Francis Fukuyama on Equality and Democracy


Francis Fukuyama on Equality and Democracy

Getachew Mequanent Ottawa, Canada October 14, 2011- Students of my generation know Francis Fukuyama, a Japanese-American, for his highly quoted and debated argument in his 1992 book that liberal democracy has won the ideological battle of the 20th century: the Cold War was over; the Soviet Union disintegrated; the “third-wave” of democratization was sweeping across the globe; economic globalization was speeding up; and so on. Fukuyama said that all this represented “the end of history”. He is one of the most influential intellectuals in recent times.

Of course, soon it became apparent that democratically elected governments had failed to deliver the promises of wealth redistribution and democratic participation. The heroes of the Orange Revolution of Ukraine, for example, were discredited, thrown out of power and, if my memory is correct, few of them had been taken to court accused of corruption and abuse of power. In some cases, “non-liberal” political parties that were unseated from power by liberal democracy were coming back with popular support. The democracy promoters started writing depressing articles pondering why the “world” suddenly went into “democracy recession” and a lot of other theoretical bla bla bla. The “fourth-wave” (Arab Spring) appears to have energized the debate once again, although this time the consensus is “cautious optimism”.

It is at this time that Fukuyama writes in the Journal of Democracy (July 2011) to understand the relationship between democracy and equality. We are not concerned here with how Fukuyama advances an argument; rather, we are interested in understanding the shift in democracy thinking. To start with, democracy underlies the principles of liberty and equality. Fukuyam’s concern is that, while it has been more or less possible to advance the goals of liberty (free speech, association, freedom of worship, elections, etc.), that of equality (sharing or redistribution of wealth) remains unattainable. And raising the issue of inequality is no longer the responsibility of the intellectual left alone. The fact of the matter is that “many democratic transitions have been stalled or threatened by the existence of large inequalities and high degrees of polarization between the rich and poor”. Neo-liberals and neo-conservatives saw it.

The village chief in ancient times would have been wise to share his wealth with villagers, otherwise hungry people would get organized into bandits to invade the village (loot) and even challenge his authority. Likewise, the modern state ought to redistribute wealth in society; otherwise those affected by poverty would deny it legitimacy and rise to challenge its authority. European countries created social programs to address inequality at a time when the continent was rocked with powerful socialist forces encouraged by a neighbouring communist superpower, USSR. In spite of this, according to Fukuyama, inequality continue to exist and it also appears that social programs may no longer be fiscally sustainable (potentially aggravating the problem), as the experiences of Greece and other European countries show. Inequalities have been the cause of social and political instability in developing countries where governments lack income to finance social programs. In fact, there is an argument that developing countries cannot escape inequality in their early stages of economic development as certain areas of the country surge ahead because of their natural wealth (mining and agriculture, for example) and geographic proximity to infrastructures and services or governments must allow capital accumulation. Still, governments can formulate policies that correct existing inequalities (e.g., land reform and access to capital and technology) and direct public expenditures to the needs of the poor. Fukuyama says that Brazil is an example of a country that has succeeded in reducing inequalities through social policies targeting poor households. We are also pleased that Ethiopia has got recognition by international organizations for investing in social sectors.

Fukuyama says that the welfare state does not contradict democracy! Poor, sick and uneducated people will not be able to claim their economic and political rights, restraining democratization processes, argues the economist Amartya Sen. This was then the major problem with neo-liberal/-conservative thinkers and practitioners who, in the 1980s and 1990s, insisted that cutting public expenditures was a necessary condition for market liberalization that was supposed to go hand in hand with political liberalization. Fukuyama writes that political reforms in this period coincided “with a conservative trend in economic thinking, during which redistribution and active economic intervention (by the state) fell out of favour, to be replaced by an emphasis on more classically liberal economic policies”. There is nothing new here as many before him had advanced similar arguments. What is new is that neo-liberals/conservatives are now in agreement.

You can read Fukuyama’s interesting article following this link, if you have access, (article). As mentioned earlier, our aim here is to understand the shift in democracy thinking. Nonetheless, it is important to note that perhaps all the concern about democracy recession or democracy backlash is not really a setback, but rather the application of democracy in different contexts. Democracy is about making choices “by the people, for the people”. It then follows that people in different countries should be expected to think and act differently. Fukuyama mentions a survey that found that “the majority of Chinese today believe not just that democracy is the best political system, but that their country is already democratic”. Hamas in Palestine won an election, as did left-leaning governments in Latin America and Eastern Europe, promising to improve public services and create jobs. Vladimir Poutin was once the president of Russia. When he finished his term, he replaced himself by his closer confidant Dmitri Medvedev while he assumed the post of the prime minister. Poutin now wants to come back as resident with Medvedev as prime minister. Observers say that Poutin commands public popularity, which means that what ever happens may not be an issue for Russians. If there is any lesson for developing countries like Ethiopia, democracy works when elected governments put people’s aspirations and interests first.

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