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Global democracy by design?

Dec 26,2021 - Last updated at Dec 26,2021

NEW YORK — US President Joe Biden’s recent Summit for Democracy was an important global event, but it slipped by almost unnoticed. With democratic norms fraying from southeast Asia to central Europe, Biden was right to warn of “the sustained and alarming challenges to democracy and universal human rights”. But too few acknowledge that rising authoritarianism around the world, like climate change and the evolution of lethal viruses, can pose an existential risk to humanity.

Most people do not appreciate the extent to which civilisations depend on pillars of norms and conventions. Some of these have evolved organically over time, while others required deliberation and collective action. If one of the pillars buckles, a civilisation could well collapse.

Efforts to counter the current threats to democracy should start with the fact that every economy is embedded in culture and institutions. As Daron Acemoglu, Simon Johnson and James Robinson have argued, long-run growth may depend more on institutions than on anything else. But institutions are not always exogenous. As the growing field of cultural evolution shows, human beings are adaptive learners who rely, often unwittingly, on social learning to entrench norms that are necessary for a society to flourish.

Likewise, Avinash Dixit and Simon Levin argue that, in some contexts, we may need to take deliberate steps to instill pro-social preferences that can help us adapt to our changing world. We can do this through education, and by deliberating and deciding as citizens to promote certain kinds of collective behaviour. That is what happened when delegates from American states convened in Philadelphia in 1787 to revise the existing Articles of Confederation and ended up drafting the US Constitution, which became the cornerstone of the new country’s long-term growth and prosperity.

We are in a similarly challenging situation today, as cross-border flows of goods, services, and capital flatten the world economically. The rapid advance of digital technology, accelerated over the last two years by the COVID-19 pandemic, is causing huge strains. Increased outsourcing of production has contributed to hyper-nationalism, which in turn is fueling the rise of anti-democratic leaders who exploit people’s desperation.

These changes have come so swiftly that deliberate collective action is needed to defend democracy. We do not have the luxury of waiting for our norms and institutions to evolve.

Fortunately, we are better equipped for this task today than ever before, because of a methodology that we lacked a century ago. Game theory, which began as an abstruse, mathematical discipline, is now a staple of the social sciences, from economics to politics, in domains such as moral contracts and the negotiation of conventions and constitutions.

To understand the power of such strategic analysis, consider why some authoritarian leaders, like former Tunisian President Zine Al Abidine Ben Ali, succumb to popular rebellion, while others, like Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko, remain in power. When a vast majority of a country’s population is ready to rebel, as seemed to be the case in Belarus in the summer of 2020, and the leader has limited capacity to suppress the uprising, how can he or she prevail?

To address this question, I developed an allegory I call the Incarceration Game. One million citizens of a particular country want to join a rebellion to overthrow the tyrannical leader, who can catch and jail at most 100 rebels. With such a low probability of being caught, each person is ready to take to the streets. The leader’s situation looks hopeless.

Suppose he, nonetheless, announces that he will incarcerate the 100 oldest people who join the uprising. At first sight, it appears that this will not stop the rebellion, because the vast number of young people will have no reason to abandon it. But, if people’s ages are common knowledge, the outcome will be different. After the leader’s announcement, the 100 oldest people will not join the revolt, because the pain of certain incarceration is too great even for a good cause. Knowing this, the next 100 oldest people also will not take part in the revolution, and nor will the 100 oldest people after them. By induction, no one will. The streets will be empty.

Authoritarian rulers’ intentional or unwitting use of such an approach may help to explain why earlier revolts crumbled when on the verge of success. To demonstrate this empirically in history or in recent cases, like that of Belarus or Myanmar, will require data that we do not have yet. The Incarceration Game is a purely logical conjecture. What it does, importantly, is to remind us that toppling a dictator requires a strategy to foil such a tactic. Good intentions alone are not sufficient; the upholding of democracy needs a strategy based on sound analysis.

So do we. Today, we can marshal this kind of strategic analysis to advance the honorable aims that motivated Biden’s Summit for Democracy. In some respects, the world is now at a similar stage to that of late-eighteenth-century America. We need a minimal global constitution that provides a set of guarantees, like basic human rights and press freedom, and authorises countries to intervene when a government violates these fundamental rules. This will have to rely on creating an edifice of self-enforcing beliefs.

Drafting such a universal constitution cannot be left to any particular country, however democratic and powerful it may be, because self-interest will invariably intrude. If the United States took on this task, then no matter what the initial intention, it would end up defending its own economic interests in the name of helping the world, as it has done many times already.

While Biden should be applauded for taking the lead on reinvigorating democracy, he should establish an autonomous group to draft the necessary strategy and then create an autonomous multilateral authority to help achieve it. It would, of course, be naive to think this will be easy. But we have an existential reason to try.


Kaushik Basu, a former chief economist of the World Bank and chief economic adviser to the government of India, is professor of Economics at Cornell University and a non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2021.

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