Ukrainians are latest in market for democracy

‘The country will need to move towards new rules of the social game: it must engender true citizens, honest guardians, proper markets and just laws’

Could Ukraine become a stable liberal democracy? The answer has to be yes. Will Ukraine become a stable liberal democracy? The answer to that is we do not know. We do know that other countries have reached the destination. But we also know that universal suffrage democracy is a delicate plant, particularly in its early years. What has happened to young democracies in, say, Egypt, Thailand, Russia and Ukraine underlines that truth. Democracy is delicate because it is a complex and, in crucial respects, unnatural game.

My starting point is that government accountable to the governed is the only form suitable for grown-ups. All other forms of government treat people as children. In the past, when most people were illiterate, such paternalism might have been justified. That can no longer be true. As the population becomes more informed, governments that treat their people in this way will be less acceptable. I expect (or hope) that, in the long run, this will be true even of China.

The evidence is consistent with this optimism. According to the Polity IV database, almost 100 countries are (more or less imperfect) democracies. This is double the number in 1990. In 1800, there were none. The number of true autocracies has also tumbled sharply, from roughly 90 in 1990 to about 20 now. Unfortunately, there has been a rise from roughly 20 to more than 50 in the number of anocracies – regimes whose governance is highly unstable, ineffective and corrupt. Such regimes may be crumbling autocracies or failing democracies. They are also vulnerable to outbreaks of armed conflict or forcible seizures of power.

Vital restraints
What then are the underpinnings of a stable and successful democracy? The brief answer is that a democracy requires a double set of restraints: among the people and between the people and the state. These restraints rest on four features, all of them necessary.


First of all, democracies need citizens. Citizens are not only people who engage in public life, though they are also that. Above all, citizens accept that their loyalty to the processes they share must override loyalty to their own political side. Citizens understand the idea of a “loyal opposition”. They accept the legitimacy of government run by and even for their opponents, confident that they may have their own turn in time. Citizens, it follows, do not use the political process to destroy the ability of their opponents to operate in peace. They accept the legitimacy of dissent, even vociferous protest. They rule out only the use of force. Of course, some opponents are unacceptable – above all those who reject the legitimacy of democratic process. A country short of citizens is permanently poised on the edge of break-up or civil war.

Second, democracies need guardians, a term used by the late Jane Jacobs in her superb book, Systems of Survival . Guardians hold positions of political, bureaucratic, legal or military power. What makes them guardians, as opposed to bandits, is that they use their positions not for personal material advantage, but in accordance with objective rules or in favour of a notion of the commonweal. Viktor Yanukovich, Ukraine's ousted president, is as good an example of an antithesis to this as one can imagine. Yet his motives for seeking power were also the traditional ones. Throughout history, power and wealth were conjoined. The idea that the two should be separate was and, in many places, still is revolutionary. Yanukovich believed instead in his right to loot and shoot. That is no basis for democratic legitimacy.

Public and private wealth
Third, democracies need markets. By markets we definitely do not mean the abuse of the power of state to turn public into private wealth, as happened throughout so much of the former Soviet Union. Business people who build their fortunes on such theft are no more legitimate than the politicians who helped them.

Properly functioning markets supported by a well-functioning state provide crucial underpinnings of stable democracy. First, they support prosperity. A society able to ensure a decent and reasonably secure standard of living is also likely to be a stable one. This then would be a society of trust in one’s fellow citizens and one’s economic future. Second, markets loosen the connection between prosperity and power. They make it possible for people to regard the outcomes of elections as important, but not as matters of life or death either for themselves or for their families. This lowers the temperature of politics from the burning to the bearable.

Finally, if all these complex, albeit essential, systems are to be effective, democracies need accepted laws, including not least constitutional ones (even if unwritten). The law, enacted and implemented in accordance with accepted procedures, shapes the rules of the political, social and economic game. A country that lacks the rule of law is permanently on the verge of chaos or tyranny – the fate of Russia over the centuries.

Democracy then is about more than voting. It is certainly not “one adult, one vote, once”. Nor, for that matter, is it “one adult, one rigged vote, many times”. It is a complex web of rights, obligations, powers and constraints. Democracy is either the political expression of free individuals acting together, or it is nothing. Those who have won an election do not have the right to do as they please. That is not a true democracy, but elected dictatorship.

Can outsiders help a people on the road towards democracy? Yes, they can. The helpful economic and political role of the EU in central and eastern Europe has shown that. Are backward steps imaginable? Yes, Hungary is showing just that. Can bad neighbours blight hopes? Yes, that is possible, too.

West must help
We have indeed seen many failures along the path to democracy. Egypt is a salient one: it may have lacked too many of the necessary conditions for success. Today, we can see that Ukraine has created its third chance since 1991. But the country will need a great deal of help. The West has provided such help to others. But the country will itself also need to move towards quite new rules of the social game: it must engender true citizens, honest guardians, proper markets and just laws.

Is such a revolutionary shift possible? I do not know. But of one thing I am quite certain. It is well worth the attempt. – (Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2014 )