Thursday, January 22, 2009

Yglesias: Why Democracies Are Better In Bed

I asked Matt Yglesias why he kept saying that democracies were more able to maintain stable alliances than dictatorships. He answered:
The main theoretical issue is that the conditions that sustain liberal democracy also sustain cooperation because they increase trust and accountability. A democratic government needs to deal with a free press and with opposition political parties, which means that efforts to cheat on agreements or hatch secret plots are more likely to be exposed. And because political disagreement takes place out in the open, other countries get to have a sense of what range of policies might plausibly be adopted and have the opportunity to see large shifts in strategic thinking coming around the corner. Similarly, democratic political leaders typical operate under various kinds of formal restraints that make it difficult-or-impossible to suddenly turn on a dime. In a related way, the actual structure of democratic polities is relatively transparent. One kind find out, fairly definitively, what the institutional prerogatives of different officeholders are and therefore what the significance of their views and attitudes are. When faced with an authoritarian system, by contrast, it’s often not clear who the real decision-makers are (or which decisions have been made) especially when you start talking about people below the “one top guy.” A certain amount of “palace intrigue” takes place in democracies and some “kremlinology” may be required to figure out what’s really happening, but there’s a reason those terms all come form authoritarian systems.

Long story short: democracies can cooperate more credibly, because they’re more transparent and more predictable. Clearly, though, these things are a matter of degree—democracies can be more transparent or less transparent and authoritarian systems can be more rule-bound or less rule-bound. This highlights an important misconception of the conservative movement, namely their view that liberal democracies are hampered in the international arena by their greater difficulty cheating or launching secret initiatives. This is short-sighted. It’s the possession of these very “handicaps” that makes democracies credible allies and partners—even in the eyes of non-democracies—and that gives most countries a reason, at the margin, to prefer that a democratic state like the U.S. play a hegemonic role than a state like China. Much the same is true in the individual context. It might seem like an inability to lie would be a problem in life, but in a lot of ways if it was impossible for you to know and possible for you to signal this credibly that could be a huge asset. Everyone would rather be in business with the “must be honest” guy than with the “might be scamming you” guy.
(note: the 'know' before the late italics should probably be 'lie'. This happens.)
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