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The Puzzle of Liberal Democracy

Author(s): Dani Rodrik and Sharun Mukand

Though more than 60% of the world’s countries are electoral democracies, the majority of these regimes fail to provide equal protection under the law. Whatever the reason for the emergence of democracies that uphold property, political, and civil rights at the same time, we should not be surprised by how uncommon they are.

From Project Syndicate:

Nearly two decades ago, the political commentator Fareed Zakaria wrote a prophetic article called “The Rise of the Illiberal Democracy,” in which he worried about the rise of popular autocrats with little regard for the rule of law and civil liberties. Governments may be elected in free and fair elections, he wrote, and yet routinely violate their citizens’ basic rights.

 Since Zakaria’s piece, illiberal democracies have become more the norm than the exception. By Freedom House’s count, more than 60% of the world’s countries are electoral democracies – regimes in which political parties compete and come to power in regularly scheduled elections – up from around 40% in the late 1980s. But the majority of these democracies fail to provide equal protection under the law.


Typically, it is minority groups (ethnic, religious, linguistic, or regional) that bear the brunt of illiberal policies and practices. But government opponents of all stripes run the risk of censorship, persecution, or wrongful imprisonment.

Liberal democracy rests on three distinct sets of rights: property rights, political rights, and civil rights. The first set of rights protects owners and investors from expropriation. The second ensures that groups that win electoral contests can assume power and choose policies to their liking – provided these policies do not violate the other two sets of rights. Finally, civil rights guarantee equal treatment before the law and equal access to public services such as education.

Property rights and political rights both have powerful beneficiaries. Property rights are of interest primarily to the elite – owners and investors. They may be comparatively few in number, but they can mobilize material resources if they do not get their way. They can take their money elsewhere, or choose not to invest – imposing substantial costs on the rest of society.

Political rights are of interest primarily to the organized masses – the working class or ethnic majority, depending on the structure and cleavages in society. Members of the majority may be comparatively poor, but they have numbers on their side. They can threaten the elite with uprisings and expropriation.

The main beneficiaries of civil rights, by contrast, are typically minorities that possess neither wealth nor numbers. Turkey’s Kurds, Hungary’s Roma, Russia’s liberals, or Mexico’s indigenous population ordinarily command little power within their countries. Their demands for equal rights therefore do not have the potency that demands for property and political rights have.

Theories that purport to explain the historical origins of democracy have overlooked this asymmetry among claimants for different types of rights. These theories revolve largely around a bargain between the propertied elite and the working classes: faced with the threat of revolt, the elites expand the franchise and allow the masses to vote. In return, the masses – or their representatives – agree not to expropriate the elite.

Of course, the elite prefer an autocracy in which they rule alone and protect their own rights but no one else’s. Throughout most of human history, they had their way.


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