To me, democracy is air; I met it as soon as I drew my first breath. Since it was just given to me, I was not able to realize its importance. I did not know how much sacrifice people had to make to bring democracy to my home country, South Korea. As I grew older, I learned how the past dictators of Korea massacred civilians and tried to hide the truth by controlling the media. I also learned about the innocent deaths of those who stood up against the government to bring us the rights what I took for granted. It is no longer surprising for us to vote and expect our voices to be heard.
But for people living outside the boundaries of democracy, this may not always be the case. Rights to vote and the rights to free speech may not be guaranteed that easily. In countries that do not guarantee democratic rights, power is not necessarily in the hands of the people.
Rather, it is often in the hands of the very few holding guns and weapons. Samuel Doe, who was once a military leader of Liberia, seized power by leading a violent coup against the former president. Doe maintained his political power for years, not because he earned a majority of support from the people, but mostly because he had guns and money to back his supporters.
Such instance of dictatorship may not sound so surprising. We have heard so many similar stories of violent regimes of dictators from Hitler of Germany to North Korea under Kim Jong-un. This may be why many people argue for the democratization of nations that deprive citizens of human rights. Democracy seems to play a crucial role in keeping peace. According to the democratic peace theory in Immanuel Kant’s Perpetual Peace, democratic states tend not to go to war with each other. Kant claimed that all states being republics can prevent war because the majority will not want war unless it is for self-defense purposes. David Singer and Melvin Small also did statistical research and found similar results that there were no wars between democratic states. Thus, this suggests that it is much more likely for non-democratic states to engage in war. This makes it seem as if there is some kind of evil that lurks only outside of the borders of democracies. Could it be that there are only good politicians in democracies, while there are only evil ones in others?
British historian Lord Acton famously said, “Power tends to corrupt, absolute power corrupts absolutely.” If so, even politicians in democracies are susceptible to corruption. Yet, forms of government other than democracy may make them even more vulnerable. Political scientists like Bruce Bueno de Mesquita came up with the selectorate theory to explain this phenomenon. According to the theory, rulers can rise to power without winning the majority’s support. In fact, rulers of non-democratic governments might have greater incentive to bribe a small coalition of loyal supporters instead of implement policies that benefit many citizens.
This incentive system makes it less likely for autocrats to implement infrastructure for the public. There are interesting statistics that illustrate this. Various comparative studies show how public resources like drinking water, for instance, can be more available and sanitary in democratic countries than in non-democratic ones. According to the statistics listed in The Dictator’s Handbook, 90% of the citizens of Honduras have access to clean water while less than half of the citizens of Equatorial Guinea have access even though the per capita income of Equatorial Guinea is nearly ten times higher. Political scientists found similar observations in high-level education as well. No non-democratic country other than China and Singapore has its school’s name listed in the world’s top 200 university rankings.
Thus, democracy is more fit to catering to human needs like basic human rights. The UN Declaration of Human Rights stipulates rights such as freedom of expression, freedom of thought, right to trial, no slavery, and no torture. While these rights may seem natural to many of us, they might not be taken for granted in many authoritarian states. Even when I am living under the safe blanket of protection in South Korea, people living right above our borders do not share the same amount of freedom. North Korean refugees tell stories of how they could have been interrogated and dragged into political prison camps, deprived of rights like free speech and freedom of religion. The horror stories of the authoritarian government of North Korea almost reminds me of people’s lives in the book 1984, a dystopian novel that depicts a society where all the citizens live under the control of the godly-figure called Big Brother. In the book, there are posters everywhere that say, “Big Brother is watching you” while telescreens in the houses monitor people’s everyday lives. The society depicted in the novel does not seem too much like a far-fetched dystopia considering how the bleak scenario already seems to be happening in authoritarian states like North Korea that manipulate the news and spread propaganda.
One may argue that not all non-democratic states are in such horrible conditions. Nor do all democratic states guarantee freedom and happiness. Rulers of democratic states may not necessarily be better people than those in autocratic ones. Political realists often claim that there is only one thing political rulers want, regardless of how democratic the states are: to stay in power. And this same logic applies not only to the world’s worst dictators but also for renowned leaders like Nelson Mandela. There are no exceptions as to good politicians and bad politicians; there are only politicians who want to remain in power.
If this premise stands, we may be able to understand why democratic states are better in terms of catering to the needs of the people. In a democracy, or the system of government run by the power of the people, the best way politicians can stay in power is to get elected. In order to win the elections, the politicians would have to please their voters by catering to the voters’ needs. Such democratic system serves as a prevention measure against corruption and rights violations. This is because people can not only exercise their democratic power to best represent their needs but can also hold corrupt politicians accountable for their wrongdoings. Incompetent leaders can be replaced or kicked out of office through procedures like impeachment. Surely, rulers like Samuel Doe or Kim Jung-un would have a hard time finding their place in well-operating democracies.
It is worth noting that democracy also has its own set of problems. The majority of the people that influence democracy may not always make the right choices, giving rise to issues like populist policies. Yet, in the words of Winston Churchill, democracy is “the worst form of government, except for all the others.” While democracy may not always give people the best outcome, it can at least guarantee that they can choose to avoid the worst. It can prevent us from being violated our basic human rights like free speech. Furthermore, democracy proves to be effective in bringing many of the rights and freedom mentioned throughout this essay.
Like air, democracy can be found almost everywhere – from the rights to free elections to the access of clean water. It is as difficult for me to envision living in a state without democracy as it is to imagine life without air. Only when I hold my breath would I be able to understand the value of air. And I may, perhaps, truly understand the value of democracy only outside of its boundaries. But I most likely wouldn’t have to take such a risk. I am already fortunate enough to be living in a democracy.
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