HERE’S ONE GREAT THING ABOUT DEMOCRACY: democracies don’t let their citizens die in famines. Every country in the twentieth century that you can think of that experienced massive, rapid increases in death from hunger and starvation was something other than a functioning democracy. Maybe it was a dictatorship, or quite likely it was colonized by some other country—and in a few cases, it may have had a democratic government on paper, but it lacked a capable government, one up to the task of providing rapid services for its citizens. But for more than a century, widespread, rapid death from hunger has never happened in a country with a functioning government where the citizens had the right to choose their government’s leaders.
It was the Nobel-winning economist Amartya Sen who made this bold claim, most famously and quite sweepingly in his excellent 1999 book, Development as Freedom: “No famine has ever taken place in the history of the world in a functioning democracy.”1 Other researchers have tried to beat up on Sen’s finding, but they have failed. Of course, one wonders whether this is just a correlation, a repeated pattern that might be caused by some other factor like prosperity or low corruption. Here’s one test, one that Sen himself used: compare what happens in a nation just before versus just after that nation becomes a democracy. India’s last famine—the Bengal famine—occurred in 1943. India became an independent nation in 1947. After the end of British rule that year, India was still poor and its government was riddled with corruption. But Indians never again experienced widespread death from famine. Holding the country constant and changing the type of government from a colonial outpost to a new democracy was, it appears, all it took to save lives.
That’s a strong argument for democracy, and it’s one that I believe in. It has a twin argument, also based on over a century of real evidence: democracies don’t engage in widespread slaughter of their own voting citizens. Government-led massacres are exceptionally rare within democracies. Economist William Easterly of New York University oversaw the creation of a new database on this topic with data from around the world, spanning 1820 to 1998. A key finding was that “in general, high democracy appears to be the single most important factor in avoiding large magnitudes of mass killings, as the highest quartile of the sample in democracy accounts for only 0.1% percent of all the killings.”2 Since this book is entitled 10% Less Democracy and is targeted at nations that are already near the very highest levels of democracy, even embracing all of the reforms I suggest will keep these nations in the top quartile—the top 25 percent—and will keep them away from the risk of widespread mass killings.
Of course, as with the no-famines claim, there are caveats and provisos in the underlying research. In the case of famines, here’s one recurring question: How many deaths from hunger in how short a time does it take to count as a famine? But the overall message is strong: democracies substantially reduce the risk of widespread, short-run death of a nation’s citizens and overwhelmingly reduce the risk of government-backed massacres compared to other forms of real-world government.
So some level of democracy is a genuine lifesaver, but how much democracy do we need to get those lifesaving benefits? Not that much. Easterly showed that a country only needs to have a level of democracy in the global top 25% to eliminate 99.9% of deaths from government massacres. Sen himself concludes that to avoid famines, all you need is a government where the elections are genuinely competitive—the political parties are genuinely allowed to argue their case in public and the vote counting is reasonably fair—and where the press is reasonably free—one that is free enough, for example, to report whether people are going hungry somewhere in the country. Competitive elections and a free press: that’s enough to prevent famines in Sen’s view. And throughout the rest of this book, no reform I suggest will tamper with those minimum requirements. So while I’ll suggest quite a few ways to reduce the power of voters in the course of this book—longer term lengths for politicians, giving government bondholders a formal role in running the country, or handing more power over to independent government agencies, for instance—none of those reforms will tamper with competitive elections or a free press.
1. Amartya K. Sen, Development as Freedom (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 16.
2. William Easterly, Roberta Gatti, and Sergio Kurlat, “Development, Democracy, and Mass Killings,” Journal of Economic Growth 11, no. 2 (2006): 137.