February 1, 2008

Capitalism and Democracy

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In this American Interest article, Professor Hilton Root reviews two recently published books: Michael Mandelbaum’s Democracy’s Good Name: The Rise and Risks of the World’s Most Popular Form of Government and Robert Reich’s Supercapitalism: The Transformation of Business, Democracy, and Everyday Life.  

Mandelbaum argues that the skills and attitudes arising from involvement with the free market are transferred to the political sphere. He further posits that the impulse toward democracy in the developing world is akin to the law of gravity: “a force drawing the world toward a common political destiny.” Reich’s book counters these notions, asserting that global markets are unleashing economic forces too powerful to be controlled by democratic institutions. As evidence Reich points to countries in which democracy is not developing despite pro-market reforms, and countries where free markets do not exist despite increasing democratization.

Root explains the apparent contradiction in the two authors’ works by pointing out the difference between “the slow, organic rise of democratic governance and the more recent installation of democratic regimes in the post-colonial epoch.” Thus, democratic habits are not shaping society over generations; instead, local culture is shaping democratic habits, and not in ways that are likely to yield strong democracies.

Root concludes that the free market school for democracy is not doing as well as Mandelbaum argues, even though a great deal of U.S. policy is riding on this theory of democratic development. Regardless, Root forecasts that the long run will involve more than few detours on the road to greater economic and political freedom.