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We Should Bring back Democracy

| by R. M.B Senanayake

( November 4, 2014,Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) It is a good augury for our future that the Ven. Athuraliye Rathana Thera has spoken out against the suppression of freedoms. He is spearheading a reform movement to restore true democracy instead of a fudged version thereof proclaimed by the ruling regime which violating the Constitution passed the 18th Amendment arrogating all power to the Executive President and freeing him from all checks and balances so that he is completely above the law and accountable to nobody except nominally to the people at an election which is neither free or fair. The President likes to say that we still have democracy because he equates democracy with the holding of elections.

Omnipotent President

The President is all powerful like our feudal Sinhalese kings. He makes all the important appointments to the public service, the judicial service and the Elections Department. Political affiliation and loyalty and not competence or merit is the criterion for making appointments to those high posts and the appointees are beholden to the President.

A similar situation existed in the Western countries prior to the revolutions- the revolution of 1688 in England, the revolution of 1789 in France and the revolution of the American colonies in 1776. They may now be distant but the people in these countries have not forgotten them and uphold their principles. They do not allow their present day democratic rulers to violate their Constitutions. How often so our so-called democratic politicians violate the principles enshrined in our Constitution?

Democracy and Economic Growth

But, some people are enamored by the high economic growth in authoritarian countries like South Korea under Park Chung Hee, China under Deng Tsiao Peng, and Singapore under Lee Kuan Yew. So some intellectuals are impressed by authoritarian rule and justify it on the ground of the faster economic growth they have provided. But not all authoritarian dictatorships have succeeded in achieving rapid economic growth. The several dictatorial regimes in Latin America- in Chile, Brazil and in the Philippines under Marcos and in the erstwhile Communist countries faster economic growth did not take place at all or failed to be sustainable and led to the restoration of democracy. China has grown fast but so has corruption and President Li is struggling to contain.

It is, of course, true that democracy with its public demonstrations and agitations for necessary economic reforms , its squabbling political parties, with its dominance of interest groups, its poorly educated politicians elected by a naïve rural peasantry and crafty leaders who manipulate the voters with their populism, are all barriers to the taking of right decisions to promote economic growth. But people do learn over time however slowly it may be.

Economic growth and democracy require discipline on the part of both the people and the leaders. Such discipline is often underpinned by the religious and moral values. But crafty politicians fool the people with their false and hypocritical religiosity. They equate religion with the practice of rituals and give the impression to the people by their false example that it would be sufficient to follow such rituals rather than practice the moral code preached by the religions. People cannot see through these politicians’ hypocrisy and accept them as the saviours of their religion against the background of other missionary religions which seek to spread their own values and principles. Therefore, it is easy for the crafty political leaders to whip up hatred against other communities and the task of nation building is relegated to the background and instead the idea of championing the religion of the majority as the religion of the State is propagated. The truth and justice in the popular mind become equated to what is proclaimed as the truth and justice by the political leaders. They set up those elements in the society who preach violence and hatred against the minorities. 

Economic growth needs discipline

If economic growth is about governments getting things done then would it not be better for growth if the governments were strong and authoritarian instead of being weak and elected? Then the administration of the public services would improve; the trains will run on time, the hospitals will perform better and provide a better service to the people and schools will be better managed. True, indeed, but such discipline in authoritarian countries cannot be achieved without the spilling of blood, the suppression of public movements, the repression of civil society groups, and the suppression of the truth through censorship of the media. In short, it involves brainwashing the people through thought control, so vividly described by George Orwell in his novel "1984". Even if economic growth suffers under a democracy, yet the trade-off of growth for freedom is worthwhile. Isn’t it better to have slower growth with freedom rather than faster growth with the repression of freedom?

But, there is no evidence that in the long run economic growth in the democratic countries is slower than in authoritarian dictatorships. The great economist and historian Deirdre McCloskey explains that modern prosperity was not caused by the exploitation of the poor by the rich in their own countries or in their colonial possession; nor even really by an increase in investment but, rather, by the unleashing of innovations – itself the result of a change in social attitudes. How did this change in social attitudes come about? It was through the new found personal freedom in the western economies after the Reformation.

People were free to think for themselves and a new class—the merchant class arose to take advantage of the results of the voyages of discovery. To say that modern prosperity was not caused by an increase in investment (or to pick another example often given by economic libertarians, an expansion of trade) is not to deny that investment and trade are necessary for economic growth. Of course they are. McCloskey’s point is that the timing, the geography, and the magnitude of modern prosperity cannot be explained as being caused by a change in the likes of investment or trade. Neither investment nor trade –indispensable, as admirable, and as marvelous in their own right as they may be – were the sparks for our modern prosperity. It is the new attitude of freedom sparked by the great revolutions against absolute government that ensured the freedom of the people from arbitrary rule and introduced the Rule of Law and protected the freedoms of the people.

The merchant class was free to pursue the money making activities. It is such freedom that allowed the Scientific Revolution to flourish and made possible the Industrial Revolution which led to modern prosperity. Where did all these innovations and inventions come from? Could they have occurred without the freedom of the individual? In the long run economic growth depends upon innovation and invention and not the mere replication of investment in the same economic activities.

Even in China, Deng Tsiao Peng’s growth policy favoured accepting and permitting private property and economic freedom for the foreign entrepreneurs at first in Special Economic Zones and then extending such freedom to all Chinese by adopting free enterprise and the free market economy. Yes, there is no democracy or political freedom but there certainly is economic freedom and protection of private property. There are today two economic models- the freewheeling capitalism of the USA and the economic freedom of the Chinese model. But, what is common to both models is the acceptance of the free market economy.

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