Many Different Sorts of Democracy.

AuthorLemieux, Pierre
PositionBook review

The Decline and Rise of Democracy: A Global History from Antiquity to Today

By David Stasavage

424 pp.; Princeton University Press, 2020

Democracy is the natural way that humans have governed themselves in many different parts of the world since the beginning of history. So argues David Stasavage, a political scientist at New York University, in his book The Decline and Rise of Democracy. In doing so, he leads us on a fascinating voyage through time and place.

A wide definition of democracy sees it as a political system "in which those who rule have been obliged to seek consent from those they govern" through some sort of council or assembly. Rulers without strong state bureaucracies need assemblies because they face an insuperable information problem regarding what is produced and what can be taxed. They also face a tax collection problem. Moreover, pure coercive autocracy will not work if the subjects have an exit option to move out of reach of the rulers.

Early democracy / What Stasavage calls "early democracy" was characterized by councils or assemblies, a weak central state or sometimes no central state at all, and generally less than universal suffrage. Athens was "the most extensive example of early democracy" in the 5th and 4th centuries BCE. Other variants of early democracy were common in other, often primitive, societies. A sample of 186 societies studied by anthropologists--the Standard Cross-Cultural Sample--shows governing councils existing at the local level in more than half of the sample and at the central level (over many localities) in about a third. "By one estimate," writes Stasavage, "two thirds of councils had broad-based community participation"--as opposed to elites only.

For example, early democracy existed in Mari, a kingdom that existed on what is now the border between Iraq and Syria during the first millennium BCE. The king had to negotiate with town councils over taxes.

The Huron, a native tribe confederacy in the American and Canadian Northeast, provide a more striking and recent example. At the time French explorers encountered them in the 16th and 17th centuries, a Huron village was ruled by a chief and a council of clan chiefs. Anybody in the village apparently could go and express his opinions to the council. Villages were grouped into tribes, each of which was governed by a tribal chief and a council made of all clan chiefs. Above them was the confederacy council, but its decisions did not bind individual tribes, thereby promoting consensual decision-making. Iroquois tribes had similar institutions.

Early democracy was also practiced by pre-Islamic Arabs. Sayyids (rulers) generally ruled as first among equals. The arrival of Islam in the 6th and 7th centuries CE did not immediately change that. The Koran's governance principle of shura recommends consultation and consensus, which sometimes may have also applied to the choice of the caliph. The conquest of Iraq (and the Sasanian Empire), however, marked the beginning of the end of democracy in this part of the world as the Islamic caliphs inherited a well-functioning state that they could soon rule without assemblies. The same thing happened later to the Mongols, who abandoned their democratic habits after invading the Chinese Empire.

Early modern city-states in Europe as well as the American colonies practiced some forms of early democracy. Colonial governors, including those from London merchant companies (the Virginia Company, for example), needed to consult the colonists if only because labor was scarce and a plethora of available land offered an exit option. The rulers did not have bureaucracies to employ in their exercise of control. According to Stasavage, the promise of democratic rights attracted immigrants to America, probably (I suppose) as a symbol of individual dignity or a signal of mild governance. Governing assemblies with broad male suffrage developed with frequent elections and sometimes explicit instructions or mandates given to elected officials.

Early democratic societies were generally small-scale and, as suggested above, existed in an environment where residents had an exit option and there was no bureaucracy to help rulers tax production. A ruler therefore needed to negotiate to gain the consent of the people or the notables. In other words, democracy developed when political rulers were weak.

Conversely, early democracy failed when a ruler could easily tax production because agriculture was intensive and "legible" (that is, easy to monitor) or because the ruler employed a bureaucracy to help him. As illustrated above, a conqueror who inherited a state with an established bureaucratic hierarchy could avoid democracy simply by co-opting...

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