The Left

The Democracy Alternative

Bryan Caplan
Bryan Caplan
Bryan Douglas Caplan, born April 8, 1971, is an American economist. Caplan is a professor of economics at George Mason University, research fellow at the Mercatus Center, adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute, and blogger for EconLog. | Photo: Archives | Bryan Caplan, Economist. Professor Of Economics, George Mason University, Blogger,

There's really no substitute

Winston Churchill once said that democracy is the worst system of government, except for all the alternatives. This is apparently news to economist Bryan Caplan.

In a recent blog post Caplan asked why liberals had criticized the Shah of Iran back when he was in power. The Shah was restrictive on economic liberties, but liberal on civil rights, so how could liberals possibly have objected? Caplan concludes either the Shah's critics had no idea what he really stood for, or they cared more about democracy than policy.

First off, as the Shah's government and secret police routinely tortured and murdered people, Caplan's description of the Shah as a civil-liberties guy doesn't hold up. That said, even if Iran been better on civil rights, I personally (I can't speak for liberals en masse) prefer a democracy with bad policies over a dictatorship with good ones.

Democracy isn't perfect. It's often not even very good. Democracies have elected dreadful, incompetent leaders and democratic leaders have rammed through all manner of horrible, stupid policies. A monarch or dictator can get the job done (whatever the job happens to be) faster and more efficiently than anyone stuck with constitutional restraints or the fear of being voted out of office.

Some non-democratic leaders may be superior to some democratic leaders: Queen Elizabeth I did a better job than George W. Bush. Even so, I'd still prefer to live under democracy, and not just because I'd hate wearing those Elizabethan clothes with all the ruffs.

No system of government is ever going to produce consistently great leaders. That's tolerable in a democracy, because we can vote the lemons out of office (or at least try) and protest and speak out against their policies. In an autocracy, the options often boil down to assassination and coup, or violent revolution, neither of which guarantee any sort of improvement. The list of revolutionary leaders who became the new tyrant is long and depressing. The U.S. is one of the very few where a post-revolutionary leader peacefully gave up power to an elected successor.

And despite the occasional exception, authoritarian leaders are usually worse than the alternative. Caplan's not enthused about democracy because it doesn't deliver the economic policies he wants, but he can't suppress the vote or force people to change their views. Dictatorships can. Leaders of any stripe tend to see people who disagree with their government as a subversive threat, but democratic leaders have restraints on what they can do to subversives. Monarchs, military dictators and theocrats have few or none.

A lot of people in politics wouldn't agree with me. The United States' default assumption since WW II has been that a dictatorship that does what we want is superior to a democracy that doesn't follow our orders. We imposed the Shah on Iran because his democratically elected predecessor was too left-wing for us. We supported Saddam for years as a valuable ally, and still support Saudi Arabia's repressive regime.

With dissent suppressed and no outlet for democratic change, it's not surprising our lapdog regimes often end up collapsing in violent uprisings. At which point the reaction from too many pundits and politicians is to shake their heads sadly and wonder why other people can't work out things democratically like Americans do. Writer Robert Kaplan, for example, just published an article arguing that the current instability in the Middle East proves they're not ready for democracy. Clearly a big strong government like ours needs to impose order and take away all those freedoms such inferior nations don't deserve.

After all, what could be a better use of American power than replacing one set of brutal thugs with our our own handpicked set of brutal thugs?

By this logic, the United States clearly didn't deserve its own freedom. We spent the century after independence enslaving a large part of our population (the majority in some states) and engaging in ethnic cleansing against Native Americans. Almost a century after independence we turned on ourselves and fought a Civil War that became the bloodiest in our history.

By the standards Kaplan and other warhawks apply to the rest of the world, I guess the wrong side won.

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Updated May 6, 2017 5:51 AM EDT | More details

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