Democracy is Still the Only Viable Alternative

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Winston Churchill’s famous quote about democracy – it’s “the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried” – is a cliché. But it’s a cliché for a good reason: despite all the messiness and short-term setbacks, liberal democracy coupled with free markets is the only political system that works in the long run. When Churchill uttered those words in 1947, this was an idealistic statement. Since the collapse of Communism in 1989 and the “third wave” of democratization in the late 1990s, his statement became accepted wisdom.

The recent financial crisis, the resurgence of authoritarianism in Russia, the economic success of China, and backsliding by countries like Turkey and Thailand that were thought to be established democracies have led some to question the viability of the democratic, free market system. In a recent article for the The Wall Street Journal, Francis Fukuyama vigorously rebuffs those critics.

Fukuyama argues that while he may have been overly optimistic in his famous 1989 essay “The End of History?”, his core point about the long-term viability of market-oriented democracy remains valid. Despite the recent uptick in authoritarianism, he notes that there is no serious ideological challenger to democracy – even authoritarian regimes talk about democracy and hold sham elections. Economic development by countries like China will only bolster this trend.

“The emergence of a market-based global economic order and the spread of democracy are clearly linked,” he writes. “Democracy has always rested on a broad middle class, and the ranks of prosperous, property-holding citizens have ballooned everywhere in the past generation. Wealthier, better-educated populations are typically much more demanding of their governments—and because they pay taxes, they feel entitled to hold public officials accountable.”

Fukuyama’s essay is a powerful defense of the fundamental values of free market democracy. However, he also notes that democratic success is not inevitable. It requires an engaged citizenry and institutions that enable effective governance and a level economic playing field. Particularly in developing countries, achieving “democracy that delivers” is still a work in progress, and one that CIPE and its partners are actively engaged in advancing.

John D. Sullivan is the Executive Director of CIPE.

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