Why Democracy Doesn’t Deliver
Endless elections, unqualified leaders, uninformed voters, and short-term thinking are impeding economic growth.
Americans could learn from other countries’ electoral systems. Many of the countries whose turnout rates are highest — including Australia, Singapore, Belgium, and Liechtenstein — enforce compulsory voting laws. Most often, compulsory voting is enforced through fines on those who don’t vote. Often, the penalty amounts to little more than a symbolic slap on the wrist. But even the threat of a small fine clearly has an impact, as rates of voter participation in these countries suggest. In Belgium, nonvoters are disenfranchised for 10 years after failing to vote in at least four elections within 15 years, and it is difficult to get a job within the public sector if you are a nonvoter. In Singapore, nonvoters must reapply to be included on the voting register, explaining why they did not cast a vote.
The smaller the electorate, the likelier that policies will favor the few — in most cases wealthier citizens who vote regularly. By creating the broadest possible electoral base, mandatory voting maximizes the quality of democracy, making it more efficient and enhancing economic policy outcomes.
That said, countries where voting is mandatory but the population is not well informed can fall prey to populist policies that are inimical to longer-term economic growth and success. It is therefore imperative to educate the population on the tradeoffs between short-term gains and their costs to future growth. Voters must be nudged toward the right long-term policy choices, rather than being swayed by personalities and short-term fixes.
Here, high-quality media institutions can play a vital role. The proliferation of personalized media diets increasingly means that voters cling to their own facts, assumptions, and beliefs. This creates a weak civic environment, undermining political outcomes. In the context of economic growth, an ideological media imbues and reinforces a culture of short-termism among politicians and political classes as politicians scramble to act and react to an agenda set by the press.
All of these reforms are urgent at a time when liberal democracy is increasingly at risk. Already, the young are growing more skeptical of the liberal democratic system. The Guardian has reported that just 42 percent of Australian 18- to 29-year-olds thought democracy was “the most preferable form of government,” compared with 65 percent of those 30 or above.
These proposals are not meant as a reaction to rising populism around the world — and they are not merely a “fix” for the problems in democracy that allowed Brexit and Trump’s 2016 victory to occur. Even if the trend toward deglobalization were to slow or reverse, major reforms to a democratic system that is currently viewed as sacrosanct would still be necessary.
Indeed, without these reforms, the lure of authoritarian models of governance will grow stronger, and democracies could increasingly fall under the sway of a disillusioned, uninformed electorate who put poorly qualified populist leaders in office. Electing such leaders will not make America or any other nation great again; it will lead instead to bad policy and less economic growth.
This excerpt was adapted from Dambisa Moyo’s new book, Edge of Chaos: Why Democracy Is Failing to Deliver Economic Growth—and How to Fix It.