Why democracy?

¿¿Why Democracy??

Frank R. Eggers

Do you want safe water?

Do you want good health?

Do you want enough proper food?

Do you want a comfortable place to live?

Do you want a good future for your children?

Modern democratic governments were developed to provide these needs. This paper will show that autocratic governments fail to provide them to most ordinary people.

Turn to the Bible for a description of how early forms of governments failed the people. In first Samuel, the Israelites were warned about what would happen if they had a king:

"1st Samuel 8:4 - Then all the elders of Israel…came to Samuel unto Ramah, and said unto him…make us a king to judge us like all the nations.

"But the thing displeased Samuel, when they said, Give us a king to judge us. And Samuel prayed unto the LORD. And the LORD said unto Samuel, Hearken unto the voice of the people in all that they say unto thee: for they have not rejected thee, but they have rejected me, that I should not reign over them. Now therefore hearken unto their voice: howbeit yet protest solemnly unto them, and shew them the manner of the king that shall reign over them. And Samuel told all the words of the LORD unto the people that asked of him a king.

"And he said, This will be the manner of the king that shall reign over you: He will take your sons, and appoint them for himself, for his chariots, and to be his horsemen; and some shall run before his chariots…."

The description of what the king will do goes on for some length. God makes it clear that the people will be very heavily taxed for the benefit of the king.

Next, consider King Solomon. Those familiar with the Bible will recall how rich Solomon became. He had hundreds of wives, several chariot cities, a lavish palace, etc.

Obviously the only way he was able to afford all these luxuries was by heavily taxing the people. The people, of course, could do little since Solomon had absolute power.

Solomon's son, Rehoboam, succeeded him. We read in first Kings 12:4-14 that the people asked Rehoboam to make their yoke lighter, i.e., reduce their taxes, because Solomon had heavily taxed them. When Rehoboam instead promised to make their yoke heavier, the people rebelled and the kingdom of Israel was split into two.

From God's statement to the Israelites and from the behaviour of kings Solomon and Rehoboam, we can see that it is an ancient tradition for autocratic rulers to finance their luxuries by heavily taxing their subjects. The people were considered to be servants of the kings. The kings ruled for their own benefit, not for the benefit of the people. Most of the people remained poor. Note also that God, through the prophet Samuel, had warned His people to expect just that and that His people chose to ignore His warning.
Let us do a fast forward to the Byzantium Empire. Constantine became the emperor of Rome in the fourth century and recognised that the city of Rome was too difficult to defend. For that reason, he moved the capital to the city of Byzantium, which was already about 1,000 years old, and renamed it Constantinople. When the city of Rome fell, the successor to the Roman Empire, the Byzantium Empire, continued on until it fell in 1453. The official religion of the Byzantium Empire, from its very beginning, was Christianity. It considered itself to be a theocracy, i.e., ruled by God, and one of the titles of the emperors was "equal of the apostles." In other words, it was officially a Christian country.

The Byzantium Empire was always ruled by emperors who had absolute power. As in ancient Israel, the people were considered to be the servants of the ruler, i.e., the emperor. The emperors had luxuries which would be unimaginable to rulers of today. They had many servants. They had solid gold plates and goblets. They wore clothes made from fabric containing gold thread. And, of course, this was unearned wealth. Part of it was obtained from heavy taxation, and the rest was obtained by looting countries which had been defeated in warfare. The common people remained poor.

The emperors would stop at nothing to maintain their power. In the earlier years, they had their rivals put to death, but in the later years, they permitted their rivals to live but mutilated them. The mutilation consisted of such things as cutting off ears, noses, and tongues, and gouging out eyes. But, having unlimited power, there was no limit to what they could do to maintain that power. The fact that the emperors were supposed to be "equal of the apostles" and pious Christians did not seem to conflict with their actions.

Again, we move ahead, this time to France. Louis XVI was king of France at the time the French revolution began. His predecessor, Louis XV, had heavily taxed the people to build a very lavish palace, fountains, gardens, etc. Under the heavy tax burden, the common people suffered terribly. Because the king ruled by "divine right" and had virtually unlimited power, the common people could do nothing. But, Louis XV evidentially realised that he had gone too far with his taxation. He is quoted as saying, "After me, the deluge," in predicting that the over-burdened people would probably rebel during the reign of the next king. He was quite right.

The French revolution began during the reign of Louis XVI, during which he and his wife, Marie Antoinette, were beheaded with the guillotine. The heavily burdened people had been taxed beyond what they would bear. During the revolution, thousands of people were guillotined, including the aristocracy.

Until the early twentieth century, the vast majority of the world's people lived under autocratic governments. The Hapsburgs, a royal family, ruled much of Europe including, at various times, Austria, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Yugoslavia, and Spain. It is interesting to compare economic development of various countries in Western Europe at the time. England, which was relatively democratic, was the most prosperous country in the region.

It should not be supposed that the comparative wealth of England was entirely because of its success as a colonial power. In fact, many of the western European countries were colonial powers from the sixteenth to the early twentieth century. England became a colonial power later than Spain and Portugal. There are two reasons that England became the most prosperous of them. One was that, because of its location, it was less affected by the constant warfare which sapped the strength of other countries. The other reason was that it developed a relatively democratic government. The other western European countries were more heavily burdened by an aristocracy which lived at the expense of the common people.

Countries which are democratic rarely become involved in warfare with other democratic countries. However, while Europe was predominately autocratic, there was constant warfare. From ancient times until after World War Two, no one in Europe could expect to live his entire life without having his life disrupted by warfare. Widespread peace began only with democracy. Obviously constant warfare is incompatible with prosperity.

In comparing the wealth of modern nations, we find that those which are truly democratic have a much higher per capita income and more equitable distribution of wealth. With few exceptions, western European nations have been democratic since about 1950 and are quite prosperous. However, Spain was ruled by the dictator Francisco Franco from 1939 until 1975, after which it became a democratic country. Until then, it was an economic backwater. After it became democratic, its economy grew rapidly.

Note that until after about 1990, lack of a democratic government did not generally result in trade sanctions. An exception is that there were often trade sanctions imposed against Communist countries. Thus, the fact that countries with autocratic governments did not prosper was usually not the result of trade sanctions. History clearly shows that economic prosperity and autocratic governments are incompatible. For a country to be truly prosperous, a democratic government is required.

Having a government which is democratic in name only is not enough to ensure prosperity. For example, during most of the twentieth century, Mexico has been democratic in name only. There has been widespread election fraud. Despite natural resources comparable to the United States, Mexico is poor. Politicians have been so corrupt that if they were of modest means upon being elected, they were often very wealthy within a few years. Journalists who reported corruption were often murdered. That is why Mexico is still poor. Many other countries have essentially the same problem, i.e., most of their people are very poor because of widespread corruption in their governments.

Consider Fiji. Under a previous government, corruption caused the National Bank of Fiji to loose so much money to uncollectable loans that it had to be bailed out with $200 million of taxpayers' money. Those responsible for the losses still have not been brought to justice. Had that money been spent on roads, education, and health, there would be much greater economic growth and much less poverty. With a truly democratic government, such corruption is less likely to occur.

When a country is not truly democratic, tax money and foreign aid money are used to enrich the rulers instead of for development. That is why the people remain poor, even when there are no trade sanctions.

One might suppose that a truly enlightened non-democratic government, which is really dedicated to serving the people, would be conducive to prosperity. In actual practice, it does not work that way. To maintain their power, autocrats must constantly grant expensive favours to their supporters.

Autocrats who start out with good intentions change and begin to enhance their own wealth at the expense of their subjects. They can rationalise doing so by saying that they have a very difficult job and work long hours, so they are entitled to generous compensation. Moreover, because they are in a dangerous position and could be overthrown, they accumulate wealth overseas so that if they are overthrown, they can move quickly into comfortable exile overseas. Recent examples of this are Chile's Pinochet, the Philippines' Marcos, and Peru's Fujimore. Theoretically these rulers were not autocrats, but in fact they became autocrats. Because funds which they should have used for development were instead used for their own benefit, many ordinary people remained poor. History repeatedly shows that this is inevitable with autocratic governments.

Those who benefit from autocratic governments cannot count on continuing to benefit. Ruling autocrats are often overthrown and frequently change their minds about whom to favour. Thus, no one is truly secure with an autocratic government.

Let us consider what two of the world's great thinkers have said about power:
    "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men." (Lord Acton 1834 - 1902, English Historian).

    "They say power corrupts, and perhaps it does. What I know, in myself, is quite a different thing. That power corrupts the people it is exercised over." (Raymond Williams, 1921 - 1988, British academic).

With a truly democratic government, corruption can be controlled simply by voting corrupt officials out of office at the next election. But, with an autocratic government, that is impossible. So, what almost inevitably happens, is that corruption grows until it reduces the ability of most people to lift themselves out of poverty. In other words, an autocratic government, or any government which cannot be controlled by the people at elections, eventually becomes corrupt and results in widespread poverty.

I suppose one might ask why prosperity is important and what is wrong with a bit of poverty. In fact, the good things in life are available only when there is widespread prosperity. Without widespread prosperity, few people will have access to such basic needs as safe piped water, enough proper food, good medical care, electricity, comfortable houses, and security.

It has been truly said that in Fiji, democracy is a foreign flower. But then, safe piped water, enough proper food, good medical care, electricity, comfortable houses, and security are also foreign flowers. Without the foreign flower of democracy, it will be impossible for most people to have these other foreign flowers which they very much want.

The function of a democratic government is to serve the people. The people who are part of the government are public servants since they are employed by the people to serve the people. The function an autocratic government is to be served by the people, although it does not always start out that way.

So, why democracy? So that the greatest number of people can enjoy the good things in life that everyone wants and needs!


People's Coalition Government - Fiji Islands
Last update: August 27, 2001