The effectiveness of a democracy as a form of government depends on the size of the population governed, the nature of the economy, the diversity of cultures and the relationships with neighbors. “Effectiveness,” in this context, refers to the general well-being of the governed; they are more healthy, than not; there is an adequate distribution of resources, they are free to act as they please within certain broad limits, laws are applied equally to all, the actions of government and politicians are either transparent or subject to scrutiny.
Thus a small, struggling, non diverse population might be better served by a benign dictator or junta whose principle interest is economic stability and national security. But a well-settled population with a long history of a national identity and stable economy will flourish under a more representative system.
Obviously, there are so many factors involved that it is impossible to say that any system may be regarded as best for all people, everywhere, for all time.
But we may be informed by some recent history.
The fall of Saddam’s Iraq pursuant to the US invasion is a case in point. While Saddam’s iron fist often took shape in the most obscene brutality on matters of “human rights,” the country under his leadership was stable and essentially at peace within its own borders. But when the leadership was toppled, the institutions of government collapsed, and internecine squabbles exploded into what was basically a civil war. The people of Iraq were not “ready” for democracy and by social instinct reached for arms instead of discourse.
But turn now to the great upheaval arising from the new ruler of Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. He proposes to liberalize the culture on one hand, but does so by the most astonishing application of dictatorial power on the other. This could not have happened (or should we say, it would be less likely) in a democratic government. It remains to be seen how his actions will play into whatever new forms of government may (or may not) emerge. But what we can say is that the population he rules is well fed, well educated, healthy, and well exposed to western ideas about civilization and individual freedom. Salman as dictator de facto has it in his power to plant the seeds of democracy; however, a liberal culture does not, in and of itself, portray a democratic government, or even democratic ideas among the governed.
More historically, but not too historically, we might look at China, where a flourishing economy and access to western themed lifestyles and culture facially portray a democratic country. But the case may be made that just the opposite is the case. The Communist party -which is the only legal party- has simply learned how to harness human endeavor by appeasing human will. From time to time, the brutal authority of the state is brought to bear when protest interferes with the official agenda. That the 1.4 billion people of China have not risen up in the cause of democracy and personal freedom is evidence of long standing historical and cultural norms, expressed in oriental philosophy and art which on the one hand depict humanity -and humans- as insignificant elements in a vast landscape, and on the other hand are so stylized as to confuse a western mind.
But then let’s turn to the formation of the United States, whose founders were influenced by Locke, Rousseau, and other liberal thinkers of their era -for whom there are no philosophical equivalents in the orient. What the founders had -which no one else had ever had- was a clean slate. An entire continent on which to play out new political ideas in a grand experiment. Although practical governance was defined by a representative system of government, which is not a pure democracy, the core concepts referred to “democratic” ideals and notions of individual liberty and freedom. We might say that, broadly, it has worked. But we can’t be so certain about the reasons why it has worked. Is the success owed to the philosophical underpinnings of the US Constitution, or its birth mother, the Declaration? Or is it owed more fundamentally to isolation from competitors? Perhaps we have never really been challenged.
Finally, looking at the modern governments of Western Europe, which are often held up as superior examples of “democracy,” we might at first wonder how such societies could possibly have emerged from feudal states and the kingdoms they begat, which were anything butdemocratic. But of course, it was those same cultures from which the likes of Rousseau emerged, and at the same time the practical necessity of achieving peace at home so as to conduct war elsewhere. And indeed, the institutions of European government were informed by classical ideas; the Greeks, the Romans.
While we cannot say that “democracy” is best, and just leave it, at that, we can say that human will generally is expressed through competing desires for freedom and for security. The tension between these two can fuel insurrection on the one hand, and subservience, on the other. To the extent that government, itself, mirrors and institutionalizes the dynamic interaction between the want of freedom and the need of security, it probably stands a better chance of effective service than it would otherwise. “Democracy,” or something like it, is one way to do so, but is not the only way