Freedom's March

History might not be ending, but democracy is still gaining ground.

After witnessing the Soviet Union's fall and the global expansion of democracy, scholar Francis Fukuyama speculated that we were approaching an "end of history" in which liberal democracy would be the world's only accepted political system. Conversely, Joshua Kurlantzick warns that recent cases of democratic failure signal that "democracy is in retreat" ("One Step Forward, Two Steps Back," March/April 2013).

Both predictions seem excessive to us. Democracy has made great strides since 1970, when only one in four sovereign countries was democratic. By 1995, more than half were. It's true that over the last 15 years we've seen a remarkable stasis in the prevalence of democracy. In its 2013 report, Freedom House rates 90 of the world's countries as "free" -- the same number as five years ago and only one more than 10 years ago. Still, this is hardly a sign of democracy in dramatic decline.

Moreover, democracy remains overwhelmingly popular in every corner of the world. In the Globalbarometer's latest survey of 55 mostly developing countries, two-thirds of respondents say democracy is their most preferred political system (including a majority in 49 of 55 countries), and 83 percent say democracy is suitable for their country. According to the World Values Survey, in two-thirds of 47 surveyed countries, the percentage rating democracy favorably increased over time. In only five countries did this percentage decline by more than 3 percentage points. Although Kurlantzick warns that the global middle class is turning away from democracy, support is actually highest among the most educated.

As Kurlantzick suggests, it is potentially worrying that the flat-lining of democracy has coincided with steady economic growth, a burgeoning global middle class, and popular dissatisfaction in several young democracies, including Bangladesh, Indonesia, and Pakistan. But the primary culprit in this democratic turmoil is the changing composition of the world's democracies, rather than any resurgence of authoritarianism: Largely due to normative and international pressures, democracy has spread to dozens of poor countries with small middle classes and high inequality, precisely the countries least likely to democratize 50 to 100 years ago. These facts do not presage a retreat of democracy, nor do they contradict the proposition that wealthier and more educated populations tend to promote democratic development.

In effect, the global advance of democracy has become a victim of its own success. The more democracy spreads, the less it can be concentrated in the most favorable environments. Although history has shown that poor countries like Benin, India, and Mongolia can become stable democracies, others like Bangladesh, Indonesia, and Pakistan continue to struggle, as did the United States, France, and Italy in the early days of democracy.

Democracies with wealthy and educated populations have been particularly stable, with the worrisome exception of Hungary. To date, no democracy with a per capita income above $11,000 (in today's dollars) has ever slid backward. If current rates of growth in the developing world are sustained, we have good reason to expect the consolidation of many of the world's young democracies.

Professor of Politics, Princeton University
Princeton, N.J.
Lecturer, Australian National University
Canberra, Australia
Professor of Political Science, Yale University
New Haven, Conn.


Mission Creep

Charles Kenny is too quick to encourage people to give up their privacy.

Charles Kenny argues in favor of government-issued biometric identification, contending that "for all the justifiable concerns, the bottom line is that the rapid global spread today of more robust ID systems -- powered by new technologies that use high-tech personal features from fingerprints to brain waves -- is great news" ("The Case for Big Brother," March/April 2013). Having spent more than a decade in privacy research and policy and, recently, seven months in India researching two of its biometric ID systems and interviewing Indian citizens about their new IDs, I beg to differ with Kenny's rosy view of this and other ID systems.

Government-issued biometric ID cards are messy. They create profound civil liberties and privacy challenges that are neither easily nor well constrained by government policy -- when constraints are in place at all. Take India's "Total ID" card, part of an intricate and advanced ID system that comprises what is becoming the largest biometric data set of individuals on the planet. Although the cards were initially billed as a way to provide identification to even the country's poorest citizens, who are most likely to be undocumented, their uses have been expanded and have become a classic example of mission creep. The cards are now used to track transactions such as the direct cash transfers that are part of India's welfare program, as well as for employment verification and terrorism prevention. Identification cards that were initially voluntary are becoming much less so in reality. Teachers who do not have the cards have been denied pay in some places, and residents in some states told me that they have had trouble purchasing train tickets without ID cards. Unless something changes, the pressure for all residents to have a "voluntary" card will make them mandatory in practice.

Meanwhile, India has no omnibus privacy law constraining the Total ID card or its data sets. There are no legal guarantees against abuses of the systems -- for example, accessing private medical records. After a bureaucratic turf war over which government agency would control the massive data sets, a truce was reached last year, with duplicate data sets sent to two competing government entities, multiplying the potential for misuse. The right to collect biometric data is now being challenged in India's Supreme Court.

Biometric ID cards that carry information about citizens' health benefits, services, and movements may seem like a feat of technology from afar. Up close, however, it's clear such systems require substantial checks and balances, without which they can pose meaningful threats to hard-won freedoms.

Executive Director, World Privacy Forum
San Diego, Calif.

Charles Kenny replies:

Pam Dixon raises very important concerns about the potential -- and actual -- abuses of universal ID systems. I completely agree with her that such systems should be bound by strong privacy protections and transparent oversight of their use, and I'm grateful for her work in this area.

At the same time, Dixon was able to travel to India because she had a passport. And she was able to pay for the trip because she had a bank account. Both capabilities are linked to her presence in ID systems. The promise of biometric-technology advances is that they might allow more of the world to share in the benefits of identification systems that Westerners too easily take for granted.