Sunday, May 30, 2010

Democracy and Violence

We would like to think that democracy is an antidote to violence, allowing conflicts to be thrashed out in elections rather than in civil wars. We would like to think that democracy, by spreading the rewards of citizenship more broadly, might help to reduce crime. Sometimes, though, neither one of these things is true. Orlando Patterson in the NY Times:

It may or may not be true that democracies do not wage war with each other, but a growing number of analysts have concluded that, domestically, democracies are in fact more prone to violence than authoritarian states, measured by incidence of civil wars, communal conflict and homicide.

There are many obvious examples of this: India has far more street crime than China; the countries of the former Soviet Union are more violent now than they were under Communism; the streets of South Africa became more dangerous after apartheid was dismantled; Brazil was safer before 1985 under its military rule.

Three good explanations are offered for this connection between democracy and violent crime. First, it has been persuasively shown . . . that the electoral process itself tends, on balance, to promote violence more than peace. . . .

Another well-supported argument is that democracies are especially vulnerable to ethnic conflict and organized crime. In diverse democracies, the temptation of leaders to exploit ethnic identity for political ends is an all too frequent source of major conflict, sometimes culminating in oppression of minorities and even genocide. We saw this happen in Rwanda in 1994 and the former Yugoslav states in the 1990s. Dennis Austin, who has studied political strife in India and Sri Lanka, has concluded that in such societies “democracy is itself a spur to violence” adding “depth to the sense of division.”
Just so. There is nothing inherent in democracy that leads to violence, but if political leaders stoke ethnic conflict to further their own ends, violence can be the result. This is why you should not vote for people who call their opponents traitors, monsters, baby-killers, un-American, planet-destroyers, or anything else that might seem to make them good targets for a well-aimed bullet.

The questions of crime strikes me as more complicated. Criminals are generally people who do not feel that they are part of the broader society. So societies with high social cohesion have low crime rates. One would like to think that democracy would promote social cohesion, but often that does not happen. Instead, democracy reinforced the dominance of the majority ethnic group, or the majority social class, or the majority way of think and living, leaving many outsiders. And since democracies have more freedom, it is easier for people who see themselves as outsiders to make crime pay.

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