Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The future of economic growth and democracy

My friend Jay Ulfelder has just offered up a provocative blogpost over at Dart Throwing Chimp, his must-read blog on democratization and political forecasting. His argument, in essence, is that while development theorists have struggled mightily to specify the causal relationship between development (more specifically, economic growth) and democracy, the historical co-evolution of national democratic institutions and sustained economic growth is, at a high level, inarguable. It's just very, very hard to pin down. Ulfelder suggests that Eric Beinhocker’s recent book, The Origin of Wealth, which uses complexity theory to explain the history of development, may offer a way forward for establishing the relationship between these two megavariables.

In ruminating on this topic, Ulfelder suggests that one way to conceptualize different modes of political organization is as different forms of "social technology," each of which is optimized for different sorts of social (that is, political) functions. What democracy-as-social-technology is uniquely optimized for, from this perspective, is allowing large, distributed groups of people to solve problems collectively and consensually in the context of barriers to communication over the geography and population in question. It's also very good at securing legitimacy from populations no longer overawed by the leadership cadre's supposedly divine appointment. He quotes Henry Farrell and Cosma Rohilla Shalizi to explain why:
Democracy can do this better than either markets and hierarchies, because it brings these diverse perceptions into direct contact with each other, allowing forms of learning that are unlikely either through the price mechanism of markets or the hierarchical arrangements of bureaucracy. Furthermore, democracy can, by experimenting, take advantage of novel forms of collective cognition that are facilitated by new media.
Beinhocker's book is on my to-read list, so I won't weigh in on the value of complexity theory to development theory — though it's certainly more promising than the handwave that modernization theorists used to make about how democracy and industrialization "went together because in some sense they had to go together" — but I would sound two notes of caution about any conclusions we may be able to reach about the relationship between economic growth and democracy.

The first note of caution is that, even if we can establish what the historical relationship has been between economic growth and the "technology" of democracy, this doesn't necessarily mean that the relationship will hold going forward. We shouldn't fall into the Whig/teleological trap of assuming that because these two variables have been correlated for this particular historical phase ("modernity," which in this sense can be said to start in the 19th century), that they are necessarily going to be correlated in later and more advanced phases. It might be true that the benefits to collective problem solving that democracy offers is what works best in a smokestack economy, but that in a few decades, when computing power can directly "read" minds (obviously I'm speaking both speculatively and metaphorically) it will be possible to aggregate preferences without the mediating step of the ballot. Post-democratic political legitimacy will be secured more by performance than by process. (There are people who argue that the Chinese are encouraging the use of microblogging site Weibo precisely because they believe that social media can allow them to monitor public opinion directly and in real time — and also because it can help them to identify and suppress malcontents.)

In fact, Ulfelder's conceptualization of democracy as a form of "technology" suggests that democracy is likely to be eventually superseded by a better technology, since almost all technologies eventually become obsolete. Pace Fukuyama, democracy is no more "the end of history" than steam trains were "the end of transportation." Just as coal-fired steam engines offered the best mode of locomotion until the internal combustion engine was developed, so may democracy have been the best mechanism for political preference aggregation in an pre-cybernetic era. In sum, the democratic-capitalist moment may only be an episode, not the final stage: past returns as no guarantee of future results, as the saying goes.

The second note of caution is a more general one, and it has to do with the ecological sustainability of endless growth. If indeed democracy has in part been a helpful mechanism for enabling sustained growth, it's also true that sustained growth has been a critical factor for sustaining democracy. In fact, modern democracies find the idea of sustained non-growth or even shrinkage literally inconceivable. Arguably, it is only a growing pie that allows democratic politics not to turn uncivil and even murderous. A growing pie allows for politics to be about dividing spoils -- which is something democracy is good for. But democracy may in fact be a very bad way to deal with a stagnant or shrinking resource pool, since tyrannical majorities are likely to arrogate shrinking shares to themselves. One reason why James Madison's dark fears about the tyranny of the majority were never realized may be that the US has managed to sustain economic growth almost continuously since its inception, thus curbing majoritarian redistributionist impulses. Correspondingly, if you believe (as I do) that finding a process that can stop the human species from completely strip-mining of the planet is the single most urgent task facing humanity, then this analysis of the relationship between democracy and the "growth imperative" is dispiriting, for it suggests that only an authoritarian solution can possible prevent the headlong, democratically elected decision to destroy the planet for short-run fun times.

A truly dark possibility emerges from the conjunction of these two cautionary notes. It may well be that democracy is a legacy technology that is growing increasingly ossified over time and is destined to be replaced by other social technologies that are more suitable for sustaining economic growth. In which case we may end up with a situation in which the strip-mining of the planet actually accelerates, even as the democratic values and institutions which we hold dear are slowly (or perhaps quickly) eclipsed.

1 comment:

Gregory Rader said...

Several nice points here, particularly the idea that democracy is a social technology correlated with (and perhaps adapted to) a specific set of economic, technological and environmental conditions. I would add that computing technology does more than enhance the aggregation of preferences. To some degree it diminishes the need to aggregate preferences in the first place, somewhat analogous to the way that markets allow a range of solutions to address similar challenges across diverse contexts. If accumulated mountains of data and massive computing power allow individual instances of challenges to be analyzed more granularly and addressed case by case, then response to those challenges becomes less a matter of principle and policy and more a matter of pragmatism. As you say, legitimacy will derive more from performance than process.

That is not to say that the need for collective action will disappear but the domain of collective action may thin out. In that kind of environment the collective challenges may have less to do with solving pragmatic problems and more to do with making sense of (conceptually organizing) all the chaos and rediscovering some basis for community/shared identity.