Greatest Democracy on Earth?

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Americans are inherently proud of what we advertise to the world as the greatest democracy on earth.

With this statement comes an unblinking belief that America is somehow the world’s moral and political leader because it has invented something uniquely good and morally pure in the world. Some of the uneducated in this obsessively flag waving country of ours even believe America actually invented democracy in the first place (no it was the ancient Greeks).  

Others believe that America invented the modern form of democracy (no it was the French).  Even more believe that America invented the monetization and international expansion of democracy (or democratic capitalism), but alas it was the ancient Romans. So exactly how has America contributed to democracy and how well does the US version stack up against other modern democratic systems around the world? Furthermore, what type of democracy works best for its people and which country can truly lay claim to the title “Greatest Democracy on Earth”?

Democracy-Index-2011-red-and-greenDemocracy has evolved into many forms over the modern era and each nation’s version has its own benefits, limitations and drawbacks. Whilst India may be the world’s largest democracy in terms of population the US is the world’s richest, most powerful and enduring democracy. The US capitalist empire is certainly a great compliment to the Roman democratic principles of monetizing and expanding it’s influence via foreign adoption of its political system. The success of US democracy (or at least the capitalist part) has even seen its financial model adopted by totalitarian governments including China. However modern Greeks will also tell you that adopting a capitalist democratic system doesn’t always translate to increased wealth and prosperity for its people. Despite the many and varied forms of democracy all can be classified into 3 major groups:

  1. Presidential Democracy (USA, France, Costa Rica)
    – Strong position of the President with veto power over Parliament (Congress)
    – President elected by the People as both Head of State and Government Leader
  2. Parliamentary Democracy (UK, Australia, Germany, Italy, Sweden, Japan)
    – Strong position of the elected Political Parties who select the Prime Minister
    – Prime Minister is Government Leader with Monarch/ President as Head of State
  3. Direct Democracy (Switzerland)
    – Strong position of the People with frequent referendums on single laws
    – Representative Government with no effective Head of State or Government Leader
The first modern democracy was created in France under the principles of universal liberty and equality for all

The US democratic system is a Presidential democracy that borrows from both the modern French Presidential system (borrowing some equality and liberty) and also the ancient Roman Direct system (borrowing capitalism and some financial elitism). While French democracy was founded on the universal principles of liberty and equality for all, America’s founding fathers decided to opt for limited equality and liberty, available only to the free white male minority that was by all measures the nations established financial elite. Women, Native Americans and black slaves were not offered any of the rights granted under the US constitution. It took many years of protest and war to secure rights for these demographic groups and the battle for true equality is still continuing today.

The noble Roman concept of a direct democracy was compromised by the fact that only rich Roman nobles could become senators and enter government. To develop a strong capitalist society run by the powerful financial elite demanded that Rome’s economy was only loosely controlled by the senate. This actually meant that it was the financial system that controlled government decisions in most areas. By default, those who controlled the economy also controlled the government. This was true over 2000 years ago in republican Rome and it is true today in republican America.

In the modern US experiment the capitalist philosophy effectively means that people require money to have basic human rights such as education, health care, legal representation and the right to run for government. Those with more money have more power, rights and advantages than those without money.  Consequently it is very expensive to enter college and university, to pay for health care or defend your legal rights in America. And it now costs almost a billion dollars if you want to run for the US presidency which is out of reach of most citizens (and even most politicians). Once someone does spend all that money getting elected to the Oval Office they then have to deal with the powerful and influential lobbyists who pump billions of dollars into their private agendas, regardless of ethics, social welfare or the national good. An extremist view in the US is just as viable as a moderate view because it is only the amount of lobbyist $ that really counts in US political reform.  The US presidential race is an election based on economic power and influence more than any burning social reform agenda.

Consequently America’s unique contribution to democracy can be best described as a pragmatic hybrid of the French and Roman democratic systems.  America has cherry-picked only those democratic philosophies that have allowed the financial elite to maintain control over the financial system and government.  This in turn has enabled the growth of a strong capitalist system and the expansion of its commercial and social influence around the globe.  This author now coins the term Commercial Libertarian Democracy to best describe this uniquely American system of government. In other words, if you are commercially successful and have enough money you can also afford enough liberty and equality. The elitist Roman senate would definitely have approved.

Despite the spread of Americas influence and the enduring growth of commercial libertarianism the size and longevity of a political system does not necessarily reflect its relative success or greatness.  Powerful and influential government systems can disappear almost overnight as was learnt by both the Greeks and the Romans (and more recently the Russians). Moreover, the success of any political system cannot be determined by how wealthy and powerful a nation becomes because this also depends on numerous non-political factors including population, geographic position, natural assets, national culture and external events. It is the wealth of the society as individuals and not the nation as a whole that is a better barometer of democratic success. This means that the most fundamental measure of success is how well a political system benefits its people as individuals and improves basic living standards.

To assess democracy’s social benefits we must first look at the basic common principles that underlie all types of democracies. All modern democratic systems are based on nominating and/or electing a Government Leader (President or Prime Minister), a Government (from one or more Political Parties) and a Parliament or Congress (including members from all elected political parties). While each nation goes about the nomination and election process in various different ways, all stable modern democracies are based on the following fundamental principles:

  1. Fair Open Elections – all people have an equal right to vote in fair open elections
  2. Rights of the Individual – incl. Freedom of Speech, Human Rights & Legal Rights
  3. Separation of Powers –  between the Government, Parliament and Legal system
  4. Parliamentary Rule of Law – laws must be debated and voted on in Parliament
  5. Government Executive Control  – to make decisions on how to implement laws
  6. Referendums – important single laws are voted on directly by the people

In principle, the measure of how well a government can adhere to these 6 guiding principles determines how well a democracy can be said to benefit its people. While this can be difficult to measure in practice there are six key performance indicators that can serve to quantify democratic success, namely:

  1. Political Stability – Stable democratic governments are required to maintain a high standard of living. There are currently 114 countries that claim to be democratic but only 25 nations qualify as fully stable political systems with uninterrupted democracy existing for over 50 years.
  2. Cultural Influence –To be a great and successful nation a democracy must have some degree of global cultural significance. The nations cultural identity must be well known and they must exert some political and cultural influence over foreign countries (especially neighbors).
  3. Voter Participation – The level of voter participation is a reflection on how happy people are with their political system and whether they believe in its social benefits.
  4. Political Equality – The level of participation by women in government is a good reflection of the degree to which equality and liberty has been truly embraced.
  5. Social Equality – The number of people living below the poverty level is a reflection of the effectiveness of the government social welfare system and the satisfaction of its poorer majority.
  6. Financial Opportunity – The number of millionaires per head of population is a good reflection on the economic success of a government and the financial opportunity available to its citizens.

This article is not just an analysis of the effectiveness of a political system for its people but also a measure of its relative “greatness”. The author has decided to use the first two key performance indicators as a qualification process to determine the candidates for this study. The qualified candidates will then undergo a ratings process based on the final four indicators to determine the eventual winner.

For the qualification process a sample space of 10 stable governments has been selected. All have relatively high standards of living, significantly large economies and a readily recognizable culture. This means that highly stable democratic countries such as Costa Rica, Norway, Iceland and the Isle of Man do not qualify because of their small economies and limited cultural influence. The 10 nations that have passed the qualifier process include two Presidential Democracies (US, France), seven Parliamentary Democracies (UK, Australia, Canada, Germany, Sweden, Italy, Japan) and the world’s only Direct Democracy (Switzerland).

Now that we have tackled the issues of political stability and cultural significance via our qualification criteria we will now evaluate the remaining four key performance indicators given by (3) – (6) above. Shown below in Figures 1-4 display the percentage numbers on voter turnout, female parliamentarians, people living in poverty and the number of millionaires for each of the selected countries. Note that Presidential democracies are displayed in blue, Parliamentary democracies are in red and the Swiss Direct democracy is in green. I will let the data speak for itself.


And now to the competition results:

Each country was given a ranking from 1 to 10 for each of the 4 key performance indicators (10 is best, 1 is worst) . A total for all 4 categories is added up to give a total score out of 40 points. The results for the competition to see which democracy is the greatest on earth are as follows:

1st  – Australia (25 points)
2nd – Switzerland and Sweden (22 points each)
4th – USA (21 points)
5th – Canada (20 points)
6th – Germany (18 points)
7th –UK and France (14 points)
9th – Italy (13 points)
10th – Japan (11 points)

So there you have it. Australia is officially the Greatest Democracy on Earth, followed by Switzerland and Sweden in equal 2nd place with the USA coming in a very respectable 4th place.

But wait…….. we have a problem!

It seems there is an issue with the qualification process for the winner. Australia romped home largely due its performance in the voter participation category with an incredible 95% turnout figure. However we have just discovered that Australia might have cheated in its response to this category………it appears that Australia actually enforces a system of compulsory voting!

That is correct –   if you do not vote in Australia you get fined by the government. While most countries consider voting as a privilege or a right, Australians actually consider voting as a duty or obligation. Compulsory voting unnaturally elevates the voter participation rate which dramatically effects Australia’s score in this category. It also turns politically disinterested members of the population into the nation’s largest voting bloc. Most countries generally accept that the best democratic governments are elected by the most politically educated societies. In Australia however the politically apathetic and ignorant hold a great deal of electoral power.

This may explain why most referendums in Australia fail and why governments down under often stay in power up to a decade or longer. Political apathy always leads to more of the same and makes political change a major challenge. Given the generally high level of political apathy that exists in Oz (they are too busy enjoying themselves on the beaches and in the pubs) it is doubtful that they would score more than 50% in voter participation without this underhanded voting tactic. Moreover, compulsory voting flies directly in the face of all the basic democratic principles. People should have the right to vote and they should also have the right not to vote if they choose. Penalizing citizens from abstaining to vote contradicts the fundamental principles of free open elections and the rights of the individual. Consequently Australia has now been officially disqualified from the competition because its voting process is deemed to be undemocratic.

Switzerland and Sweden win the title “Greatest Democracies on Earth”.

So finally, after some initial controversy and a recount we can officially declare both Switzerland and Sweden as joint winners. This result supports the recent study published by The Economist which awards the title of  “most democratic country in the world” each year. Sweden was awarded most democratic country in 2011 (the same year as our data) and now it has won the title of Greatest Democracy on Earth, which we all must agree has a much better ring to it.  It is also interesting to note that the two winners won for quite different reasons. While both countries scored well in the political equality category, Switzerland was the clear winner in the financial opportunity category and Sweden was the clear winner in the social equality category.

What is most telling about Switzerland’s stunning success is that it’s the only nation to be governed by a Direct model and it is also the only nation that has produced a society with more millionaires (9.5%) than people living under the poverty level (6.9%). However the major weakness of the Swiss democracy is in voter participation where it came dead set last with only 42% of the nation bothering to vote (we expect this is where Australia’s natural participation level would be without compulsory voting). This result is a direct reflection of the Direct model of democracy where there is frequent government engagement with the public but laws can take many times longer to pass and take effect. The frequent bombardment of political proposals and the slow pace of change means that Swiss voters have become jaded and apathetic when participating in democracy. The more involvement the people have with democracy, the less they actually want it. This may have some relevance to those people who advocate online direct voting as a possible future model for democracy. This solution might turn many of us off voting completely.

Although the USA came in a close and respectable 3rd the official score in the greatness test is now score 1 for the Direct model, score 1 for the Parliamentarian model and score zero for the Presidential model. As expected, the US was second only to Switzerland in the financial opportunity category and performed reasonably well in both the Social Equality and Voter Turnout categories. However it was the Political Equality category that really let the nation down with an abysmal 13.8% of all members of Congress and Senate being female (ranked 7 out of 10). Compare this with over 30% of German politicians being female and over 40% of Swedish politicians being female and we can see that America still has a long way to go to be competitive in terms of political equality.

So what is the big lesson for America?

If America wants to regain the title of the Greatest Democracy on Earth we simply must elect more women into government.

1 Comment
  1. Andrew J. Sacks says

    We are a republic, not a democracy.

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