Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The Arab Spring

Foreign Policy has a post regarding the importance of recession on democratic agitation here. In the post, Charles Kenny attempts to turn conventional wisdom on its head by pointing out that it was actually economic hardship that prompted the regime changes sweeping the Middle East. Not to be a turd in the punch-bowl but it seems a little early for these sorts of grandiose, theory-changing statements. What has transpired so far across most of the Middle East are revolutions. History has shown that revolutions are commonly sprung from hardship, economic or otherwise. These revolutions may be clothed in the rhetoric of democracy but that does not imply that a functional democracy requires economic recession. Kenny conflates revolution with democracy for the sake of sensationalist journalism.

There is a good reason why scholars have long accepted the importance of economic progress in democratic development: it is a logically sound theory that is supported by available evidence. As illustrated in Maslow's Pyramid, political self-expression is a luxury afforded by the achievement of more basic needs. A populace has little concern for democracy when their primary concerns are food and shelter. While higher levels of the pyramid can be achieved on a weak base, fundamental institutions must be in place to ensure the continued enjoyment of attributes such as democracy. Institutions like the rule of  law, the right to private property, etc. are vital for a healthy democratic system to thrive. The reality of any society is that the establishment of such institutions is better served by non-democratic governments. It is only when these basic structures have been cemented that democratic revolution can take place, resulting in a lasting democracy. And these institutions are facilitated by economic prosperity, not recession. Recession may be the spark for regime change but prosperity is the environment for long-term democratic stability.

Kenny rightly notes that the changes sweeping the Middle East are the products of economic recession. However, there is no assurance that these revolutions will lead to sustainable democracies. Furthermore, the link between economic recession and democratic change is not causal because Kenny conflates democracy with revolution. Revolutions sprung from hardship are nothing new but sustainable democracies will require economic prosperity to last.

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