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Democracy is overrated
The authoritarian development state


October 6, 2005

There are few who would refute the claim that the Japanese model of modernisation has been one of the greatest miracles of the 20 th century. Any system that could achieve in two generations what Europe did in three hundred years is a powerful one and one that cannot be ignored. Many see Japan and the Asian Tigers as democratic nations but a brief look at their near history reveals that during their periods of high economic growth they were anything but.

The truth is that after the Second World War and right up until 1993 Japan was governed by a single party. The LDP ruled exclusively in Japan for over 30 years and dominated the country's political scene from the 1960s until the mid 90s. The country seemingly had a democratic constitution but a single party dominated and crushed all opposition for over three decades. And although this was frowned upon in many circles, LDP's activities were tolerated because it "delivered the goods" as it were. Lack of political freedoms were seen as a minor sacrifice compared to the economic miracles delivered by the party's leaders.

South Korea, like Japan, also had a democratic constitution but was ruled by a military dominated one party system. Taiwan had a Guo Min Dang dominated one party system but unlike Japan and South Korea did not give pretence to a democratic society. This trend continued right up until 1996 when free and open presidential elections were held all over the country. And also somewhat similar to South Korea, Philippines and Indonesia plunged into their post colonial fate with a series of military coups that left dictatorships in charge for the greater part of their development years.

Looking at the cold, hard facts of the Japanese model it is hard to deny that Democracy is by far not a necessary element for progress and modernisation. In fact an open democratic society can greatly hamper growth during the early periods of development as it wastes the energies of the nation through a lack of one minded direction. A somewhat authoritarian government however can direct and focus people's energy towards rapid growth and have far more impact in the short run than a democratic state.

The myth that industrial modernisation stems from political democratisation or that the former is somehow an offspring of the latter was due to the British and American models that went unchallenged for a long period of time. The 1917 revolution was of course the first formidable challenge the democratic model received and was later used by Japan to emulate a strong authoritarian state albeit not as harsh as the Soviet model.

In essence the Japanese model is a mixture of the two western systems. What has been called the Authoritarian Model of Modernisation is a strong, one party state that maintains stability and neutralises opposition and at the same time commands a capitalistic economy. The government in this case is not a harsh repressive one like that of the Soviet Union but a mildly authoritative force that is united in purpose rather than a pluralistic system that wastes much energy. And it is also important to note that even though the democratic model of the west did achieve modernisation it did so in the course of centuries by heavily relying on internal entrepreneurial investment and increasingly volatile markets.

A more centralised government can greatly speed up the process of modernisation as in the case of Japan and other Asian countries by actively encouraging foreign investment through tax incentives, studying world markets and providing information to business leaders and more actively engaging in the development process. A developing country will need to repress potential labour unrests and keep a low wage labour market in order to attract western manufacturers. This is a short term strategy that helps accumulate the necessary capital for industrialisation and one that requires the presence of an authoritarian state.

In fact so powerful is this process that it literally stood colonial relations of the west to many Asian countries on their heads. After the 1970s the roles of many western countries were reversed as they now exported raw materials to newly industrialised Asian countries and inturn imported electronic and textile goods. Literally the opposite of what had been going on mere decades ago.

But all this is not to say that open democratic societies are not useful or attractive. The Authoritarian model, as in the case of many Asian countries, is merely a temporary phase that later gives way to open, democratic elections in an almost automatic, harmonious way. If anything, modernisation seems to be the driving force behind democracy and not the other way around. Democracy itself is a highly ideal system for advanced countries where the process of modernisation is complete and a unified workforce is no longer the main issue. But history suggests that developing countries taking up the democratic model from the start may be hampering their modernising efforts and are far better off with the superior model of the strong authoritarian state, at least for the initial periods of economic growth.

It is my belief that the Shah of Iran had taken up the same course of action and was leading the country on the path of modernisation. But where more or less unified Asian countries with less ethnic and religious complexities succeeded, the Shah needed to take much more care and appreciate Iran's situation. Had greater strategic use of the media and more tolerance towards certain segments of society been employed we may have been able to avoid the 1979 tragedy. But never the less it remains my belief that a future prosperous Iran will require a strong, authoritative state similar to but much milder than the rule of the Shah rather than a soft, democratic system that could hold back our modernising efforts. For our greatest aim for the future should be economic and military power that would usher in freedom and prosperity.

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To Arash Sayedi

Arash Sayedi


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