Series: Democracy & Sustainability
The Best Possible Option?
Do democracies promote sustainable policies better than autocracies? Yes, argues Stefan Wurster: Despite the partial success of autocracies in some fields of policy making, theoretical and empirical investigations show an overall advantage for democratic states.
According to Winston Churchill, democracy is the best regime type that there is. It should follow, therefore, that democracies are better prepared than autocracies to solve a variety of global challenges – from the financial crisis, to income inequality, to accelerating climate change. However, the apparent failure of many democracies to meet these challenges today, coupled with the rise of autocratic powers like China and Singapore and the strong performance of these countries during the current economic crisis, has cast doubts on democracies’ general advantage when it comes to sustainable development.
Indeed, one wonders if the resurgence of autocracies and the installation of well-intentioned, well-informed tyrannies could be a necessary and logical solution to many global and national challenges for policy making. Let’s take a closer look at the specific conditions and challenges of sustainable governance.
Political Coordination is Key
The Brundtland Report, which laid the foundation for the UN summits on sustainable development in 1992, defined sustainable development as, “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” A successful sustainability policy must take into account issues of intergenerational justice; that is, it must enlarge political responsibility beyond today’s living generations. The difficulty for decision-makers is to overcome the interests of the present generation and avoid shifting problems to future generations. This is even harder if today’s generation demands fundamental lifestyle changes and the benefits of current policies are limited.
Moreover, sustainability is a political issue that cuts across a range of fields. At least since the Earth Summit in 1992, sustainable development has been taken to refer not only to the long-term protection of the environment, but also to the realization of social and economic goals. This is the magic sustainability triangle. Sustainability policy is complicated further by the uncertain and unpredictable conditions in which it needs to be managed. This requires high-level forecasting and error-correction capabilities from the political system.
Why Democracy Rules: Stability, Accountability, and Competition
However, three main factors tip the balance in favour of democracies, as against autocracies, in promoting sustainable development. The first factor is that democracies have higher institutional stability combined with sophisticated power control mechanisms. One can assume that stable and predictable institutional arrangements facilitate sustainable policy by reducing political uncertainty. This increases the likelihood of focus on long-term policy goals. Autocracies, on the other hand, are characterized by lower institutional stability than their democratic counterparts, because missing checks and balances allow institutional change in favour of the current ruler.
Secondly, it is difficult for autocracies to make smooth transitions from one ruler to the next without fundamental upheavals. The resulting instabilities and ruptures could be a burden to sustainable policy. Even if the expectation of a long reign might lead to long-term policy orientations in autocratic countries, the absence of any control of government leads to a latent degeneration of power. Under these conditions, it is less likely that governments will show responsibility in relation to future generations, particularly given that responsibility is not even secured in relation to the present generation.
A third advantage of democracies is that political processes are oriented more towards competition and public participation, which sets incentives for the continuous optimization of policy making. These incentives are missing in autocracies which are forced to repress opposition groups in order to stay in power. As a result, the political leadership receives increasingly less reliable information from its citizens and this, over time, leads to a distorted perception of reality.
In contrast, democracies exhibit significant capabilities to learn and correct errors because their decision-making processes are transparent, publicly controlled and oriented towards participation. Shortcomings are likely to become public and rulers are, therefore, constantly encouraged to seek better policy solutions. Citizens and stakeholders representing future-oriented interests can also influence political outcomes through the ballot box and obtain a hearing in public discussions.
Finally, the greater potential of democracies to address citizens’ diverging interests might be a key component for superior sustainability. As the electorate in democracies consists of all voting citizens living today, a government must satisfy the interests of a very broad segment of the population in order to stay in power. Hence, governments need to offer a large amount of public good with a high regard for common welfare. By contrast, it is rational for autocratic rulers who only have to consider the interests of a very small number of supporters to provide private goods only to certain groups of the population – through rent incomes, subsidies, or corruption revenues.
Democracy’s Achilles Heel
Genuine consideration of future interests, however, is likely only if it leads to distinct advantages for future generations as well as for the current electorate. Since this does not apply to all sustainability goals, the fixation on the immediate satisfaction of the needs of the current generation is a major problem in democracies.
It is aggravated by the inherent transience of democracies A democratic government is permanently focused on managing upcoming challenges under the Damocles sword of de-selection. This increases the risk of excessive weight being given to present interests, and postponing the resolution of problems to the future. The time horizon of an autocrat who is sitting securely in the saddle might be longer. If an autocratic regime is based on a long-term ideology, it is at least possible that unpleasant and hard sustainability reforms will be implemented even against the resistance of a majority of citizens.
Reality Check: The results are mixed
How do these theories hold up in real life? Examining the empirical findings of different studies, the sustainability performance results are rather mixed. Although the established democracies in the OECD generally achieve better sustainability ratings than the majority of their autocratic counterparts, in some fields autocracies are competitive. This is particularly true in relation to economic performance. Several autocracies like China and Singapore, and the oil-rich monarchies in the Gulf region, have made remarkable progress in this field. A striking example of their competitiveness is the reduction of national debt; no democratic advantage is discernible in this respect. In fact, established democracies seem to have particular problems in this area, as demonstrated by the financial crisis in the Euro zone.
Nevertheless, when it comes to long-term social and environmental protection democracies seem to score better. They generally avoid circumstances where specific groups are deprived of their livelihoods, and undertake efforts to combat low life expectancy, famine, or genocide. In many cases, democracies are also better equipped to detect the most obvious and worst forms of environmental degradation and curb it, at least to some degree. While some autocracies also promote social equity, such as Cuba; or protect their environment, such as Singapore; there are few democracies at the bottom of the list of sustainable governance.
The Sustainable Governance Indicators (SGI) also show, however, that performance differs widely within the spectrum of democratic OECD countries. The Bertelsmann Transformation Index (BTI) comes to a similar assessment of emerging and developing countries. Both democratic and autocratic nations differ considerably in terms of performance. This illustrates that other political, economic, social, cultural and geographic factors impact upon a nation’s sustainability performance, and sometimes overlap with the effect of the regime type.
While autocracies are able to optimize their performance in certain fields – in particular, in their economies – by autocratic steering through repressive means, they strain of doing this in a number of different fields simultaneously usually shows. Even China is overwhelmed by the task of implementing both a social and an environmental sustainability strategy, in addition to its economic “success story”. The advantages of democracy, it seems, remain. As a result of their ability to consider a wide variety of social interests simultaneously, democracies fare better.
Stefan Wurster is a political scientist at Heidelberg University.
This article is part of the series "Democracy & Sustainability", a joint project of FES Sustainability and SGI News. The series investigates the factors that influence the success or failure of sustainability policy: Two authors tackle the same question from different perspectives, and present their findings simultaneously for FES Sustainability and SGI News.
In part 1 of our series, the political scientists Ingolfur Blühdorn and Stefan Wurster discuss whether sustainability is a question of regime type, and look to identify the factors that make for successful sustainability policy.
Opening the discursive arena – Struggling for an innovative debate. Please find Ingolfur Blühdorn’s article here.