Tuesday, March 29

Pundita replies to critics, Part I

Pundita's Democracy Stage Show Kit created a flurry of comments; three bloggers (see links below) published their critiques. The observations are mostly negative, which is not surprising because the essay presented two unfamiliar concepts then joined them to present an unsettling idea:

The connection between physically exhausting work and a willingness to accept autocratic government

This idea gave the critics the most trouble. That's understandable to some extent because (to my knowledge) no distinct study has been done on the subject—and if a few studies have been done they are buried in the vast body of literature on sustainable development that’s collected during the past 40 years on the specific problems of the world's very poorest. However, the subject is alluded to in countless papers on development, of the kind churned out by the World Bank.

Yet development banks generally look at the subject of physical exhaustion within the framework of development issues rather than political ones. They have not looked at the implications with regard to the impact of physical exhaustion on citizen involvement with their government and their tendency to favor leaders who promise to take decisionmaking off their hands. (I’d like to stand corrected on this point; if the reader knows of any such study, kindly pass along the information to Pundita.)

In any case, two of my critics (Schulman and Lutas) are clearly unaware that the problem of exhaustion has been (exhaustively) studied in relation to a range of situations in LDCs. But applying common sense overcomes the lack of scholarship in this instance. Here are the paragraphs from Democracy Stage Show Kit that caused the critics the greatest concern:
But freedom is not free. It's a tremendous responsibility, which imposes considerable discipline on the individual and takes up much time. That's just why dictators keep being returned to power. After the glow of a stage-managed democracy revolution wears off, the populace realizes how much work and responsibility it entails to make democracy work. Thus, many become willing to make a tradeoff between freedom and free time. They go looking for a hardworking fool to take on the burden of governing responsibility--preferably, a benevolent fool.

This impulse doesn't stem so much from laziness as from the need to conserve energy. Those who labor 12 hours a day in fields, coal mines and factories don't have much energy left over for the task of self-governance. But of course there is no such thing as a benevolent dictator when push comes to shove.
Schulman responds:
Unless I'm totally misinterpreting her, Pundita's argument is that freedom is a luxury item that is affordable only by the (relatively) affluent, who have the time and energy to govern themselves in addition to working, eating, and sleeping. But does this assertion correspond to historical reality?

I think not. Leaving aside ancient Athens, democracy was introduced into the world by the United States of America. And what was our country like at the end of the eighteenth century? It was predominantly a nation of family farmers and individual tradesman, who worked from dawn to dusk. They were tired, but they toiled in a democracy.

And what of present-day India? I'm not aware of anyone who refers to that country as anything other than a democracy, nor do I know of anyone who would describe the typical Indian as affluent.
Schulman's observations are echoed in Lutas's critique:
The idea that people have no time for political freedom is, frankly, just not credible. If the franchise could be exercised two centuries ago in the wilds of Kentucky and Ohio where agriculture was the main pursuit, time saving devices were nonexistent, and the wilderness or hostile indians could destroy all you had built in the blink of an eye, it is certainly practical for people in today's Ukraine, Romania, Georgia, or Iraq where the physical and economic challenges are generally less.
Yes, well, the people of Ukraine, Romania, Georgia and Iraq do not descend in the millions on a refugee camp, as happened in Tanzania with Rwandan refugees, and within nine months denude the region of forest and shrubs.

Two billion of the world's people still depend on wood for their cooking fuel. This has created the Human Locust phenomenon in many regions. The populations strip their region of firewood. Because the 'locust' populations are not chiefly nomadic, this means they have to keep walking further and further from their village every so many months to retrieve enough cooking fuel to sustain baseline survival. And then make the walk back--an exercise that can take up most of their waking hours.

The same situation is in effect with water supply, game and fish. With regard to the latter, many populations dependent on fishing have depleted fish in coastal waters, which means sailing further and further out each day, just to catch enough fish to feed their family and have enough left over to sell, in order to afford other baseline essentials.

Perhaps my essay should have used such examples instead of coal mining and farming; however, the history shows who made most of the political decisions during America's big coal mining days. And the grueling work of farming before modern equipment still had cycles--seasons when a break from planting and harvesting gave settler families time to attend community meetings about government, time to discuss and debate the issues connected with their fledgling democracy.

There is no seasonal cycle, no rest period, for people who must walk several miles every day just to collect and lug back enough fuel and water to keep themselves alive until the next long walk. The cycle of survival has been reduced to 24 hours--not for thousand or hundreds of thousands, but for hundreds of millions of humans. And the number threatens to leapfrog to billions.

Believe you me, such people are too exhausted to walk more miles to attend regional meetings on governance issues or even vote, if they live several miles from a voting booth. As to how they participate in government--the same way Indian villagers and villagers all over the world participate in government in the poorest regions.

The party representative drives up to the village with bags of rice and wheat in tow, gives them to the village chief for distribution and says, "Your village is voting for The Hand" or whatever pictograph the party uses for a symbol. (They use pictures because many villagers are illiterate.)

Before you snicker at this democracy stage show--how do you think things worked in this country during the late 19th Century and during early decades of the last century in the coal and steel mining towns, the poorest farming regions and ghettos? True, they didn't deliver bags of rice to the union bosses and ward heelers--they delivered promises of pork in Congress and threats to break heads if the union members and ward residents didn’t adopt the party ticket.

The difference is that America in those days was not suffering from overpopulation, AIDS, and a host of other situations faced by the world's poorest today. And it was not until the post-Depression era that the American federal government and state governments became so huge and complex that even the well-educated affluent with some time on their hands don't find it easy to follow what their government is up to.

Americans came to that realization the hard way, during the weeks that followed the 9/11 attack. The realization swelled the ranks of bloggers, brought thousands of citizen watchdog groups into existence, and made news junkies out of Americans who before had limited their newsgathering to the Sunday paper and the Seven O'clock news.

Yet Lutas seems to assume that democratic government, once wound up and set in motion, is self-perpetuating:
Pundita complains that "The 21st Century will pound home the point that you can't have it both ways: you can't have the luxury of letting someone else take on responsibility for your governing and expect to have good government." The problem with this complaint is that it seems to be endorsing democracy over democratic republicanism. That's just stupid if its intentional and badly written if Pundita did it by accident. By definition democratic republicanism is the idea of voting to give somebody else the government for a time and not much worrying about it until next election day.
Pundita was not complaining, only stating a harsh reality. Representative democracy does not mean abrogating the citizen responsibility to carefully oversee those you elect to office. You vote 'em in and forget 'em until the next election at your gravest peril--and at the gravest peril to your democracy.

Renewed citizen oversight and pressure brought forth the 9/11 Commission and a host of long-overdue changes in Washington. Provided people have say in their government, provided they can closely monitor their government, intelligent and efficient government follows. But in virtually all the poorest countries, there is the Forbidden City phenomenon. The centralized government is far away from the regional outposts and even within the capital city, which can see large populations, there is a walled city aspect to the government. Technology can help break down the wall, and put people in the most outlying regions in touch with their government.

And technology can save the time and energy needed to participate in government. Everywhere in the world's poorest regions that interactive communications have come (as versus state-run television, newspapers) government services have improved.

Of course the governments are not happy with the people having such an impact on the Forbidden City, and for the same reason many in the US Congress have come to fear the blogosphere. The greater and richer network of connections between Americans brought about by improved communications threatens to unseat the elite. Ever thus, for all peoples everywhere. But now we really have no choice but to bring as many people as possible to bear on problems of governance, for the problems our vast numbers have wrought are staggering. One hour spent in Mexico City is enough to teach that.

TM Lutas

Marc Schulman

Mark Safranski


No comments: