Reconsidering the Defense of Democracy

The Center for Independent Studies came out with an issue paper titled “Putting Democracy in China on Hold” which rejects the argument that economic liberalization inevitably leads to democratization and greater freedom. And it does so by going over the traditional claims made by the modernization thesis and see whether they hold in contemporary China. The article argues that social phenomena, such as the growth of an economically independent middle-class, free-market reform, and political liberalization, that usually indicate democratization, is not going to work in the case of China because the CCP has thus far sucessfully managed to co-opt and control these phenomena in a way that further legitimizes and entrenches its authoritarian governance.

While the argument itself certainly isn’t original, I recommend this article nonetheless because it does a fairly good job of surveying the existing literature on Chinese modernization, and gives the reader a pretty decent idea of the state of the debate. However, I am not primarily interested in debating the factual merits of the article. Rather, I’m interested in what the case of modern China means for advocates of democracy.

If the author is right, then democracy must be given a non-consequentialist defense. If China can successfully resist democratization while providing its citizens financial prosperity and is viewed as legitimate by its citizens, then a purely consequentialist argument for democracy loses its power. Traditionally, the argument for democracy, at least as far as China is concerned, is that democratization will provide a better standard of living. I take this to be a consequentialist argument for democratization, because it is framed in terms of better consequences. But if the author is correct, then this consequentialist argument no longer holds.

This is not to say that democratization can no longer be defended on consequentialist grounds, because one can still argue that more democratization leads to even greater economic development and higher standards of living. One might also argue that contemporary China, despite its recent wave of economic liberalization, still remains a state-dominated economy (as the author of the CIS article argues): therefore, even more economic liberalization is needed, and this greater economic liberalization will then lead to eventual democratization.

I don’t reject this argument out of hand, because China is a very dynamic country where many things are constantly in flux, so who knows how things will turn out. But I am wary of this argument because it rests upon the historical precedent that developed in the West. So far, I see no compelling reason why the Western historical precedent is analogous to Chinese development. I think it is an inductive fallacy to believe that the Western precedent will play itself out in China. Also, this kind of argument essentially argues for the status quo to continue until some unspecified time in the future, but in the mean time, all kind of things are tolerated and justified based on some kind of eschatological belief that things will be better in an undetermined future.

But what if that future never comes? What if the consequences for non-democratization turns out to be better than democratization? After all, there is no causal link between good consequences and democracy. In my mind, to defend democracy on purely consequentialist grounds turns democracy into a matter of management and governance, depriving the concept of its substantive normative components. If our arguments for democratization to other countries is that democratization consists wholly of consequentialist arguments, then any change in the actual consequences will make our arguments collapse. To some extent, this has already happened, because some regimes have looked to China as a model as a successful authoritarian regime.

If we are serious about defending democracy, then it is time we find some other grounds to defend democracy, one that does not rely on consequentialist arguments. But this also begs another question: what if there is no other grounds on which to defend democracy? After all, maybe we really do value democracy only because of its good consequences. I am not ready to explore this possibility in any great detail, and I’m not going to make any normative judgments about democracy one way or another.

At this point, all I’m pointing out is that a purely consequentialist defense of democracy will become increasingly thin and unpersuasive, as countries like China and others figure out ways to gain legitimacy among its citizens, predicated upon successful economic performance. In other words, the logic of a consequentialist argument for democracy ultimate makes democracy a derived concept, not a fundamental one.

Therefore, there is a need for a non-consequentialist defense of democracy. But maybe I’m just jumping the gun, because China still has a long way to go as far as economic development goes. Nonetheless, this is as good an opportunity as any to reflect on the fundamental values of American politics.


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