In a recent column (The solution to Africa’s problems is not socialism but freedom) on Africa’s perennial economic problems, Walter Williams made an argument that rears its ugly head all to off ten in free market conservative thought — namely the claim that democracy isn’t necessarily a good thing. If Williams were advocating on behalf of philosophical anarchism that might be understandable, but instead he is defending what might be called mildly authoritarianism.
Williams’ impetus for making this claim is a state by Cote d’Ivoire minister of planning and economic development Tijdjame Thiame that, “Africa has paid too little attention to political modernization. Too many African governments pay only lip service to democracy, which is often limited to simply holding regular elections.”
Williams has a simple retort to that — democracy isn’t necessarily desirable for economic growth.
“Whatever are the benefits of American-style democracy,” Williams writes, “democracy is not a necessary condition of economic growth and, in fact, democracy might impede economic growth.” Williams goes on to cite some non-democratic countries that have experienced impressive economic growth — Chile, South Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore. Meanwhile, as Williams points out, India has experienced much economic chaos even though it is a democracy.
Reading his article, I kept waiting for Williams to qualify this argument, but alas he leaves it at that — democracy can interfere with economic growth. To be blunt, this is nonsense.
First, Thiame isn’t too far off the mark in his analysis of African democracy. Frequently in Africa there are countries which hold elections which are essentially meaningless. Zimbabwe is a good example of just such a country. While it is nominally a democracy and holds regular elections, the bottom line is that the country is run by a single party and uses all the accoutrements of dictatorships, including ignoring the supposedly independent judiciary when it tries to reign in excesses. Many African democracies are democratic in the same way that Mexico claimed to be a democracy even though a single political party effectively pulled all the strings.
Second, Williams’ analysis is too short term. His claims are reminiscent of Leftists who proclaimed Communism a success because the Soviet Union and other Communist nations achieved growth rates higher than in Western nations for brief periods of time in the 1940s. Unfortunately the problem is that the longer authoritarian policies remain in effect the more likely it will be that such powers will end up screwing things up. It is true that in India voters can go to the polls in favor of socialist policies, but it is conversely true that should Chile have decided to put in place socialist policies, its citizens would have had no recourse. Faith in authoritarianism is the faith that whoever has his finger on the trigger of political power at the moment will be a free trader.
Besides, there are things more important than economic growth. What good was economic success of Chile to those who were kidnapped and disappeared in the days and months after Pinochet’s coup d’etat? How were the pro-democracy protesters in South Korea to spend their money after being shot dead in the streets by the military government?
Fundamentally, Williams’ argument raises similar questions as those raised by the anti-immigrant views that frequently appear at a site such as LewRockwell.Com. Immigration is bad on this view because a) immigrants will consume welfare services, b) they will tend to vote disproportionately for Democratic candidates, and c) they will support the expansion of the welfare state. But is free market liberalism really such a weak, anemic idea that it has to be imposed by dictators or preserved by keeping out immigrants who might be hostile to it (and I don’t agree that is the case, but refuting it is beyond the scope of this essay)?
If so, Williams and others might want to re-evaluate if it’s really an idea worth defending at all.
The solution to Africa’s problems is not socialism but freedom. Walter Williams, Capitalism Magazine, November 30, 2000.