do to attract investment, not because it has living, breathing people here who need these things to live comfortably as well.
We have to remember that the reason we concern ourselves with building systems and institutions is to maximize social good and utility. We have a social contract with our state, in which we give up unfettered freedom for security. This is the foundation of our state. We should not forget, however, that we have to be at the center of this contract for it to work. Economic development means little in the long run if it is not accompanied by human development, and systems that are purportedly built to serve human beings that do not center these human beings are doomed to fail.