If we Americans have learned anything from our well-intentioned efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s that democratic elections do not necessarily promote stability. Ironically, nor do democratic elections ensure freedom, as underscored by the collapse of self-government, return of dictatorship and explosion of sectarian strife in the wake of the Arab Spring.
“Democracies do not always make societies more civil, but they do always mercilessly expose the health of the societies in which they operate,” historian Robert Kaplan observed (and predicted) in 1997 – four years before America began its nation-building project in Afghanistan, six years before Iraq descended from dictatorship to disintegration and 14 years before the Arab Spring’s spiral of re-revolution.
“If a society is not in reasonable health, democracy can be not only risky but disastrous,” Kaplan concluded, adding that democracy succeeds only when it serves as “a capstone to other social and economic achievements.”
Kaplan was describing the difference between democracy (a basic form of government in which the majority rules) and liberal democracy (a more mature system of government characterized by majority rule with minority rights, limits on government power and high levels of individual freedom).
To build a liberal democracy, a nation needs more than free elections – more than a capstone. It needs a firm foundation: the rule of law, property rights and economic freedom. These are the building blocks of liberal democracy. Yet the West has tended to focus on free elections to measure the success of nation-building efforts, forgetting that democracy is little more than a flimsy facade without these building blocks at its base.
RULES The rule of law means just what it says: the law is what rules – not charismatic strongmen, not referendums or mobs, not the law of the jungle, not the law of brute force. The rule of law holds that everyone in a nation-state is subject to the same laws, that laws are well-defined and not arbitrary, and that the enactment and enforcement of laws is open, fair and transparent.
The rule of law is crucial in preserving democratic government. If it’s not firmly in place before democracy is attempted, the odds are high that political leaders will use the power of the state to punish or marginalize their opponents, reward their cronies, consolidate power and even revert to dictatorship.
Pockmarked with failed democracies, post-colonial Africa – where “one-man, one-vote, one-time” became an all-too-common descriptor – is a case study in what might be called premature democracy. But there are more recent examples.
In Egypt, after the Arab Spring, the democratically elected government of Mohamed Morsi trampled minority rights, rammed through an illiberal constitution and was seen as beholden to the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood. Unbound by the rule of law, the Morsi government rigged parliamentary districts, allowed Brotherhood thugs to use violence against the opposition, intimidated independent media, granted itself the power to overrule judicial decisions, ordered retrials of its political rivals and convicted pro-democracy non-governmental organization workers on trumped-up charges.
Morsi was ousted by a military coup. Egypt’s democratic experiment lasted less than two years. Not surprisingly, Egypt languishes in the basement (129th out of 191) of the World Bank’s rule-of-law index and corruption index (126th).
Iraq’s Nouri al-Maliki, too, was democratically elected, but without a sturdy rule-of-law foundation, he engaged in sectarian politics. Maliki concentrated power within his office and party, used Iraq’s security apparatus to arrest thousands of Sunnis, and tilted government to favor his fellow Shias. By 2012, Human Rights Watch warned that Iraq was “slipping back into authoritarianism.” Predictably, Iraq’s Sunnis were driven out of the political process, sectarian tensions exploded, and Iraq’s fragile multi-ethnic, multi-confessional democracy gave way. Maliki was forced out in 2014.
After 25 years under Saddam Hussein – then a decade of insurgency and terror – it’s no surprise Iraq is 180th on both the rule-of-law index and the corruption index.
Although the reeling Iraqi government has mustered an effective counterpunch against ISIS, its authority is not recognized – at least not by Sunnis or Kurds – beyond Baghdad.
Afghanistan provides further evidence of how difficult it is to build liberal democracy in a place that has known only lawlessness. After almost 40 years of war, tyranny and insurgency, Afghanistan is 187th on the rule-of-law index. Even after 16 years under U.S. tutelage, Afghanistan remains resistant to the rule of law and rife with corruption (179th). As one Afghan said during Hamid Karzai’s presidency, “The Taliban shakes us down at night ... the government shakes us down in the daytime.”
Again, although the transfer of power from Karzai to Ashraf Ghani was an achievement, government authority and legitimacy barely extend beyond the environs of Kabul.
After attempting to seize power through a military coup in 1992, Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez swept to the presidency through democratic means in 1998. He quickly moved to eliminate the Senate and extend presidential terms. He used Venezuela’s oil wealth like a personal piggy bank, dispensed the state’s largesse to amass political power, and expanded government control over television stations, the Internet, banks and nongovernmental organizations. He also limited legislative power, used the police and National Electoral Council against his opponents, and governed largely by fiat.
In a fitting coda to the Chávez era, resource-rich Venezuela’s inflation rate is a staggering 800 percent, the unemployment rate is 17 percent, the economy contracted by 18.6 percent in 2016, and the public-health system has collapsed. The state is unraveling. People are starving in the streets (the typical Venezuelan lost 19 pounds in 2016), some 10,000 Venezuelans are flowing into Brazil each month to seek food and medicine, and Chávez’s successor has created a rubber-stamp “constituent assembly” to rewrite the constitution and bypass the country’s duly-elected legislature.
Venezuela is 190th on the rule-of-law index – only Somalia is worse – and 182nd on the corruption rankings.
Built on the wreckage of the Soviet state, Russia’s nascent democracy was subverted and ultimately overwhelmed by corruption, cronyism, kleptocracy and “Putinism” – Vladimir Putin’s l’etat c’est moi (“I am the state”) approach to governing. Putin has ruled as prime minister or president since 1999 and is on track to reign through 2024. As the Brookings Institution’s Robert Kagan observes, “Elections do not offer a choice but only a chance to ratify choices made by Putin.” In 2004, Putin abolished direct elections of regional governors (now appointed by local legislatures based on a list provided by Putin). In 2012, he pre-approved the opposition candidates who ran against him. In addition to stage-managing elections, Putin’s regime controls the media, banks and energy sector.
Putin’s Russia is 139th on the rule-of-law index and 151st on the corruption rankings.
SUCCESSES What’s equally revealing is how countries where the rule of law is respected have enjoyed sustained transitions to democracy.
Estonia (25th on the rule-of-law measure) was shackled to the Soviet tyranny for five decades. But in the same time span that Russia’s democracy descended into Putinism, Estonia has matured into a high-functioning liberal democracy, thanks in part to the rule of law.
Likewise, after decades under Moscow’s heel, the Czech Republic (28th) and Poland (42nd) broke free, rebuilt their systems of law and today are exponents of liberal democracy.
After 38 years of dictatorship, Spain (37th) built its democracy on the foundation of constitutionalism. Almost 40 years later, the country has not reverted to dictatorship.
Taiwan (27th) was anything but democratic before 1996. Today it is a thriving liberal democracy. South Korea (35th) was governed by the military for much of the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, with frequent declarations of martial law, but has been a democracy with a strong rule-of-law foundation for nearly 30 years.
Owing to the rule of law, all of these democratic success stories rate in the top third on the corruption measure.
Interestingly, the only child of the Arab Spring to stay on the path to democracy – and off the path to disintegration, civil war or re-revolution – is Tunisia, which is a respectable 87th on the rule-of-law index (better than Mexico and China) and 80th on the corruption index (better than Italy, China and Brazil).
RIGHTS Friedrich Hayek once wrote, “The system of private property is the most important guarantee of freedom,” ensuring that “nobody has complete power over us.”
Indeed, the founding fathers recognized that property rights were essential to self-government – so essential that protection of property was enshrined in our founding documents: The Declaration of Independence invokes the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Jefferson borrowed the phrase from John Locke, who argued that each person has the right to “preserve his property ... his life, liberty and estate against the injuries and attempts of other men.” Moreover, the Constitution guarantees that no person can be “deprived of life, liberty or property, without due process of law.”
Respect for property correlates with healthy democracies, while a lack of property rights correlates with democratic failure, or at least a democratic deficit.
Again, contrast recent democratic disasters with recent democratic success stories: Egypt is 143rd out of 179 nations surveyed on the Heritage Foundation’s property-rights index, Russia 155th, Venezuela 177th. War-torn Afghanistan and Iraq are such a mess that they’re unmeasured. All five languish in the bottom fifth on property rights; none are considered “free” on Freedom House’s political-freedom rankings.
At the other end of the spectrum, Estonia ranks eighth in the world on property rights, the Czech Republic 27th, South Korea 33rd, Taiwan 34th, Spain 38th, Poland 41st. All of these countries are in the top quartile on property rights, and all are in the “free” category on the Freedom House rankings.
CONDITIONS Finally, we come to our third building block of liberal democracy. The Fraser Institute defines economic freedom as “personal choice, voluntary exchange, freedom to compete and security of privately owned property.” After 20 years of empirical studies, Fraser researchers call economic freedom “a necessary condition for democratic development.”
All of our democratic disasters are cellar-dwellers on Fraser’s economic-freedom index. Russia is 102nd out of 159 (and falling), Egypt 129th (and falling), Venezuela 159th. Afghanistan and Iraq are unmeasured. Yet all of our democratic successes rank in the upper third: Estonia is 19th, Taiwan 23rd, the Czech Republic 31st, Poland 40th, South Korea 42nd, Spain 49th.
“Going back to 1970, Spain and South Korea were already strong on economic freedom before their political transitions, enabling them to become successful liberal democracies,” notes Fraser Institute’s Fred McMahon. “Likewise, the most successful post-Soviet states – including Poland and the Czech Republic – transitioned to democracy and economic freedom more or less simultaneously, while unsuccessful ones, like Russia, focused more on political questions rather than economic reforms, meaning they got neither democracy nor economic freedom.”
Importantly, especially in the context of nation-building and international stability, countries that embrace economic freedom – even those in unstable regions – are more stable than their less-free neighbors. Consider Jordan (39th on economic freedom). Although it’s bordered by the Syria-Iraq war zone, Jordan is weathering the storm far better than its less economically free neighbors.
OBSTACLES To be sure, these comparisons are not exhaustive or scientific, but they are revealing and representative of what separates a liberal democracy from a country that simply holds an election.
Still, an obvious chicken-or-the-egg question follows from these comparisons: Couldn’t democracy produce a rule-of-law system, property rights and economic freedom? For that matter, couldn’t our democratic success stories simply be the product of good fortune, advantageous geographic placement and an abundance of the resources needed to fuel economic expansion – and our democratic failures the product of bad luck, disadvantageous geography and a lack of those resources?
It’s a fair question. But the evidence strongly suggests that the rule of law, property rights and economic freedom are essential prerequisites to political freedom and durable democracy – not the other way around.
Consider the 13 colonies that forged the United States. Our founding charters promoted the rule of law, property rights and economic freedom. From that emerged liberal democracy. In other words, the institutions came first; full-fledged representative democracy came later.
Consider postwar Japan, which began adopting some liberal economic and political institutions in the late 1800s. This helps explain why Japan was able to transition to liberal democracy soon after the United States vanquished Japanese militarism in World War II. But what explains the rise of Japanese militarism? Imperial Japan never fully embraced the rule of law.
“Until 1945, it had no system of fixed law,” historian Paul Johnson explains. “The law was not sovereign.” Unchecked by the rule of law, the military amassed power, and Japan lurched into militarism.
Moreover, the evidence suggests that nations that embrace the rule of law, property rights and economic freedom – no matter the obstacles confronting them – are freer and more stable than nations that don’t. Israel proves that size isn’t an obstacle to liberal democracy, Taiwan that geopolitical isolation isn’t an obstacle, Japan that lack of natural resources isn’t an obstacle; Estonia, Poland and South Korea demonstrate that harsh history and nasty neighbors aren’t an obstacle.
Indeed, the Korean peninsula is especially instructive. Both halves were devastated by war and dominated by dictatorship. But today, South Korea protects property rights, lives under the rule of law and practices economic freedom. North Korea lives under a tyranny that controls all property and smothers all forms of freedom. The difference is breathtaking. Sixty-five years after starting from the same place, South Korea is a representative democracy; North Korea is arguably the most backward, brutal and brutish tyranny on earth. South Korea’s GDP is $1.92 trillion (14th globally), North Korea’s an estimated $40 billion (placing it worse than 225th). South Korea’s per capita income is $37,900 (46th), North Korea’s $1,700 (213th).
None of this is to suggest that, as long as we mix the rule of law and property rights with a dash of economic freedom, transition from dictatorship to democracy will be easy. The democratic success stories highlighted here – and our own history – remind us that building liberal democracy takes time, patience and many difficult steps.
What this does suggest is that the next time the West tries to rehabilitate a broken nation – and there will be a next time – it should devote as much attention to laying the foundations of free government as to holding free elections.
Alan W. Dowd is a senior fellow with the Fraser Institute.