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  • Democracy’s FutureDo Economists Know Best?
  • Guillermo O’Donnell (bio)

Discussions about the situation of the world’s fledgling democracies often seem so inconclusive that they remind me of the old question about whether the glass is half-empty or half-full. Such indecisiveness reflects the great diversity of perspectives that drive the various assessments and determine what they tend to highlight—and also what they tend to ignore.

Almost all observers agree that “political democracy” means, at a minimum, reasonably free and competitive elections that broadly reflect the voters’ preferences and permit the winners to occupy most of the leading governmental positions. Some authors would classify as democratic any country that meets these criteria, while others might want to know more, such as whether those who are elected can actually exercise authority, or whether there are key offices which are not subject to elections or to control by elected authorities. Still other observers, even after agreeing that the vote counting was fair, might want to scrutinize the elections for fairness in terms of access to the media or voter-registration procedures. Even a rather narrow definition of political democracy, consequently, may contain room for disagreement about whether this or that country should properly count as a democracy.

Those who advocate more expansive definitions of democracy (definitions that look for the promotion of social justice, for instance) apply even more stringent criteria. Somewhere in the middle are others, like myself, who believe that while it is wiser to exclude considerations [End Page 23] of social or economic equity from the definition of democracy, some factors overlooked by narrow definitions should be considered—especially the extent to which citizenship rights and, in general, the rule of law are effective across the population and territory of a given country. On this view, if one finds a rather low percentage of the population enjoying the rights and guarantees established by a formally democratic constitution, then the democratic character of the case is in grave doubt. We need more elaborate typologies of democracies that would allow judgments of degree (or quality) regarding the democratic character of a given regime. The work of formulating such typologies has barely begun.

If the achievement of democracy—even flawed or ambiguous democracy—is a good thing, then so is its perpetuation (or “consolidation”) as a stable feature of political life, taken for granted by virtually all relevant political actors. There are many ideas about how best to achieve democratic consolidation. Some focus on political culture, saying in essence that if we want a consolidated democracy (to say nothing of a fuller or better democracy) we must educate as many people as possible to be democrats. This is a cogent point; the catch is that the creation of a comfortable majority of solid democrats is a long-term project, while the hazards that many new democracies face are immediate.

This may be one reason why nowadays institutionalist solutions prevail among those who are anxious to foster democracy. Political institutions can be designed with varying degrees of imitation and originality, and can be created fairly rapidly. Valuable knowledge is available concerning certain institutional combinations that one should avoid. 1 Yet we know little about the relative costs and benefits of adopting this or that ensemble of institutions, and even less about the paths to be trod (and the costs to be paid) in moving from one institutional setting to a new and hopefully better one. 2 Arguments taking the form that if institution X works in country A, then it should also work in country B—the stock-in-trade of one-country-per-week consultants—are today received with healthy skepticism almost everywhere. Serious institutionalists know that institutions, like fine wines, travel well, if at all, only under very special conditions. They also know that institutions are only part of the story in the consolidation of democracy.

The Hegemony of the Economists

Perhaps because there is so little agreement on definitions and so little reliable policy advice to give, part of political science has taken a back seat to economics—or, more precisely, to certain economists. These latter, drawing on ideas more or less loosely derived from academic...

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