Democracy Lab

The Confidence Trap

It's not just the United States. Democracies around the world are facing a crisis of faith.

Two stories can be told about democracy over the last hundred years. One is the obvious success story. Democracies have shown that they win wars, recover from economic crises, overcome environmental challenges, and consistently outperform and outlast their rivals. There were very few democracies at the start of the 20th century (on some counts, requiring an open franchise, there were none). Now there are plenty (Freedom House currently puts the number at around 120). Of course, the progress of democracy over this period has not been entirely smooth or consistent. It has been haphazard and episodic: in Samuel Huntington's famous image, it has come in "waves." Nevertheless, whatever the intermediate ups and downs, there can be little doubt that democracy was the overall winner during the past century, to the point where it was possible to argue, as Francis Fukuyama did more than two decades ago, that liberal democracy is the only plausible answer to the fundamental problems of human history.

But alongside this success story there is another to be told about democracy: one of pessimism and fear. No matter how successful in practice and over time, democracies have always been full of people worried that things are about to go wrong, that the system is in crisis and its rivals are waiting to pounce. The onward march of democracy has been accompanied by a constant drumbeat of intellectual anxiety. Maybe all the good news is just too good to be true. Maybe democracy's run of luck is about to come to an end. The political history of democracy is a success story. But the intellectual history of democracy is very hard to reconcile with this. It is preoccupied with the prospect of failure.

You can see both these views of democracy at work in the world today. There is still plenty of optimism around. It is not hard to fit the overthrow of autocratic governments in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya and the popular appetite for reform across the region into an "end of history" narrative. It may take time, and it may not be pretty, but democracy is spreading to those areas of the world that had previously seemed resistant to it. This is not just true of the Arab world. Democratic government is stabilizing in much of Latin America. It is taking root in parts of sub-Saharan Africa. There are even glimmers of progress in previously frozen regimes, such as Burma.

On the other hand, there is plenty of gloom about. For every success, it is possible to identify equivalent setbacks: in Russia, in Zimbabwe, in Thailand. Some of the gloom comes from commentators who warn that events in North Africa and the Middle East are not what they seem. The fall of an autocratic regime in response to popular protests does not necessarily herald the arrival of democracy: sometimes it heralds the arrival of another autocracy, or of civil war. But there is a further anxiety at work too, one related to the recent performance of the world's established democracies. For while it is true that the last century has been good for them, the last decade has not. Many of the leading democracies have been fighting long and difficult wars (in Iraq and Afghanistan) that they do not seem to know how to win or how to exit successfully. Most Western democracies are heavily in debt, thanks in part to these wars but also to a global financial crisis they did much to bring about. In Europe, some of them have come close to default, and there are fears that the United States may be heading the same way. All democracies have found it very difficult to know what, if anything, to do about climate change. And they have been watching with a mixture of resignation and fear the seemingly inexorable rise of China. These are the four fundamental challenges a system of government can face: war, public finance, environmental threat, and the existence of a plausible competitor. It is not clear that the established democracies are doing well in meeting any of them.

So there is a puzzle. History indicates that democracies can cope with whatever is thrown at them. Yet here are the most successful democracies struggling to cope. Things look bad, but the historical record of democracy suggests that nothing is as bad as it seems. This is why we find it so hard to know how seriously to take the current crisis of democracy. We can't be sure whether it is really a crisis at all. Are we in trouble or not? I believe we are, but not for the reasons usually given. The real problem is that democracy is trapped by the nature of its own success.

Inevitably, as so often in politics, there is a temptation to take sides when thinking about the prospects for democracy. We are faced with what look like either/or questions. Should we heed the good news or the bad news? Was Fukuyama right or wrong? Is America finished, or are the doomsayers going to be proved wrong this time as they have every time in the past? Is the real story the enthusiasm for democracy in the places that haven't had it before, or the seeming exhaustion of democracy in the places that have had it for a while? If you are an optimist, the long-term benefits of democracy trump the short-term hiccups. But if you are a pessimist, the problems we see around us give the lie to the long-term success story. A lot depends on what counts as "long term." A bad ten years is just a blip in the face of a good hundred years. But a good hundred years is just a blip in the face of two thousand years -- from ancient Greece to the mid-19th century -- in which democracy was written off as a failure. The critics of democracy over that period always said that in the end the democratic taste for debt and instant gratification, along with a penchant for fighting stupid and impulsive wars, would be its undoing. How can we be sure they weren't right?

In my book, The Confidence Trap, I want to show how the two stories about democracy go together. It is not a question of choosing between them. Nor is it a question of disaggregating the problem into a series of smaller problems so that we no longer talk about democracy in general, but only particular democracies in particular times and places, some doing well, some doing badly. I still want to talk about democracy in general. The mistake is to think that the news about democracy must be either good or bad. When it comes to democracy good news and bad news feed off each other. Success and failure go hand in hand. This is the democratic condition. It means that the triumph of democracy is not an illusion but neither is it a panacea. It is a trap.

The factors that make democracy work successfully over time -- the flexibility, the variety, the responsiveness of democratic societies -- are the same factors that cause democracies to go wrong. They produce impulsiveness, and short-termism, and historical myopia. Successful democracies have blind spots, which cause them to drift into disaster. You cannot have the good of democratic progress without the bad of democratic drift. The successes of democracy over the past hundred years have not resulted in more mature, far-sighted, and self-aware democratic societies. Democracy has triumphed, but it has not grown up. Just look around. Democratic politics is as childish and petulant as it has ever been: we squabble, we moan, we despair. This is one of the disorienting things about the predicament we find ourselves in. All the historical evidence that we have accumulated about the advantages of democracy has seemingly left us none the wiser about how to make best use of those advantages. Instead, we keep making the same mistakes.

In my book I focus on particular points of crisis in the history of modern democracy to show why we keep making the same mistakes, even as we make progress. Crises are often perceived as moments of truth, when we discover what's really important. But democratic crises are not like that. They are moments of deep confusion and uncertainty. Nothing is revealed. The advantages of democracy do not suddenly become clear; they remain jumbled together with the disadvantages. Democracies stumble their way through crises, groping for a way out.

Yet it is this capacity to stumble through crises that gives democracy the edge over its autocratic rivals. Democracies are better at surviving crises than any alternative system because they can adapt. They keep groping for a solution, even as they keep making mistakes. But democracies are no better at learning how to avoid crises than their rivals, and nor are they better at learning from them. It may be that certain types of autocratic regimes are actually the faster learners, particularly when it comes to avoiding the mistakes of the recent past. (Where autocracies tend to fall down is in the assumption that the future will continue to resemble the past.) Their experience of crisis is more likely to make democracies complacent than it is to make them wise: what democracies learn is that they can survive their mistakes. This could still be their undoing if it leads them to make one mistake too many. We have not yet reached the end of history. This is not because Fukuyama was wrong. It is for some of the reasons that Fukuyama was right.

The idea that success and failure go hand in hand is not unique to democracy. It is part of the human condition. It is the essence of tragedy. Hubris can accompany any form of human achievement. The most gifted individuals are often the ones who overreach themselves. Having great knowledge is no guarantor of self-knowledge: intelligent people do the stupidest things. What is true of individuals is also true of political systems. Empires overreach themselves. Successful states become arrogant as they revel in their successes, and they become complacent as they rely on past glories to see them through present difficulties. Great powers decline and fall

However, the democratic predicament cannot be reduced to the general run of human tragedy, and it is not just another stage in the great cycle of political decline and fall. Democracies suffer from a particular kind of hubris. In ancient Rome, triumphant generals were accompanied into the city by slaves whispering in their ears that they too were mortal. Democracies don't do this to their heroes, because they don't need to. Successful democratic politicians are constantly being reminded of their own mortality. They can hardly get away from it: the most common experience in a democracy is to suffer abuse, not idolatry. No democratic politician can reach the top without getting used to the catcalls of the crowd. That is why no one in a democracy should ever be taken unawares by failure. If democratic politicians become complacent, it is because they have become inured to the whispers of mortality, not because they have been shielded from them. Autocrats are the ones who are taken by surprise. 

The definitive image of a modern autocrat confronting the catcalls of the crowd came when Nicolae Ceausescu stood on the balcony of the Central Committee Building in Bucharest on Dec. 23, 1989, three days before he and his wife Elena were executed by firing squad. He looked genuinely puzzled: what is that noise? No democratic politician ever looks puzzled like that. The look that sums up democratic complacency is different. It is the face that defeated incumbents wear on election night (think George H. W. Bush in 1992). They don't look surprised but they do invariably look hurt. Yes, they seem to be saying, I heard the abuse you have been directing my way. How could I not? I read the newspapers. But that's democracy. I didn't realize you really meant it. That look is one reason why democratic life is more often comic than it is tragic. 

What is true of individual politicians is also true of democratic societies. Modern-day America is sometimes compared to imperial Rome, since it has some of the trappings of an empire with its best days behind it. But the United States is not Rome because as well as being an empire it is also a functioning modern democracy. That makes it too restless, impatient, querulous, self-critical to qualify as a candidate for late-imperial decadence. Democracies are hardly oblivious to the impending prospect of catastrophe. If anything, they are hypersensitive to it. One of the hallmarks of present-day American democracy is its endless questioning of its own survival prospects. The problem for such democracies is not that they can't hear the whispers of their own mortality. It's that they hear them so often they can't be sure when to take them seriously.

Successful democracies have plenty of institutional safeguards against the hubris of individuals. In an autocracy the danger is that a crazed or self-aggrandizing leader will lead the state over a cliff. In a democracy it is much more difficult for a mad leader or a mad idea to take hold for long. Before they go over the cliff, democracies will vote mad leaders out of office. Regular elections, a free press, an independent judiciary, and professionalized bureaucracy all provide protection against being dragged down by the worst kinds of personal misjudgments. In the long run, mistakes in a stable democracy don't prove calamitous because they don't become entrenched. That doesn't stop democracies from making mistakes, however; if anything, it encourages it. It is some consolation in a democracy to know that nothing bad lasts for long, but it is no answer to the question of what should be done in a crisis. Moreover, consolation can produce its own kind of complacency. Knowing that they are safe from the worst effects of hubris can make democracies reckless -- what's the worst that could happen? -- as well as sluggish -- why not wait for the system to correct itself? That is why the crises keep coming. 

The person who first noticed the distinctive character of democratic hubris -- how it is consistent with the dynamism of democratic societies, how democratic adaptability goes along with democratic drift -- was Alexis de Tocqueville. Ever since Tocqueville wrote nearly two hundred years ago, people have been arguing about whether he was really an optimist or a pessimist about democracy. The truth is that he was both, and therefore neither. The grounds for democratic optimism were the source of Tocqueville's fundamental worries about democracy. This is what made him such an original thinker in his own time and what makes him such an important thinker for ours. He did not share either the concerns of the traditional critics of democracy or the hopes of its modern champions. Tocqueville takes a distinct approach, which makes him the indispensable guide to the ongoing relationship between democracy and crisis.

The history of crises is a story of uncertain fears, missed opportunities, and inadvertent triumphs. It is a tale of contingency and confusion. There are no easy ways out of our current predicament. We are caught in a trap. If there were an easy way out, it would not be a trap. But seeing how we are trapped is an essential part of understanding what the future might hold. 

Tocqueville first identified the ambivalent character of democratic progress by studying America. Since his time, the story of democracy has widened to include other established democracies, including India, Israel, Japan, etc. Nonetheless, the United States remains at the heart of it. The United States remains the place where it can still be seen most clearly. I am not suggesting, any more than Tocqueville was, that America is democracy, nor that democracy is only possible on the American model. But if the American model is being undone by its own success, that has significant implications for democracies everywhere. 

We know a lot more than we used to about how democracies succeed and why. What we don't know is what to do with this knowledge. That is the problem.

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call


Appetite for Destruction

Why feeding China's 1.3 billion people could leave the rest of the world hungry.

On Aug. 20, the Australian mining giant BHP Billiton announced that it will pump nearly $3 billion into developing a deposit of Canadian potash, a mineral used in the manufacture of fertilizer destined for farms fields across the world. And in late September, Chinese pork producer Shuanghui officially purchased Smithfield Foods in the largest Chinese acquisition ever made in the United States. The companies' investments are both decisions that speak to a vote of confidence in global food consumption growth over the next decade -- and nowhere will bellies be filling up faster than in China.

For three decades, resource-intensive manufacturing fueled China's spectacular economic rise. By 2012, the country was consuming nearly half of the world's coal and producing 46 percent of its steel, 43 percent of its aluminum, and about 60 percent of its cement. The Chinese economy has slowed in 2013 in part because of the government's recognition that such a resource-intensive growth model has become unsustainable. As a result, Beijing is trying to rebalance away from exports and investments and toward domestic consumption. Companies like BHP Billiton are betting that China's rebalancing will spur rapid growth in demand for food and the inputs needed to produce it. The underlying economic logic -- China as demand driver -- is the same, but it reflects the resource scarcity that is starting to replace maintenance of rapid growth as China's foremost economic challenge.

An ironic legacy of economic success, China's resource scarcity is worsening as its GDP grows, incomes rise, and standards of living improve, placing new, daunting pressures on the domestic food supply. This is not necessarily because the Chinese agricultural industry is underperforming. The sector has long faced a daunting task: filling the stomachs of 20 percent of humanity with just 8 percent of the world's arable land and only about 30 percent of the world's per capita availability of fresh water. But the task is further complicated by Beijing's grain security policy, which insists on near self-sufficiency of production in spite of a scarce resource base, preventing imports from playing the same role as domestically produced food.

Beijing's food security policy is an uncharacteristically impractical choice from a usually pragmatic government. It is motivated by the psychological legacy of repeated, disastrous famines that scarred the Chinese public over the last 150 years, the most recent being the policy-induced famine during the Great Leap Forward that led to tens of millions of deaths in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Food is central to the national mindset, especially for the many Chinese alive today who have personally experienced crippling scarcity.

Food became more plentiful in the decades following Mao Zedong's death in 1976, when the Chinese government adopted liberal agricultural policies that allowed farmers to sell their products into the market. Called the "household responsibility system," this reform, as well as sustained investments in agricultural sciences and technology, prevented China from descending into the Malthusian nightmare of finite resources outstripped by exploding population growth that seemed to threaten the developing world in the 1970s. Since the early 1980s, China has been able to produce most of the meat needed for domestic consumption; the government also maintains a strategic pork reserve that it occasionally taps to lower pork prices. Over the last few years, the Chinese government has even achieved its goal of near self-sufficiency in rice, wheat, and other staple grains that form the basis of the Chinese diet.

But the growth of China's food consumption is now threatening to undermine these achievements. The meat of the matter is, well, meat: Diets are being transformed by rising affluence and a cultural fixation that correlates carnivorousness with class status. Other formerly impoverished countries have seen their meat consumption rise alongside their GDP. But in China, it is progressing much faster than experts once expected. In 2000, agricultural economists, including former World Bank chief economist Justin Yifu Lin, predicted that China's per capita meat consumption would rise by over 50 percent in 20 years. Thirteen years into their forecast horizon, China's per capita consumption has already risen by more than 150 percent.

Total annual meat consumption in China reached 80 million tons in 2012 -- equivalent to 115 pounds a person. That total is double that of the United States, though the average Chinese person still eats only about half as much meat as an average American. Members of China's middle class -- estimated at roughly 10 percent of the population, or 140 million people -- eat more meat than the average Chinese. By 2020, however, the middle class is projected to be 40 percent of China's population. In wealthy cities like Beijing, residents consume an average of 130 pounds of meat per person annually. In Taiwan, where developed-world incomes meet ethnic Chinese dietary preferences, consumption is much higher at 190 pounds per year. Barring dramatic cultural and ethical shifts, there will likely be hundreds of millions more regular meat consumers in mainland China in the coming decade, as continuously rising incomes make middle-class lifestyles affordable.

Sadly, pork chops don't grow on trees. While China is close to self-sufficiency in meat production, it is far from it in terms of the feed grains, principally soy, that raise the livestock destined for Chinese dinner tables. One of the world's largest soy producers until 1996, China has seen production levels languish over the last 15 years while domestic consumption has grown to five times the amount that Chinese farmers can supply. Foreign soybeans are now ubiquitous in the Chinese agricultural value chain.

Today, China increasingly looks like it is following the examples of Japan and Taiwan, two Asian nations that became food importers as growing cities took land away from agricultural use, rising incomes allowed consumers to enjoy more diverse diets, and urbanization pulled people from farms and rural life.

These trends will have important global implications. Take rice, for example. Although Chinese rice yields rose dramatically in the 20th century, China found it necessary to import 2.6 million tons of rice in 2012. With the global market accustomed to a weak Chinese buying presence -- the country has been a net exporter of rice almost without fail for the last half-century -- China's rice purchases may have helped send global prices to a near all-time high.

It seems too early to say that China's domestic rice production has hit the same supply-side bottlenecks that have required the country to become a huge soy importer. But the recent discovery of cadmium-tainted rice produced in central China -- only the latest in a series of food scandals -- certainly does not help alleviate pressures. Anxious Chinese consumers could opt out of the domestic rice market and demand to buy the staple of their diet in the global market, further eroding China's self-sufficiency.

Another revolution in agricultural technology could mitigate these scarcities; however, this is very unlikely in the near term. The fruits of the Green Revolution, from which China benefited tremendously a generation ago, seem exhausted -- not only in China, but globally. As economist Tyler Cowen noted in his 2012 book, U.S. farming productivity growth leveled off between 1990 and 2002. A similar dynamic may be at play in China, where burgeoning imports suggest agricultural productivity growth is stagnating.

All these factors point to a harrowing decade ahead for Chinese food security. Just as the last three decades of catch-up economic growth created a wealthy middle class in China, the next decade could see catch-up consumption growth from hundreds of millions of Chinese who do not yet eat meat daily. The Chinese government is experimenting with rural land reforms and industrial farming to encourage higher efficiency and promote economies of scale. But between ideological opposition to allowing rural land to function as a form of productive capital and pragmatic concerns over the livelihoods of landless rural peasants, progress will likely be too slow to prevent Chinese food demand from outstripping supply.

China will likely become a reluctant and ever-larger presence in global food markets. This will benefit economies like the United States that are major food exporters. But just as China's industrial and property booms of the last decade buoyed prices of oil, coal, and iron ore, in this decade Chinese food demand growth could raise food prices in the United States and elsewhere. China already consumes 60 percent of the rest of the world's soybean exports. And as it keeps growing, China could fundamentally alter global food supply and demand.

Of course, Beijing does not make policy for the countries from which it imports agricultural products, but as Amazonian rain forests are cleared for soybean production or if global rice prices spike again, China could see a backlash. Chinese policymakers are certainly concerned about the impact of their country's food demand on the rest of the world, which is one reason they insist on grain self-sufficiency. The less China buys on the market, the less it will be in the international spotlight.

Toeing such a line will be difficult. China's unmatched combination of scale and need means it cannot be an anonymous participant in global markets. The China price that today describes the country's cheap manufactured exports could soon refer to higher-priced food on dinner tables across America.

STR/AFP/Getty Images