Beware of the competent state

Democracies could be facing a dangerous future because they work so well. Matthew Reisz reports

April 21, 2011

The immense success of democratic forms of government can make countries complacent and perhaps lead to disaster, an expert from the University of Cambridge has suggested.

David Runciman, reader in political thought, developed the argument in the first Princeton in Europe lecture, at Goodenough College in London last week.

Looking back over 100 years, Dr Runciman argued, there was a clear success story: "Democracies win wars, overcome challenges, outlast their rivals, are richer and more powerful than any states in history."

Yet this had always been accompanied by "anxiety, worry and unease, that democracy could not cope, that something bad was about to come around the corner". And the developments of the past 10 years seemed to offer a pretty gloomy picture, with Western democracies "heavily in debt, fighting difficult wars, doing nothing constructive about climate change and watching the inexorable rise of China".

To make sense of the situation we needed to look back, he said. There had always been three different critical perspectives on democracy.

Some believed it was a kind of confidence trick, where politicians told the public only what it wanted to hear. In so far as it worked at all, it was only because it was being manipulated by an oligarchy behind the scenes.

Others believed in a "confidence threshold". Democracies tended to survive if they had been around for a while, and had reached a certain standard of living and median age. One of the concerns about the "Arab Spring" uprisings was that some countries were full of young people who were happy to take to the streets in protest but might not have the patience for slow democratic reform. The challenge, Dr Runciman said, was to get over the threshold.

The third concern was about the "confidence trap". Democratic states worked so well that they started to believe their own myths and become complacent. It might be true that they tended not to embark on unnecessary wars and so won those they did fight. But when people started believing this, it could lead to the hubris of Vietnam or Iraq.

Climate change raised similar issues. Did democracies fail to act because they were stupid and myopic or precisely because they had faced so many challenges in the past that they saw no need to act immediately? In a situation that required decisive pre-emptive action, this could be a recipe for disaster.

At the conclusion of his lecture, Dr Runciman returned to his title: "Can democracy cope?" His answer was that "the future is likely to be unstable and dangerous for democracies, not because they can't cope, but because they can".

matthew.reisz@tsleducation.com.

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