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  • A Solid Smorgasbord
  • Richard Rose
Democracy’s Victory and Crisis. Nobel Symposium 93. Edited by Axel Hadenius. Cambridge University Press, 1997. 431 pp.

Literally, a symposium is a gathering of people to drink and talk. The contributors to this 1994 Nobel symposium were no doubt well looked after by their Swedish hosts. Even better, the published record of their discussions provides food for thought. It is not the junk food suggested by the overdramatic title. Democracy has not conquered the world, as the contributors writing on African and Islamic countries make clear. But the volume offers a solid smorgasbord where readers of the Journal of Democracy, whatever their taste, will find intellectual nourishment.

Instead of talking about their own countries, contributors from five continents discuss the world as they see it. As the sociology of knowledge would predict, what you see depends on where you sit, whether at Harvard, an African village, or a bank in New York. Only Juan Linz’s concluding chapter explicitly addresses issues implicit in the varying meanings of democracy, but by avoiding the reduction of democracy to the single dimension of “electoralism,” the book gives a fair picture of the differences between more and less democratic new democracies.

A constitution is not sufficient to make a democracy (after all, Stalin authored a constitution), but without respect for constitutional rules, the name of the political game is “no holds barred.” Jon Elster provides a succinct and lucid analysis of constitutions. His review is reassuring inasmuch as it emphasizes that there are many routes to the creation of a democratic constitution. (Arend Lijphart reinforces the point by showing [End Page 169] that even among established Western democracies there are many ways to define and measure “majority” rule and consensual government.) The fact that constitutions drafted during crises or imposed by foreign governments can endure refutes the assumption that democracy must be the product of a democratic culture evolving over generations.

Although constitutions lay down rules to be enforced impartially, Elster shrewdly emphasizes that those writing a constitution are concerned not with political theory but with arrangements that favour their own interests, which they seek to advance by employing seemingly impartial arguments. Among other very practical prescriptions, Elster advises: “The role of experts should be kept to a minimum, because solutions tend to be more stable if dictated by political rather than technical considerations” (p. 138). He also notes that what in retrospect appears as flexibility in a constitution may be the result of “deliberately ambiguous formulations” adopted as part of a political bargain aimed at achieving consensus for the time being. The bargaining processes of the European Union, as reflected most notably in the Maastricht Treaty, likewise produce conditions in which those who endorse agreements can subsequently dispute how they are to be interpreted and applied.

Constitutionalism assumes the rule of law, and so too does democracy. Napoleon recognized this when he said, “The essence of freedom is a good civil code.” Unfortunately, many a member state of the United Nations can hardly claim to be a genuine Rechtsstaat. Violations of the rule of law deprive many people of their civil rights and often threaten life itself; these violations can also take a pecuniary form, involving corruption at the elite level and “trickle-down” corruption at every level of government. Atul Kohli argues that in new democracies developing-country elites often do not want the rule of law; they want instead to weaken legal constraints and establish personalistic rule that benefits themselves and their allies. Their motto is not “Government by the people” but “Enrich yourself.”

A democracy can be governed by the rule of law only if there is a bureaucracy that will administer government “by the book”—and as Göran Hydén emphasizes, this tradition is typically lacking in developing countries. The result is patrimonial government, in which patron-client relationships are more important than the policy advice dispensed by development economists and institutions like the World Bank. To break the power of regimes that divert large sums in development aid to their private purposes, Hydén proposes establishing new intermediary organizations controlled jointly by donors and by citizens who believe in the rational...