- The Quality of Democracy: Theory and Applications
We live in a paradoxical era. There are more democratic regimes in the world than ever before, but this is also a time of deep disillusionment with democracy. The Quality of Democracy contributes to our understanding of this reality in three ways. First, it introduces the conceptual distinction between high and low quality democracy. Second, the book reports in detail on a citizen's audit in Costa Rica, a country with the reputation for having one of the highest quality democracies in Latin America. Finally, twelve academic specialists comment on both the theoretical assumptions underlying the concept of democratic quality and the citizen audit.
In the book's first chapter, Guillermo O'Donnell links democracy with the United Nations Development Program's idea of human development, Amartya Sen's concept of capabilities, and the vast literature on human rights. O'Donnell argues against a minimalist definition of democracy as a specific regime type and promotes the view that some dimensions of democracy depend on a capable state bureaucracy and functioning legal order. The basic point of the essay is that many new democracies guarantee a minimum of political rights (especially voting) without widely enforcing civil and social rights, entail little or no governmental accountability to the citizenry, lack judiciaries and parliaments capable of constraining the executive, and are characterized by a high degree of social authoritarianism, or hierarchy that trumps the egalitarianism implicit in the rule of law. O'Donnell argues that these factors, rather than being economic or social background conditions separate from democracy itself, as the minimalists would have it, are intrinsic to the way the democracies work, and so must be included in the evaluation of their quality. Readers of O'Donnell's previous work, in particular his identification of the weak states and strong presidents in many new democracies, will find the basic thrust of this essay to be familiar, even if the emphasis on human agency and fairness as the fundamental principles linking democracy, economic development, and social equality is new.
The second chapter, by Jorge Vargas Cullel, describes the citizen audit in Costa Rica. In this exercise, a group of citizens gauged the quality of Costa Rica along several dimensions, using surveys, focus groups, ethnographic observation, legal analysis, and other techniques. Supervised by a civic forum, the final report of the citizen audit compared citizens' democratic aspirations with the democracy they actually had. Vargas Cullel shows that, while Costa Rican democracy is generally regarded as having a longer history and stronger institutions than its Central American neighbors, many Costa Rican citizens are dissatisfied with aspects of their democracy. An ineffective national Congress, government officials who mistreat citizens, an inefficient judiciary, weak enforcement of labor rights, discrimination against ethnic minorities, and corruption were just some of the problems uncovered by the audit. (The last factor should come as no surprise to those following the scandals [End Page 296] involving three of Costa Rica's former presidents, as well as the investigation of the current president.) The citizen audit serves as a reminder of the importance of citizens' expectations in the evaluation of any democracy. On a more technical level, Vargas Cullel's chapter describes a technique that might be useful in the observation and comparison of other democracies.
The third part of the book is eclectic, reflecting the richness of the first two chapters and the lack of consensus in the academic community about the issues they raise. Sebastian Mazzuca's chapter is particularly interesting in that it suggests that, for some questions in the study of political science, conceptual disaggregation may be more useful than aggregation. While linking human development, economic development, human rights, and democracy at a philosophical level—as O'Donnell does—provides the basis for a normative critique of actually existing democracy in Latin America, it also forecloses the empirical examination of the linkage between those factors. In other...