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March 31, 2005

Predator Democracies: why exporting democracy may not improve the lives of those it is meant to help

Posted by S. J. Masty

George W Bush has stated that the exportation of democracy will be the goal of US foreign policy. S J Masty questions whether such a policy will actually improve the lives of those it is meant to help. All too often democracies in the developing world degenerate into Predator Democracies, i.e. the democratic governments become leeches prying on the productive parts of their country's economy.

It is ironic that just as the West loses faith in its governmental systems, it struggles the hardest to impose them on others. So, much as modern pharmaceutical companies fight to keep selling drugs that apparently kill off a significant number of users, our masters tout democracy while ignoring the mysterious frequency with which democracies 'go bad' and become lethal predators.

Predatory Democracy is a condition that may well affect between a quarter and a half of all democracies, and it appears to be irreversible. For example, most countries in South Asia are Predator Democracies, the most advanced of which is Nepal. Like some motor-neuron diseases, it can advance with varying speed and it defies a cure. There appears to be an as-yet-unidentified point of no return after which a Predator Democracy begins to cannibalise its own economy, destroy the rule of law and slouch irreversibly into misery, chaos and bloodshed.

It is easy to track the aetiology: a Predator Democracy inevitably begins with elected leaders diverting government assets and services into strengthening and extending the apparatus of the ruling party. Initially, this is usually done by preferentially awarding government contracts to supporters and cronies.

In Phase Two, party supporters see the more powerful members reaping financial rewards and, sensibly enough, want a share for themselves. But they can hardly all be turned into government contractors. Ruling politicians, rich in power and poor in cash, soon realise that the only way to keep their ordinary supporters happy is to ensure that government goods and services are provided preferentially to the ruling party faithful. Such favouritism pushes opposition party supporters and the apolitical to the back of the queue. Or it excludes opponents and the apolitical from state services that were originally available to all, or that were 'rationed' by some other more egalitarian means. At the end of Phase 2, either there is a discrepancy in the volume and quality of government service afforded supporters of the ruling party versus everyone else, or in some extreme cases party supporters become the only citizens provided with government goods and services.

In Phase Three government falls because dissatisfied rent-seekers defect to the opposition party. The process is straightforward. When party membership comes with a tangible reward it attracts opportunists generating more corporate supporters than government can keep satisfied with contracts, and more individual supporters than it can satisfy with services. Demand increases while capacity remains static, so dissatisfaction grows. Anyone whose mounting expectations are not met by the ruling party becomes a candidate for defection, added to whatever number of apolitical citizens join the opposition out of moral outrage after being precluded from fair access to governmental services. The opposition makes promises, some of them rash, and government falls.

In Phase Four, the former opposition takes power facing much higher expectations from its supporters than either party would have faced before politicisation. The new government first removes its opponents from public service, replacing them with its own supporters, and wherever possible reallocates government contracts to its corporate allies. Bureaucrats are commanded to reverse previous trends in favouritism and new political beneficiaries are offered the goods and services previously denied them. But promises and expectations conflict with scarcity, and as in Phase Three, dissatisfaction grows qualitatively and quantitatively. Soon enough the unfair expectations that brought the former opposition to power deprives them of power.

In Phase Five, the process accelerates and each successive government tends to have a shorter lifespan than its predecessor. A new government's supporters accompany them into power with ever-mounting expectations, greedier and less patient than before. Once political activists have learned the techniques of treachery, they become bolder and more skilled and quicker at selling their support, switching parties, hoping to profit from another new government. South Asians refer to this as horse-trading.

In order to survive for even a short period, Phase Five governments must become more efficient in rewarding their supporters. So, in Pakistan for example, soon after an election, politicians routinely give their cronies contracts to cut down miles of 200-year-old trees lining roads, simply because if they do not, their opponents will soon thereafter. In Nepal, ministers routinely demanded that larger local businesses paid bribes amounting to hundreds of thousands of dollars, unconcerned if they bankrupted the businesses, for each minister knew that he had only one chance to enrich himself and his extended family from contracts and kickbacks and bribes. When his party returned to office, someone else would occupy his position because of the party's need to spread the opportunity for rent-seeking, bringing the greatest good to the greatest number of apparatchiks.

By Phase Five a democracy has become a full-fledged predator. No government asset is safe from looting while few businesses and individuals are strong enough to fend off rent-seekers. The state turns cannibalistic, feeding on the country's muscle and bone. Productive capacity weakens as the private sector is drained and its infrastructure is stripped and looted or at very least starved of nourishment. In these terminal stages, a change befalls the people themselves, rendered cynical and deprived of hope. Finding ways of moving savings abroad, shipping one's children overseas or emigrating tous ensemble becomes an obsession, a cross between a national IQ test and a lottery.

Remedies are short-lived. In Pakistan, Phase Five has been arrested several times by military dictatorships, but only temporarily predation always followed the reintroduction of democracy within weeks. Sri Lanka and Bangladesh are not far behind, heavily politicized and corrupt. India's northern, so-called Cow-Belt, states are mostly terminal cases: recently in Bihar, when government announced the wedding of the Chief Minister's daughter, shopkeepers in the capitol, Patna, raced to close their shops and hide as politicized government functionaries confiscated every visible car from showrooms, every plate and pot and chair from every caterer, and much more, telling the misfortunate to reclaim their property a few weeks later. Many never had their goods returned.

Poor, terminal Nepal is the worst South Asian case of all. King Gyanendra recently suspended democracy, locked up many politicians for unassailable corruption, and promises to focus his attention on the Maoist civil war largely ignored for the past decade by swiftly rotating governments obsessed with rent-seeking. Nepalese friends and visitors there report that the public is relieved to be rescued from a Predator Democracy. As one educated, travelled Nepalese explained to me five years back:

When we were an absolute monarchy we had only one set of leeches to support. Our political parties add two sets more than we can afford.
Regardless of whether this king bungles the job, democracy has failed in Nepal. Yet the pious, ideologically-propelled West - particularly America, Britain and the Scandinavian countries - do nothing more than scold Nepal on the supposed moral superiority of democracy and threaten to withhold foreign aid.

There may be an African strain of Predator Democracy, without rapidly churning governments, usually ruled by a strongman or a single party but equally rapacious. Mr Mugabe's Zimbabwe is the most notorious but there are many examples of varying virulence. However these usually turn out to be predatory dictatorships masquerading as Predator Democracies.

When confronted by people suffering and dying under Predator Democracies, most Western pro-democracy ideologues make little tut-tutting sounds, nod in what looks like sincerity and condescendingly tell us that it will take some time for all those supposedly backward brown and black people to advance to our present magnificent condition. They ignore a distinct possibility that our countries are earlier on the evolutionary chain, while Predator Democracies are more advanced than we.

If you apply game theory, and assume that the purpose of governance is the most efficient allocation of loot, then the South Asian model of a Predator Democracy is the most efficient. It uses the smallest and shortest-lived majority to capture and allocate the greatest quantity of spoils. It cannibalizes nations, but it is devastatingly efficient. And, looking at the political spoils systems advanced under Clinton, Bush and Blair, is anyone really certain that our political future doesn't resemble Bangladesh?

My South Asian friends have thousands of years of tradition behind them when most of them assume, with neither shame nor doubt, that it is the right of any maharajah, born or elected, to reward his supporters from the public purse. Conversely there is close to one thousand years of Anglo-Saxon traditions, reflected in common law and statute, attempting to keep governance free from favouritism.

These two very different roots grow much deeper than any form of government, and they are nourished by two very different cultural concepts of fairness, neither of which can be changed easily or swiftly. But that won't stop the West's shallow, undereducated ideologues, the punch-drunk Whigs and self-satisfied Wilsonians insisting that tyranny can be eradicated and that democracy and its prerequisite values can be installed with the ease and speed of a plug-and-play computer programme off a CD-ROM. Or at gun-point.
S J Masty 2005

S J Masty advises foreign governments on public policy communications.

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I greatly admire most of what is published on the SAU site - but this must be the most tendentious article I have read in a long time. Does S J Masty really believe that corruption is a consequence of democracy, or that democracy exacerbated corruption. Mobutu's Zaire was not notable democratic - nor was Suharto'd Indonesia. But both were prodigiously corrupt. S J Masty should realise that dictatorships also have to buy acquiescence to keep in power. Hence the whole African government model of dictators proffering advantages to their tribes people - so that they can build a base of support. Democracy may not prevent corruption - but at least you can throw the schmucks out.

Posted by: James at April 1, 2005 11:02 AM

My father used to say that in the old days, the candidates would buy votes with their own money: now they bribe the voters with the voters' money.

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at April 2, 2005 08:30 PM

Sad thing is most of the honest politicians resign as a result of the corruption they see.

Posted by: Anonymous at April 6, 2005 05:24 PM

These are the reasons many people thought democracy would never work. The Greeks knew about it and worked hard to figure out how to prevent it, but in the end were not succesful.

The founding fathers of the United States went through many hoops tyring to figure out a "better" form of democracy, and they came up with the current governmental structure of the US, which is a Republic of sorts. It has held up OK, but it still has only been 230 years or so.

The issue is very real.

Posted by: Daveg at April 6, 2005 08:18 PM
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