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  • The Tide Underneath the “Third Wave”
  • Henry S. Rowen (bio)

The collapse of the socialist model, the increase in the number of democracies throughout the world, and the growing influence of East Asia have made the relative prospects of various political-economic systems a matter of high current interest.

Several political analysts, Samuel P. Huntington prominent among them, have observed that democracy has advanced in waves since the early nineteenth century, with each wave giving way to partial reversals followed by new gains. 1 By Huntington’s count, the net number of democracies went from zero before 1828 to 59 in 1990. The current wave—the third by his reckoning—began in the mid-1970s and has seen the number of democracies increase by about 30. Most of the increase, moreover, has taken place amid the ranks of non-Western countries. It is the thesis of this article that trends in both income and education bode well for the future of liberal democracy throughout the world, although there will certainly be setbacks in some countries and there may be periods of overall retreat. These setbacks, however, will be more than offset by a slowly rising tide of democracy.

The word “democracy” has different meanings in different contexts, as the burgeoning debate about “Asian” versus “Western” models of democracy attests. To measure the plight of the liberal, Western model, Freedom House annually assesses the actual status of political and civil rights in every nation of the globe. Political rights include free and fair elections, the opportunity to organize a real opposition with a realistic chance of coming to power, and so on. Civil ones include equal [End Page 52] treatment under law, plus the freedoms of the press, discussion, assembly, and the like. 2

This system of measurement is not without its difficulties, of course. One is the problem of aggregation: with so many separate vectors under both the political and civil categories, how they are weighted and combined can produce different overall assessments. Another snag is the relative neglect in this metric of the rights needed for the creation of wealth, including the protection of property, and of the increased personal liberties that directly flow from wealth. A third problem is raised by proponents of “Asian” democracy, who point to what they see as the ills flowing from extreme individualism in the West and praise the virtues of Asia’s more “communal” ways. Taking all these difficulties into account, I would still maintain that the Freedom House rating system serves as a good yardstick for what it is meant to measure—namely, Western, liberal democracy.

Income and Democracy

Since 1960, when Seymour Martin Lipset published his pathbreaking study Political Man, it has been well known that the higher a nation’s income, the more likely its politics are to be democratic. 3 What Lipset confirmed empirically, others had long intuited. As Lipset reminds us: “From Aristotle down to the present, men have argued that only in a wealthy society in which relatively few citizens lived at the level of real poverty could there be a situation in which the mass of the population intelligently participate in politics and develop the self-restraint necessary to avoid succumbing to the appeals of irresponsible demagogues.” 4

In a modern setting, one might add that making economic activities largely independent of political control places salutary limits on the power of government, although a competent state is still needed to set and enforce the rules that protect and facilitate productive activity. A people that enjoys even modest levels of property, prosperity, and education is unlikely to become servile. Indeed, the more means people acquire, the more likely they are to want a say in making the rules under which they live; the upshot is a wider domain of political freedom.

Zhao Ziyang, the former head of the Chinese Communist Party who lost his job after the 1989 Tiananmen Square uprising, reportedly put it this way in a secret speech to the Party leadership in June 1989:

I used to think that so long as we did well in reforming the economy and people’s living standards went up, then the people would be satisfied and...

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