Saturday, April 26, 2008

Democracy and Eastern values

Purely serendipitously, I landed on an old article of Amartya Sen, entitled Democracy as a Universal Value. It's based on a talk he gave in New Delhi in 1999 entitled Building a Worldwide Movement for Democracy. Those of you who have read his books will be familiar with his arguments, ('Development as Freedom') but like all social scientists, he suffers from prolixity which he cheerfully admits in the introduction to his Argumentative Indian. Therefore a shortened version like this one is most welcome, for people like me. His basic thesis, as always is that Democracy has a universal value. This might sound obvious, but in this article he tackles head-on the so-called Lee Hypothesis (named after the former president of Singapore), which put briefly, says that nondemocratic systems are better at bringing about economic development. Moreover, so the argument goes, Easterners value discipline over individual rights, and the poor would rather have bread than democracy. The oft-quoted examples are South Korea, Thailand and post-reform China. He takes up each of these arguments and points out each of their historical and cultural fallacies. Drawing heavily on the Indian experience (a noisy chaotic democracy since independence) in the East and Botswana in Africa (again an oasis of democracy in the midst of countries rules by tin-pot dictators) he argues why democracy is not a luxury that can await the arrival of general prosperity. In view of the discussions that have been going on regarding China, human rights and so on (see my earlier blogs and writings and links therein) this essay has much to recommend itself.

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