“Wars, Guns, and Votes” by Paul Collier

by Joshua H. Liberatore

The subtitle of Oxford economist Paul Collier’s new book, Wars, Guns, and Votes, reveals its principal appeal of timeliness: “Democracy in Dangerous Places.” (In fact, if I’d been his editor at HarperCollins, I would have made that the title and scrapped the gimmicky triad, which in any case has already been used in Jared Diamond’s bestselling Guns, Germs, and Steel.) As we continue to confront the foreign policy disasters presented by the twin wars “on terror” in Afghanistan and Iraq, failed experiments in forced nation-building and democratization cannot be far from our minds, nor should they be, since, like it or not, we are responsible for the actions of our government, however misguided, and must own up to their consequences. But Collier focuses his analysis on the broader trends of democracy’s varied potential in the countries comprising what he calls “the bottom billion,” the one billion poorest, most oppressed people in the world. For his argument, sub-Saharan African countries – rather than neoconservative playgrounds in the Middle East – provide illustrative examples of the specific ways in which a rush to democracy in poor, unsafe, and recently decolonized places can often lead to results that are not only disappointing to liberal ideologues and conservative universalists in the West but also functionally pernicious, yielding conditions and precedents often far worse than those fostered under the unsavory but pragmatic dictatorships or oligarchies we reactively distrust. We in the United States don’t much like to admit some of those unpleasant realities, but the more we turn a blind eye to the inherent vulnerabilities of the democratic principles so cherished in our national discourse – elections, power-sharing, diversity, plurality – the more we will damage the potential for the world’s poorest and most insecure societies to raise themselves out of their despondent and perilous patterns of self-government.

    It would be tedious to rehearse all of Collier’s conclusions, which range from the self-evident to the truly provocative, but a brief sample will suffice as a prelude to a direct encounter with the book. First, democracy and its trappings often make insecure societies – Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana are illustrative here – fundamentally less secure and prosperous. Elections are messy affairs, and the necessity of garnering votes and popularity can encourage bad behavior among unscrupulous politicians. In fact, career dictators who crave the legitimacy of a democratic platform may resort to the worst kind of corruption (vote buying, patronage, and nepotism), extortion (voter intimidation), and outright fraud (ballot manipulation) in the process of making the transition. As an example of the full suite of such nefarious practices in action, witness Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe.

    Second, democracy without accountability is worse than functional dictatorship, partly because disaffected populations often choose to arm themselves in rebellion or support enterprising partisans who do so on their behalf, leading to greater violence and, potentially, civil war. Armed rebellion can occur under harsh authoritarian rule too, it will be argued, but there’s not question that a disappointing outcome on election day, after the intense rivalries necessary for proper democratic competition, may often devolve into the ugly factionalism normally suppressed by despots. The utter breakdown of order in Nigeria and Kenya leading up to and following elections are cases in point.

    Third, diversity in small places is often dangerous and destabilizing. Collier describes public goods such as security as “economies of scale,” and as such, small countries – not in population but in economic girth – have a hard time managing the necessary pluralities of democratic rule. When diverse ethnic groups compete for scarce resources, under straightened circumstances (famine, drought, price-wars), competitive politics may organize along (and capitalize on the emotions of) tribal loyalties. Genocide and civil war in Rwanda and Congo, respectively, are brutal examples of what can happen when small societies fail to achieve public goods like security.

    Finally, democracy is quite likely to make already poor countries more vulnerable and fragile. The institutions that make healthy, mature democracies function smoothly and equitably take time and, it turns out, extensive resources to achieve. Neither of these elements has been successfully substituted by international aid, to the dismay of rich donor nations. In fact, one of Collier’s most interesting findings is the specific link between stable democracy and economic development; statistics and modeling reveal that democracy is dangerous and unstable in countries with a GDP per capita of $2,600 or less. In other words, only after GDP per capita reaches $2,700 does democracy become a viable and stabilizing regime. China, of course, is a notable exception to this paradigm, and Collier does well to recognize it as such. As China continues to develop at impressive rates of growth and income is shared more broadly, more and more pressure may be exacted on the socialist oligarchy to yield democratic advances. If Collier is right, China’s failure to do so could be explosive.

    It must be said that although Wars, Guns, and Votes proves itself an accessible and readable work intended for a general audience, Collier’s methods are statistical and mathematical, based on extensive case studies, massive international data bases, and firsthand field research. He works with a dazzling array of talented, young political scientists and economists from around the world, and unlike many scholars of his stature, is happy to give them their share of the credit for every insight his book furnishes. His book is, on the whole, a very humble account of ideas in discovery, theories in development, self-consciously untainted by Ivory Tower arrogance or abstruse jargon. Peppering his discussions with tangential notes on the competitive, merciless atmosphere of academic scholarship, Collier seems almost at pains to remind us that what he’s offering us is as tentative and refutable as the electoral exercises of the bottom billion. Moreover, his writing style is a quirky mixture of tender familiarity and detached candor that may put off some readers; at times, stylistic idiosyncrasies such as his loose paragraphing, too liberal use of colons, and penchant for anecdotal asides puzzled me, but in the end I found them charming. On the whole, the book provides a wide-ranging and instructive examination of contemporary political economy in the world’s toughest places and gives us a much-needed antidote to discredited rhetoric about the “blessings of liberty” and our deleterious attempts to export them abroad.

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