Thu, 11 Mar 1999

The history and roles of democracy and social justice

By Amartya Sen

This is the second of two articles based on a special lecture presented at the Seoul Conference on Democracy, Market Economy and Development on Feb. 26, 1999.

SEOUL (JP): In arguing for democracy in Asia, we must also examine a cultural argument that has been used against the appropriateness of political and civil rights in this part of the world. It has been claimed that Asians traditionally values discipline -- not political freedom, and thus the attitudes to full democracy (including political and civil rights) cannot but be much more skeptical in these countries.

Is this line of reasoning sound? I would argue that it is not at all sound. It is very hard to find any real historical basis for this intellectual claim in the actual history of Asian cultures. For example, one of the earliest -- and most emphatic -- advocacy of individual rights and of the tolerance of pluralism and focused articulation on the duty of the state to protect minorities can be found in the forceful inscriptions of Ashoka, the Buddhist emperor in India, in the third century B.C.

Others examples can be plentifully found, in the classical traditions in India, the Middle East, Iran, China, east and southeast Asia, and other parts of Asian civilizations.

Asia is, of course, a very large area, with 60 percent of the world's population, and generalizations about such a vast groups is not easy. Sometimes the advocates of "Asian values" have tended to look primarily at east Asia as the region of particular applicability. However, even east Asian itself has much diversity, and there are many variations to be found between Japan and China and Korea and other parts of east Asia, and even within each particular country: Japan or China or Korea.

Confucius is the standard author quoted in interpreting Asian values, but he is not the only intellectual influence in any of these countries (for example, there are very old and very widespread Buddhist traditions as well, in each of them, powerful for over a millennium and a half, and also considerable presence of Christianity).

Take Korea. Confucianism has indeed been a major cultural influence in this country, but there have been many different interpretations of Confucianism. For example, in the fifteenth century onwards, the "Neo-Confucian literati" (Sarim) challenged the earlier readings of Confucianism, and interpretational disputes were powerfully pursued by the different sides. Neo- Confucian themselves divide into different schools, according to different lines of division, including the classic Chinese distinction between li and ch'i (called, I understand, i and ki in Korea).

In the seventeenth and early eighteenth century, the contest between the "Old Doctrine" (Noron), led by Song Si-yol, and the "Young Doctrine" (Soron), led by Yun Chung, related in part to different views of good behavior and of good social arrangements. Confucianism does not speak in one voice, and the particular emphasis on li (or, i, in Korean) in the authoritarian interpretations of Confucius is by no means the only claim that obtains loyalty.

There are also influences other than Confucianism. Buddhism has been a major force here, as it has been in China and Japan, and from the seventh century when Buddhism became the state religion, it has had political ups and downs, but a constant cultural presence in this country.

As is widely known, freedom is an extremely important concept in Buddhism (indeed the language of freedom is used even to explain such crucial notions as Nirvana and Moksha), and this applies to East and Southeast Asian Buddhist schools as well as to the original Indian Buddhism.

Christianity too has had a major presence in Korea, and from the eighteenth century, regular intellectual confrontations can be seen between the creed of so-called "Western learning", which disputed Confucian orthodoxy, along with other challengers, such as the individualist doctrines of the Wang Yang-ming school of Neo-Confucianism, and of course various theorists of Buddhism. No monolithic reading of "Asian values" can possibly be drawn on the basis of a serious reading of the history of Korea.

Similar remarks can be made about China, Japan and the rest of East Asia. While politicians often criticize us, academics, for being somewhat unpractical about politics, perhaps some political leaders can also be questioned for being somewhat unpractical about academic matters, including the reading of history and its bearing on contemporary political philosophy. Dubious history does nothing to vindicate dubious politics.

There is no real evidence of a homogeneous worship of order over freedom in Asian cultures. It is not, of course, hard to find authoritarian writings within the Asian traditions. But nor is it in Western classics, and one has to reflect only on the writings of Plato or Aquinas to see that devotion to discipline is not a special Asian taste. To dismiss the plausibility of democracy as a universal value on the ground of the presence of some Asian writings on discipline and order would be similar to rejecting the plausibility of democracy as a natural form of government in Europe or America today on the basis of the writings or Aquinas or Plato (not to mention the vast medieval literature in support of the Inquisitions).

Diversity is a feature of most cultures in the world. The Western civilization is not an exception to this. The practice of democracy that has won out in the contemporary West is largely a result of a consensus that has emerged since the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, and particularly in the last century or so. To read in this and allegedly millennia-old historical commitment of the West to democracy, to be contrasted with authoritarian non-Western traditions (treating each as monolithic) would be a great intellectual mistake.

There is also a point about international political relation that I want to make in this context. Western discussion of non- Western societies is often too respectful of authority -- the governor, the minister, the military junta, the religious leader. This "authoritarian bias" receives support from the fact that Western countries themselves are often represented, in international gatherings, by governmental officials and spokesmen, and they in turn seek the views of their "opposite numbers" from other countries. President Kim Dae-jung's ideas on rights and democracies were just as important in reflecting a Korean point of view -- a Korean vision -- before he became president as they are now, even though Western leaders may not have listened to him in the past.

An adequate approach of development cannot really be so centered only on those in power. The reach has to be broader, and the need for popular participation is not just sanctimonious rubbish. Indeed, the idea of development cannot be dissociated from the recognition of political diversity.

Diversity is also important for the effectiveness of democracy. The achievements of democracy depend not only on the rules and procedures that are adopted and safeguarded, but also on the way the opportunities are used by the citizens. Fidel Valdez Ramos, the former president of the Philippines, put the point with great clarity in a speech last November at the Australian National University:

"Under dictatorial rule, people need not think -- need not choose -- need not make up their minds or give their consent. All they need to do is to follow. This has been a bitter lesson learned from Philippine political experience of not so long ago. By contrast, a democracy cannot survive without civic virtue.... The political challenges for people around the world today is not just to replace authoritarian regimes by democratic ones. Beyond this, it is to make democracy work for ordinary people."

Democracy does create this opportunity, with relates both to its "instrumental importance" and to its "constructive role," which discussed earlier in this lecture. But with what strength these opportunities are seized depend on a variety of factors, including the vigor of multi-party politics as well as the dynamism of value formation.

For example, in India the priority of preventing starvation and famine was fully gripped already at the time of independence (as it had been in Ireland as well, with its own experience of famine under British rule). There was much effectiveness in the activism of political participants in preventing famines and in sharply condemning governments for open starvation, and the quickness and force of this process mad the prevention of such calamities an inescapable priority of every government.

And yet successive opposition parties have been quite docile in not condemning widespread illiteracy, or the prevalence of non-extreme but serious undernourishment (especially among the children), or the lack of completion of land reform programs legislated earlier. This docility of opposition has permitted successive governments to get away with unconscionable neglect of these vital matters for public policy.

Another such area is the persistence of gender inequality, which too requires forceful engagement, involving critique as well as pointers to reform. Indeed, as these neglected issues come into public debates and confrontations (for example, both women's movements and pressure groups in favor of elementary education have gathered force in India over the last decade or so), the authorities are beginning to respond.

In a democracy, people tend to get what they demand, and more crucially, do not typically get what they do not demand.

All this does, of course, relate directly to ideas of social justice -- what is tolerable and what is not in the contemporary world. I made the point earlier that ideas of justice influence individual behavior as well, which are not governed (as claimed in some economic textbooks) only by the pursuit of narrowly defined self-interest.

Indeed, the point can be illustrated even with the role of democracy in the prevention of famines. The economic analysis of famines across the world indicate that only a small proportion of the population tends to be stricken by it -- rarely more than 5 percent of so. Since the share of income and food of these poor groups tend normally to be no more than three percent of the total for the nation, it is not hard to rebuild their lost share of income and food, even in very poor countries, if a serious effort is made in that direction. Famines are thus easily preventable, and while rulers never starve, the need to face public criticism and to encounter the electorate provides the government with the political incentive to take preventive action with some urgency.

But the question that does arise is this. Since only a very small proportion of the population is struck by a famine (rarely more than 5 or 10 percent), how does it become such a serious concern -- and effective issue -- in majority-rule elections and in general public criticism? This would be in some tension with the assumption of universal self-centeredness. Presumably, we do have the capacity -- and often the inclination -- to understand and respond to the predicament of others. This example, like many others, draw attention forcefully to the fact that as human beings we are not forever imprisoned in a world of universal self-centeredness, and ideas of good and the right, the fair and the just do influence our priorities, commitments and actions.

All this also draws attention to the role of public discussion and open dialogue in value formation -- what was called the "constructive" role of democracy. There is also a deep complementarity between the institutions of democracy and the nature of civil society and social opportunities that can make them more effective.

In this respect, the prevalence of illiteracy has tended to hinder the full flowering of democracy in India. This has hampered the articulation of the points of view of the underdogs: the socially excluded poor, the economically precarious landless laborers, the mute and suppressed illiterate, and the doubly deprived women from the lower classes. That loss is only slowly being remedied with the slow emergence of neglected voices.

The reach and effectiveness of open and articulate dialogue is often underestimated in assessing social and political problems. For example, public discussion has an important role to play in reducing high rates of fertility that characterize many developing countries.

There is, in fact, much evidence that the sharp decline in fertility rates that has taken place in the more literate states in India has been crucially influenced by public discussion of the bad effects of high fertility rates especially on the lives of young women, and also for the community at large.

If the view has emerged in, say, Kerala or Tamil Nadu that a happy family in the modern age is a small family, much discussion and debating have gone into the formation of these perspectives. Kerala now has a fertility rate of 1.7 (similar to that in Britain and France, and well below China's 1.9), and this has been achieved with no coercion, but mainly through the emergence of new values -- a process in which political and social dialogues have played a major part.

The high level of female literacy of the Kerala population (much higher than China's -- indeed higher than every province of China) combined with an open political climate, has greatly contributed to making such social and political dialogues possible and effective.

Even the effective operation of an exchange economy depends on mutual trust and the use of norms -- explicit and implicit. For example, values are crucial in preventing a climate of corruption, which may drown attempts at marketization, or in the development of a culture of justifiable trust, the absence of which may make business deals that much more difficult. When these behavioral modes are plentifully there, it is easy to overlook their role. But when they have to be cultivated, that lacuna can be a major barrier to economic success.

Capitalism's need for motivational structures that are more complex than pure profit maximization has been acknowledged in various forms, over a long time, by many leading social scientists, such as Marx, Weber, Tawney, and others. The role of non-profit motives in the success of capitalism is not a new point, eventhough the wealth of historical evidence and conceptual arguments in that direction is often neglected in contemporary professional economics.

A basic code of good business behavior is a bit like oxygen -- we take an interest in its presence only when it is absent. Adam Smith had noted this general tendency in an interesting remark in his History of Astronomy:

" object with which we are quite familiar, and which we see every day, produces, though both great and beautiful, but a small effect upon us; because our admiration is not supported either by Wonder or by Surprise."

What may not cause wonder or surprise in Zurich or London or Paris may, however, be quite problematic in Cairo or Bombay or Lagos (or Moscow), in their challenging struggle to establish the norms and institutions of a functioning market economy.

In the economic difficulties experienced in the former Soviet Union and countries in east Europe, the absence of behavioral codes that, along with institutional structures, are central to successful capitalism has been particularly problematic. There is need for the development of behavioral norms and codes which may be quite standard in the evolved capitalist economics, but which are relatively hard to install suddenly as a part of "planned capitalism."

These changes can take quite some time to function -- a lesson that is currently being learned rather painfully in these countries in East Europe and the former Soviet Union. The importance of institutions and behavioral experiences was rather eclipsed there in the first flush of enthusiasm about the magic of allegedly automatic market processes.

These issues require recognition and analysis as well as public discussion and debates. Just as there is need for institutional arrangements that make corruption and other failings have punitive implications, there is also the need for the development of a culture of trust and trustworthiness in economic dealings.

The norm of pure profit maximization is not adequate for business success. We need the development of business ethics as well, and in the context of other social problems, also the emergence of values that are friendly to the environment and to the demands of fairness to groups other than fellow businessmen. All this call for dialogues and openness in a way that the strong silent men who populate the economic textbooks may not be able to instantly comprehend.

I have tried to discuss the role of democracy in the contemporary world, especially in Asia. I have argued that developing and strengthening a democratic system is an essential component of the process of development. The significance of democracy lies, I have argued, in three distinct virtues: (1) its intrinsic importance, (2) its instrumental contributions, and (3) its constructive' role in the creation of values and norms. No evaluation of democratic form of governance can be complete without considering each.

However, while we must acknowledge the importance of democratic institutions, they cannot be viewed as mechanical devices for development. Their use is conditioned by our values and priorities, and ultimately by our sense of justice. Some serious harm has resulted, in the past, from taking the market mechanism to be itself -- on its own -- a solution to many problems, whereas it is an instrument that can be used in different ways -- with or without vision, with or without social responsibility. Indeed, a social commitment to norms and priorities is essential not only for equity, but also for the efficiency of the market mechanism itself.

Public debates and discussions can play a major part in the formation of values. In this sense, the openness associated with democracy is part of the solution of the problems of value failures that hinder the effectiveness of markets. The force of public discussion is not only one of the correlates of democracy, with an extensive reach, its cultivation can also make democracy itself function better.

Just as it is important to emphasize the need for democracy, it is also crucial to safeguard the conditions and circumstances that ensure the range and reach of the democratic process. Valuable as democracy is as a major source of social opportunity (a recognition that calls for vigorous defense -- not least in Asia), there is also the need to examine ways and means of making it function well, to realize its potentials. The achievement of social justice depends not only on institutional forms (including democratic rules and regulations), but also on effective practice. I have tried to present reasons for taking this issue to be of central importance. This is the major agenda that we face today.

Dr. Amartya Sen, the 1998 Nobel laureate for economics, is Master of Trinity College, Cambridge and Lamont University Professor Emeritus, Harvard University.