The Game of Everything, Part 8: Civilization and Government II (Democracy, Communism, and Anarchy)

04 May

Democracy is like a raft. It never sinks, but, damn it, your feet are always in the water.

— Fisher Ames

What can we say about democracy, truly one of the most important ideas in human history? Well, we can say, for starters, that it’s yet another Greek word, a combination of “demos” — meaning the people or, less favorably, the mob — with “kratos,” meaning rule. Rule by the people, rule by the mob… the preferred translations have varied with the opinion of the translator.

The idea of democracy originated, as you might expect given the word’s etymology, in ancient Greece, where Plato detested it, Aristotle was ambivalent about it, and the citizens of Athens were intrigued enough to actually try it out for a while in its purest form: that of a government in which every significant decision is made through a direct vote of the people. Yet on the whole it was regarded as little more than an impractical ideal for many, many centuries, even as some countries, such as England, developed some mechanisms for sharing power between the monarch and elected or appointed representatives of other societal interests. It wasn’t until 1776 that a new country-to-be called the United States declared its intention to make a go of it as a full-blown representational democracy, thereby touching off the modern era of government, in which democracy has increasingly come to be seen as the only truly legitimate form of government in the world.

Like the Christianity that had done so much to lay the groundwork for its acceptance, democracy was a meme with such immediate, obvious mass appeal that it was well-nigh impossible to control once the world had a concrete example of it to look at in the form of the United States. Over the course of the nineteenth century, responding to the demands of their restive populations, remembering soberly what had happened to Louis XVI in France when he had tried to resist the democratic wave, many of the hidebound old monarchies of Europe found ways to democratize in part if not in total; in Britain, for example, about 40 percent of adult males were allowed to vote by 1884. When the drift toward democracy failed to prevent the carnage of World War I, and when that war was followed by a reactionary wave of despotic fascism, many questioned whether democracy was really all it had been cracked up to be. Yet even as the pundits doubted, the slow march of democracy continued; by 1930, almost all adult citizens of Britain, including women, were allowed to vote. By the time the game of Civilization was made near the end of the twentieth century, any doubts about democracy’s ethical supremacy and practical efficacy had been cast aside, at least in the developed West. In missives like Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History, it was once again being full-throatedly hailed as the natural endpoint of the whole history of human governance.

We may not wish to go as far as calling democracy the end of history, but there’s certainly plenty of historical data in its favor. There’s been an undeniable trend line from the end of the eighteenth century to today, in which more and more countries have become more and more democratic. And, equally importantly, over the last century or so virtually all of the most successful countries in terms of per-capita economic performance have been democracies. A few interrelated factors likely explain why this should be the case.

One of them is the reality that as societies and economies develop they inevitably become more and more complex, a confusing mosaic of competing and cooperating interests which seemingly only democracy is equipped to navigate. “Democracies permit participation and therefore feedback,” writes Francis Fukuyama.

Another factor is the way that democracies manage to subsume within them the seemingly competing virtues of stability and renewal. As anyone who’s observed the worldwide stock markets after one of President Donald Trump’s more unhinged tweets can attest, business in particular loves stability and hates the uncertainty that’s born of political change. Yet often change truly is necessary, and often an aged, rigid-thinking despot or monarch is the very last person equipped to push it through. An election every fixed number of years provides a country with the ability to put new blood in power whenever it’s needed, without the chaos of revolution.

The final factor is another reality disliked by despots everywhere: the reality that education and democracy go hand in hand. A successful economy requires an educated workforce, but an educated workforce has a disconcerting tendency to demand a greater role in civic life. Francis Fukuyama:

Economic development demonstrates to the slave the concept of mastery, as he discovers he can master nature through technology, and master himself as well through the discipline of work and education. As societies become better educated, slaves have the opportunity to become more conscious of the fact that they are slaves and would like to be masters, and to absorb the ideas of other slaves who have reflected on their condition of servitude. Education teaches them that they are human beings with dignity, and that they ought to struggle to have that dignity recognized.

When making the game of Civilization, Sid Meier and Bruce Shelley clearly understood the longstanding relationship between a stable democracy and a strong economy — a relationship which is engendered by all of the factors I’ve just described. Switching your government to democracy in the game thus supercharges your civilization’s economic performance, dramatically increasing the number of “trade” units your cities collect.

But the game isn’t always so clear-sighted; the Civilopedia describes democracy as “fragile” in comparison to other forms of government. I would argue that in many ways just the opposite is the case. It’s true that democracies can be incredibly difficult to start in a country with little tradition of same, as the multiple false starts that we’ve seen in places like Russia and much of sub-Saharan Africa will attest. Yet once they’ve taken root they can be extremely difficult if not impossible to dislodge. Having, as we’ve already seen, the means of self-correction baked into them in a way that no other form of government does, mature democracies are surprisingly robust things. In fact, examples of mature, stable democracies falling back into autocracy simply don’t exist in history to date. [1]The collapsed democracies of places like Venezuela and Sri Lanka, which managed on paper to survive several decades before their downfall, could never be described as mature or stable, having been plagued throughout those decades with constant coup attempts and endemic corruption. Ditto Turkey, which has sadly embraced Putin-style sham democracy in the last few years after almost a century of intermittent crises, including earlier coups or military interventions in civilian government in 1960, 1971, 1980, and 1997. Of course, we have to be wary of straying into the logical fallacy of simply defining any democracy which collapses as never having been stable to begin with. Still, I think the evidence, at least as of this writing, justifies the claim that a mature, stable democracy has never yet collapsed back into blatant authoritarianism. History would seem to indicate that, if a new democracy can survive thirty or forty years without coups or civil wars — long enough, one might say, for democracy to put down roots and become an inviolate cultural tradition — it can survive for the foreseeable future.

Ironically, Civilization portrays its dubious assertion of democratic “fragility” using methods that actually do feel true to history. The ease with which democracies can fall into unrest means that you must pay much closer attention to public opinion — taking the form of your population’s proportion of “unhappy” to “happy” citizens — than under any other system of government. Any democratic politician in the real world, forced to live and die by periodic opinion polls that take the form of elections, would no doubt sympathize with your plight. It’s particularly difficult in the game to prosecute a foreign war as a democracy, both because sending military units abroad sends your population’s morale into the toilet and because the game forces you to always accept peace overtures from your enemies as a matter of public policy.

In light of this last aspect of the game, the intersection of democracy and war in the real world merits digging into a bit further. Earlier in this series of articles, I wrote about the so-called “Long Peace” in which we’ve been living since the end of World War II, in which the great powers of the world have ceased to fight one another directly even when they find themselves at odds politically, and in which war in general has been on a marked decline in the world. I introduced theories about why that might be, such as the fear of nuclear annihilation and the emergence of global peacekeeping institutions like the United Nations. Well, another strong theory comes down to the advance of democracy. It’s long been an accepted rule among historians that mature, stable democracies simply don’t go to war with one another. Thus, as democracies multiply in the world, the possibilities for war decrease in rhythm, thanks to the incontrovertible logic of statistics. For this reason, some historians prefer to call the Long Peace the “Democratic Peace.”

Civilization reflects this democratic aversion to war through the draconian disadvantages that make its version of democracy, although the best government you can have in peacetime, the absolute worst you can have during war. As demonstrated not least by the United States’s many and varied military interventions since 1945, the game if anything overstates the case for democracy as force for peace. Yet, as I also noted in that earlier article, this crippling need the United States military now feels to make its wars, which are now covered by legions of journalists and shown every night on television, such clean affairs says much about its citizens’ unwillingness to accept the full, ugly toll of the country’s voluntary “police actions” and “liberations.”

But what of wars that have bigger stakes? Civilization‘s mechanics actually vastly understate the case for democracy here. They fail to account for the fact that, once the people of a democracy have firmly committed themselves to fighting an all-out war, history gives us little reason to believe that they can’t prosecute that war as well as they could under any other form of government. In reality, the strong economies that usually accompany democracies are an immense military advantage; the staggering economic might of the United States is undoubtedly the primary reason the Allied Powers were able to reverse the tide of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan and win World War II in, all things considered, fairly short order.

There’s one final element of the game of Civilization‘s take on democracy that merits discussion: its complete elimination of corruption. Under other forms of government, the corruption mechanic causes cities other than your capital to lose a portion of their economic potential to this most insidious of social forces, with how much they lose depending on their distance from your capital. You can combat it only by building courthouses in some of your non-capital cities; they’re fairly expensive in both purchase and maintenance costs, but reduce corruption within their sphere of influence. Or you can eliminate all corruption at a stroke by making your civilization a democracy.

At first blush, this sounds both hilarious and breathtakingly naive. It would seem to indicate, as Johnny L. Wilson and Alan Emrich note in Civilization: or Rome on 640K a Day, that Meier and Shelley’s research into the history of democracy neglected such icons of its American version as Tammany Hall and Teapot Dome, not to mention Watergate. Yet when we really stop to consider, we find that this seemingly naive mechanic may actually be one of the most historically and sociologically perceptive in the whole game.

If you’ve ever traveled independently in a non-democratic, less-developed country, you’ve likely seen a culture of corruption first-hand. Personal business there is done through wads of cash passed from pocket to pocket, and every good and service tends to have a price that fluctuates from customer to customer, based on a reading of what that particular market will bear. Most obviously from your foreigner’s perspective, there are tourist prices and native prices.

The asymmetries that lead to the rampant “cheating” of foreign customers aren’t hard to understand. You can pay twenty times the going rate for that bottle of soda and never think about it again, while your shopkeeper can use the extra money to put some meat on his family’s table tonight; the money is far more important to him than it is to you because you are rich and he is poor. This reality will probably cause you to give up quibbling about petty (to you) sums in fairly short order. But the mindset behind it is deadly to a country’s economic prospects — not least to its tax base, which could otherwise be used to institute the programs of education and infrastructure that can lead a country out of the cycle of poverty. High levels of corruption are comprehensively devastating to a country’s economy — witness, to take my favorite whipping boy again, Vladimir Putin’s thoroughly corrupt Russia with its economy 7 percent the size of the United States’s — while a relative lack of corruption allows it to thrive.

As it happens, corruption levels across government, business, and personal life in the real world correlate incredibly well with the presence or absence of democracy. When we look at the ten least-corrupt countries in the world according to the Corruption Perceptions Index for 2017, we find that nine of them are among the nineteen countries that are given the gold star of Full Democracy by the The Economist‘s latest Democracy Index. (Singapore, the sole exception among the top ten, is classified as a Hybrid System.) Meanwhile none of the ten most-corrupt countries qualify as Full or even Flawed Democracies, with seven of the ten classified as full-on authoritarian states. When we further consider that levels of corruption are inversely correlated to a country’s overall economic performance, we add to our emerging picture of just why democracy has accrued so much wealth and power to the developed West since the beginning of the great American experiment back in 1776.

And there may be yet another, more subtle inverse linkage between democracy and corruption. As I noted at the beginning of this pair of articles on Civilization‘s systems of government, I’ve tried to arrange them in an order that reflects the relative stress they place on the individual leader versus the institutions of leadership. Thus the despotic state and the monarchy are so defined by their leaders as to be almost indistinguishable as entities apart from them, while the republic and the democracy mark the emergence of the concept of the state as a sovereign entity unto itself, with its individual leaders mere stewards of a legacy greater than themselves. I don’t believe that this shift in thinking is reflected only in a country’s leadership; it rather extends right through its society. A culture of corruption emphasizes personal, transactional relationships, while its opposite places faith in strong, stable institutions with a lifespan that will hopefully transcend that of the people who staff them at any given time.

So, let’s turn back now to the game’s once-laughable assertion that democracy eliminates corruption, which now seems at least somewhat less laughable. It is, of course, an abstraction at best; a country can no more eliminate corruption than it can eliminate poverty or terrorism (to name a couple of other non-proper nouns on which our politicians like to declare war). Yet a country can sharply de-incentivize it by bringing it to light when it does appear, and by shaming and punishing those who engage in it.

Given the times in which I’m writing this article, I do understand how strange it may sound to argue that Civilization‘s optimistic take on corruption in democracy is at bottom a correct one. Just a couple of years ago in the Full Democracy of Germany, the twelfth least-corrupt country on the planet according to the Corruption Perceptions Index, executives in the biggest of the country’s auto manufacturers were shown to have concocted a despicable scheme to cheat emissions standards worldwide in the name of profit, ignoring the environmental consequences to future generations. And as I write these words the Trump administration in the Flawed Democracy of the United States, sixteenth least-corrupt country on the planet, has so many ongoing scandals that the newspapers literally don’t have enough reporters to cover them all. But the fact that we know about these scandals — that we’re reading about them and arguing about them and in some cases taking to the streets to protest them — is proof that liberal democracy is still working rather than the opposite. Compare the anger and outrage manifested by opponents and defenders alike of Donald Trump with the sullen, defeated acceptance of an oligarchical culture of corruption that’s so prevalent in Russia.

Which isn’t to say that democracy is without its disadvantages. From the moment the idea of rule by the people was first broached in ancient Athens, it’s had fierce critics who have regarded it as inherently dangerous. Setting aside the despots and monarchs who have a vested interest in other philosophies of government, thoughtful criticisms of democracy have almost always boiled down to the single question of whether the great unwashed masses can really be trusted to rule.

Plato was the first of the great democratic skeptics, describing it as the victory of opinion over knowledge. Many of the great figures of American history have ironically taken his point of view to heart, showing considerable ambivalence toward this supposedly greatest of American virtues. The framers of the Constitution twisted themselves into knots over a potential tyranny of the ignorant over the educated, and built into it machinations to hopefully prevent such a scenario — machinations that still determine the direction of American politics to this day. (The electoral college which has awarded the presidency twice in the course of the last five elections to someone who didn’t win the popular vote was among the results of the Founding Fathers’ terror of the masses; in amplifying the votes of the country’s generally less-educated rural areas in recent years, it has arguably had exactly the opposite of its intended effect). Even the great progressive justice Oliver Wendell Holmes could disparage democracy as merely “what the crowd wants.”

In the cottage industry of American political punditry as well, there’s a long tradition of lamenting the failure of the working class to vote their own self-interest on economic matters, of earnest hand-wringing over the way they supposedly fall prey instead to demagogic appeals to cultural identity and religion. One of the best-selling American nonfiction books of 2011 was The Myth of the Rational Voter, which deployed reams of sociological data to reveal that (gasp!) the ballot-box choices of most people have more to do with emotion, prejudice, and rigid ideology than rationality or enlightened self-interest. Recently, such concerns have been given new urgency among the intellectual elite all over the West by events like the election of Donald Trump in the United States, the Brexit vote in Britain, and the wave of populist political victories and near-victories across Europe — all movements that found the bulk of their support among the less educated, a fact that was lost on said elite not at all.

Back in 1872, the British journalist Walter Bagehot wrote of the dangers of rampant democracy in the midst of another conflicted time in British history, as the voting franchise was being gradually expanded through a series of controversial so-called “Reform Bills.” His writing rings in eerie accord with the similar commentaries from our own time, warning as it does of “the supremacy of ignorance over instruction and of numbers [of voters] over knowledge”:

In plain English, what I fear is that both our political parties will bid for the support of the working man; that both of them will promise to do as he likes if he will only tell them what it is. I can conceive of nothing more corrupting or worse for a set of poor ignorant people than that two combinations of well-taught and rich men should constantly defer to their decision, and compete for the office of executing it. “Vox populi” [“the voice of the people”] will be “Vox diaboli” [“the voice of the devil”] if it is worked in that manner.

Consider again my etymology of the word “democracy” from the beginning of this article. “Demos” in the Greek can variously mean, as I explained, the people or the mob. It’s the latter of these that is instinctively feared, by no means entirely without justification, by democratic skeptics like the ones whose views I’ve just been describing. In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt defines the People as a constructive force, citizens acting in good faith to improve their country’s society, while the Mob is a destructive force, citizens acting out of hate and fear against rather than for the society from which they feel themselves excluded. We often hear it suggested today that we may have reached the tipping point where the People become a Mob in many places in the West. We hear frequently that the typical Brexit or Trump voter feels so disenfranchised and excluded that she just doesn’t care anymore, that she wants to throw Molotov cocktails into the middle of the elites’ most sacred institutions and watch them burn — that she wants to blow up the entire postwar world order that progressives like me believe have kept us safe and prosperous for all these decades.

I can’t deny that the sentiment exists, sometimes even with good reason; modern democracies all remain to a greater or lesser degree flawed creations in terms of equality, opportunity, and inclusivity. I will, however, offer three counter-arguments to the Mob theory of democracy — one drawing from history, one from practicality, and one from a thing that seems in short supply these days, good old idealistic humanism.

My historical argument is that democracies are often messy, chaotic things, but, once again — and this really can’t be emphasized enough — a mature, stable democracy has never, ever collapsed back into a more retrograde system of government. If it were to happen to a democracy as mature and stable as the United States, as is so often suggested by alarmists in the Age of Trump, it would be one of the more shockingly unprecedented events in all of history. As things stand today, there’s little reason to believe that the institutions of democracy won’t survive President Donald Trump, as they have 44 other good, bad, and indifferent presidents before him. Ditto with respect to many of the other reactionary populist waves in other developed democracies.

My practical argument is the fact that, while democracies sometimes go down spectacularly misguided paths at the behest of their citizenry, they’re also far better at self-correcting than any other form of government. The media in the United States has made much of the people who were able to justify voting for Donald Trump in 2016 after having voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. It’s become fashionable on this basis to question whether the ebbing of racial animus the latter’s election had seemed to represent was all an illusion. Yet there’s grounds for hope as well as dismay there for the current president’s opponents — grounds for hope in the knowledge that the pendulum can swing back in the other direction just as quickly. The anonymity of the voting booth means that people have the luxury of changing their minds entirely with the flick of a pen, without having to justify their choice to anyone, without losing face or appearing weak. Many an autocratic despot or monarch has doubtless dreamed of the same luxury. This unique self-correcting quality of democracy does much to explain why this form of government that the Civilopedia describes as so “fragile” is actually so amazingly resilient.

Finally, my argument from principle comes from the same idealistic place as those famous opening paragraphs of the American Declaration of Independence. (“We hold these truths to be self-evident…”) The Enlightenment philosophy that led to that document said, for the first time in the history of the world, that every man was or ought to be master of his own life. If we believe wholeheartedly in these metaphysical principles, we must believe as well that even a profoundly misguided democracy is superior to Plato’s beloved autocracy — even an autocracy under a “philosopher king” who benevolently makes all the best choices for the good of his country’s benighted citizens. For rule by the people is itself the greatest good, and one which no philosopher king can ever provide. Perhaps the best way to convert a Mob back into a People is to let them have their demagogues. When it doesn’t work out, they can just vote them out again come next election and try something else. What other form of government can make that claim?

Most people in the West during most of the second half of the twentieth century would agree that the overarching historical question of their times was whether the world’s future lay with democracy or communism. This was, after all, the question over which the Cold War was being fought (or, if you prefer, not being fought).

For someone studying the period from afar, however, the whole formulation is confusing from the get-go. Democracy has always been seen as a system of government, while communism, in theory anyway, has more to do with economics. In fact, the notion of a “communist democracy,” oxymoronic as it may sound to Western sensibilities, is by no means incompatible with communist theory as articulated by Karl Marx. Plenty of communist states once claimed to be exactly that, such as the German Democratic Republic — better known as East Germany. It’s for this reason that, while people in the West spoke of a Cold War between the supposed political ideologies of communism and democracy, people in the Soviet sphere preferred to talk of a conflict between the economic ideologies of communism and capitalism. And yet accepting the latter’s way of framing the conflict is giving twentieth-century communism far too much credit — as is, needless to say, accepting communism’s claim to have fostered democracies. By the time the Cold War got going in earnest, communism in practice was already a cynical lie.

This divide between communism as it exists in the works of Karl Marx and communism as it has existed in the real world haunts every discussion of the subject. We’ll try to pull theory and practice apart by looking first at Marx’s rosy nineteenth-century vision of a classless society of the future, then turning to the ugly reality of communism in the twentieth century.

One thing that makes communism unique among the systems of government we’ve examined thus far is how very recent it is. While it has roots in Enlightenment thinkers like Henri de Saint-Simon and Charles Fourier, in its complete form it’s thoroughly a product of the Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth century. Observing the world around him, Karl Marx divided society in the new industrial age into two groups. There were the “bourgeoisie,” a French word meaning literally “those who live in a borough,” or more simply “city dwellers”; these people owned the means of industrial production. And then there were the “proletariat,” a Latin word meaning literally “without property”; these people worked the means of production. Casting his eye further back, Marx articulated a view of all of human history as marked by similar dualities of class; during the Middle Ages, for instance, the fundamental divide was between the aristocrats who owned the land which was that era’s wellspring of wealth and the peasants who worked it. “The history of all hitherto existing societies,” he wrote, “is the history of class struggles.” As I mentioned in a previous article, his economic theory of history divided it into six phases: pre-civilized “primitive communism,” the “slave society” (i.e., despotism), feudalism (i.e., monarchy), pure laissez-faire capitalism (the phase the richest and most developed countries were in at the time he wrote), socialism (a mixed economy, not all that different from most of the developed democracies of today), and mature communism. Importantly, Marx believed that the world had to work through these phases in order, each one laying the groundwork for what would follow.

But, falling victim perhaps to a tendency that has dogged many great theorists of history, Marx saw his own times’ capitalist phase as different from all those that had come before in one important respect. Previously, class conflicts had been between the old elite and a new would-be elite that sought to wrest power from them — most recently, the landed gentry versus the new capitalist class of factory owners. But now, with the industrial age in full swing, he believed the next big struggles would be between the bourgeois elites and the proletarian masses as a whole. The proletariat would eventually win those struggles, resulting in a new era of true equality and majority rule. (Here, the eagerness of so many of the later communist states to label themselves democracies starts to become more clear.)

In light of what would follow in the name of Karl Marx, it’s all too easy to overlook the fact that he didn’t see himself as the agent which would bring about this new era; his communism was a description of what would happen in the future rather than a prescription for what should happen. Many of the direct calls to action in 1848’s The Communist Manifesto, by far his most rabble-rousing document, would ironically be universally embraced by the liberal democracies which would become the ideological enemy of communism in the century to come: things such as a progressive income tax, the abolition of child labor, and a basic taxpayer-funded education for everyone. The literary project he considered his most important life’s work, the famously dense three volumes of Capital, are, as the name would indicate, almost entirely concerned with capitalism and its discontents as Marx understood them to already exist, saying almost nothing about the communist future. Written later in his life and thus reflecting a more mature form of his philosophy, Capital shies away from even such calls to action as are found in The Communist Manifesto, saying again and again that the contradictions inherent in capitalism itself will inevitably bring it down when the time is right.

By this point in this life, Marx had become a thoroughgoing historical determinist, and was deeply wary of those who would use his theories to justify premature revolutions of the proletariat. Even The Communist Manifesto‘s calls to action had been intended not to force the onset of the last phase of history — communism — but to prod the world toward the penultimate phase of socialism. True communism, Marx believed, was still a long, long way off. Not least because he wrote so many more words about capitalism than he did about communism, Marx’s vision of the latter can be surprisingly vague for what would later become the ostensible blueprint for dozens upon dozens of governments, including those of two of the three biggest nations on the planet.

With this very basic understanding of Marxist theory, we can begin to understand the intellectual rot that lay at the heart of communism as it was actually implemented in the twentieth century. Russia in 1917 hadn’t even made it to Marx’s fourth phase of industrialized capitalism; as an agrarian economy, more feudal than capitalist, it was still mired in the third phase of history. Yet Vladimir Lenin proposed to leapfrog both of the intervening phases and take it straight to communism — something Marx had explicitly stated was not possible. Similarly ignoring Marx’s description of the transition to communism as a popular revolution of the people, Lenin’s approach hearkened back to Plato’s philosopher kings; he stated that he and his secretive cronies represented the only ones qualified to manage the transition. “It is an irony of history,” remarks historian Leslie Holmes dryly, “that parties committed to the eventual emergence of highly egalitarian societies were in many ways among the most elitist in the world.”

When Lenin ordered the cold-blooded murder of Czar Nicholas II and his entire family, he sketched the blueprint of communism’s practical future as little more than amoral despotism hiding behind a facade of Marxist rhetoric. And when capitalist systems all over the world didn’t collapse in the wake of the Russian Revolution, as he had so confidently predicted, there was never a question of saying, “Well, that’s that then!” and moving on. One of the most repressive governments in history was now firmly entrenched, and it wouldn’t give up power easily. “Socialism in One Country” became Josef Stalin’s slogan, as nationalism became an essential component of the new communism, again in direct contradiction to Marx’s theory of a new world order of classless equality. The guns and tanks parading through Red Square every May Day were a yearly affront to everything Marx had written.

Still, communist governments did manage some impressive achievements. Universal free healthcare, still a pipe dream throughout the developed West at the time, was achieved in the new Soviet Union in the 1920s. Right through the end of the Cold War, average life expectancy and infant-mortality rates weren’t notably worse in most communist countries than they were in Western democracies. Their educational systems as well were often competitive with those in the West, if sometimes emphasizing rote learning over critical thinking to a disturbing degree. Illiteracy was virtually nonexistent behind the Iron Curtain, and fluency in multiple languages was at least as commonplace as in Western Europe. Women were not just encouraged but expected to join the workforce, and were given a degree of equality that many of their counterparts in the West could only envy. The first decade or even in some cases several decades after the transition to communism would often bring an economic boom, as women entered the workforce for the first time and aged infrastructures were wrenched toward modernity, arguably at a much faster pace than could have been managed under a government more concerned about the individual rights of its citizens. Under these centrally planned economies, unemployment and the pain it can cause were literally unknown, as was homelessness. In countries where cars were still a luxury reserved for the more equal among the equal, public transport too was often surprisingly modern and effective.

In time, however, economic stagnation inevitably set in. Corruption in the planning departments — the root of the oligarchical system that still holds sway in the Russia of today — caused some industries to be favored over others with no regard to actual needs; the growing complexity of a modernizing economy overwhelmed the planners; a lack of personal incentive led to a paucity of innovation; prices and demand seemed to have no relation to one another, distorting the economy from top to bottom; the quality of consumer goods remained notoriously terrible. By the late 1970s, the Soviet Union, possessed of some of the richest farmland in the world, was struggling and failing just to feed itself, relying on annual imports of millions of tons of wheat and other raw foodstuffs. The very idea of the shambling monstrosity that was the Soviet economy competing with the emerging post-industrial knowledge economies of the West, which placed a premium on the sort of rampant innovation that can only be born of free press, free speech, and free markets, had become laughable. Francis Fukuyama:

The failure of central planning in the final analysis is related to the problem of technological innovation. Scientific inquiry proceeds best in an atmosphere of freedom, where people are permitted to think and communicate freely, and more importantly where they are rewarded for innovation. The Soviet Union and China both promoted scientific inquiry, particularly in “safe” areas of basic or theoretical research, and created material incentives to stimulate innovation in certain sectors like aerospace and weapons design. But modern economies must innovate across the board, not only in hi-tech fields but in more prosaic areas like the marketing of hamburgers and the creation of new types of insurance. While the Soviet state could pamper its nuclear physicists, it didn’t have much left over for the designers of television sets, which exploded with some regularity, or for those who might aspire to market new products to new consumers, a completely non-existent field in the USSR and China.

Marx had dreamed of a world where everyone worked just four hours per day to contribute her share of the necessities of life to the collective, leaving the rest of her time free to pursue hobbies and creative endeavors. Communism in practice did manage to get half of that equation right; few people put in more than four honest hours of labor per day. (As a popular joke said, “they pretend to pay me and I pretend to work.”) But these sad, ugly gray societies hardly encouraged a fulfilling personal life, given that the tools for hobbies were almost impossible to come by and so many forms of creative expression could land you in jail.

If there’s one adjective I associate more than any other with the communist experiments of the twentieth century, it’s “corrupt.” Born of a self-serving corruption of Marx’s already questionable theories, their economies functioned so badly that corruption on low and on high, of forms small and large, was the only way they could muddle through at all. Just as the various national communist parties were vipers’ nests of intrigue and backstabbing in the name of very non-communist personal ambitions, ordinary citizens had to rely on an extensive black market that lived outside the planned economy in order to simply survive.

So, in examining the game of Civilization‘s take on communism, one first has to ask which version of same is being modeled, the idealistic theory or the corrupt reality. It turns out pretty obviously to be the reality of communism as it was actually practiced in the twentieth century. In another of their crazily insightful translations of history to code, Meier and Shelley made communism’s effect on the game’s mechanic of corruption its defining attribute. A communist economy in the game performs up to the same mediocre baseline standard as a monarchy — which is probably being generous, on the whole. Yet it has the one important difference that economy-draining corruption, rather than increasing in cities located further from your capital, is uniform across the entirety of your civilization. While the utility of this is highly debatable in game terms, it’s rather brilliant and kind of hilarious as a reflection of the way that corruption and communism have always been so inseparable from one another — essential to one another, one might even say — in the real world. After all, when your economy runs on corruption, you need to make sure you have it everywhere.

For all that history since the original Civilization was made has had plenty of troubling aspects, it hasn’t seen any resurgence of communism; even Russia hasn’t regressed quite that far. The new China, while still ruled by a cabal who label themselves the Communist Party, gives no more than occasional lip service to Chairman Mao, having long since become something new to history: a joining of authoritarianism and capitalism that’s more interested in doing business with the West than fomenting revolutions there, and has been far more successful at it than anyone could have expected, enough to challenge some of the conventional wisdom that democracy is required to manage a truly thriving economy. (I’ll turn back to the situation in China and ask what it might mean in the last article of this series.) Meanwhile the last remaining hard-line communist states are creaky old relics from another era, just waiting to take their place in hipster living rooms between vinyl record albums and lava lamps; a place like North Korea would almost be kitschy if its chubby man-child of a leader wasn’t killing and torturing so many of his own people and threatening the world with nuclear war.

When those last remaining old-school communist regimes finally collapse in one way or another, will that be that for Karl Marx as well? Probably not. There are still Marxists among us, many of whom say that the real, determinstic communist revolution is still ahead of us, who claim that the communism of the twentieth century was all a misguided and tragic false start, an attempt to force upon history what history was not yet ready for. They find grist for their mill in the fact that so many of the most progressive democracies in the world have embraced socialism, providing for their citizens much of what Marx asked for in The Communist Manifesto. If this vanguard has thus reached the fifth phase of history, can the sixth and final be far behind? We shall see. In the meantime, though, liberal democracy continues to provide something communism has never yet been able to: a practical, functional framework for a healthy economy and a healthy government right here and now, in the world in which we actually live.

I couldn’t conclude this survey without saying something about anarchy, Civilization‘s least desirable system of government — or, in this case, system of non-government. You fall into it only as a transitional phase between two other forms of government, or if you let your population under a democracy get too unhappy. Anarchy is, as the Civilopedia says, “a breakdown in government” that brings “panic, disruption, waste, and destruction.” It’s comprehensively devastating to your economy; you want to spend as little time in anarchy as you possibly can. And that, it would seem, is just about all there is to say about it.

Or is it? It’s worth noting that the related word “anarchism” in the context of government has another meaning that isn’t acknowledged by the game, one born from many of the same patterns of thought that spawned Karl Marx’s communism. Anarchism’s version of Marx could be said to be one Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, who in 1840 applied what had hitherto been a pejorative term to a new, positive vision of social organization characterized not by yet another new system of government but by government’s absence. Community norms, working in tandem with the natural human desire to be accepted and respected, could according to the anarchists replace government entirely. By 1905, they had earned themselves an entry in the Encyclopedia Britannica:

[Anarchism is] the name given to a principle or theory of life and conduct under which society is conceived without government — harmony in such a society being obtained, not by submission to law, or by obedience to any authority, but by free agreements, concluded between the various groups, territorial and professional, freely constituted for the sake of production and consumption, as also for the satisfaction of the infinite variety of needs and aspirations of a civilised being.

As a radical ideology advocating a classless society, anarchism has often seemed to walk hand in hand with communism. As an ideology advocating the absolute supremacy of individual freedom, it’s sometimes seemed most at home in right-wing libertarian circles. Yet its proponents insist it to be dramatically different from either of these philosophies, as described by the American anarchist activist and journalist Dwight Macdonald in 1957:

The revolutionary alternative to the status quo today is not collectivised property administered by a “workers’ state,” whatever that means, but some kind of anarchist decentralisation that will break up mass society into small communities where individuals can live together as variegated human beings instead of as impersonal units in the mass sum. The shallowness of the New Deal and the British Labour Party’s postwar regime is shown by their failure to improve any of the important things in people’s lives — the actual relationships on the job, the way they spend their leisure, and child-rearing and sex and art. It is mass living that vitiates all these today, and the State that holds together the status quo. Marxism glorifies “the masses” and endorses the State [the latter is not quite true in terms of Marx’s original theories, as we’ve seen]. Anarchism leads back to the individual and the community, which is “impractical” but necessary — that is to say, it is revolutionary.

As Macdonald tacitly admits, it’s always been difficult to fully grasp how anarchism would work in theory, much less in practice; if you’ve always felt that communism is too practical a political ideology, anarchism is the radical politics for you. Its history has been one of constant defeat — or rather of never even getting started — but it never seems to entirely go away. Like Rousseau’s vision of the “noble savage,” it will always have a certain attraction in a world that only continues to get more complicated, in societies that continue to remove themselves further and further from what feels to some like their natural wellspring. For this reason, we’ll have occasion to revisit some anarchist ideas again in the last article of this series.


What, then, should we say in conclusion about Civilization and government? The game has often been criticized for pointing you toward one type of government — democracy — as by far the best for developing your civilization all the way to Alpha Centauri. That bias is certainly present in the game, but it’s hard for me to get as exercised about it as some simply because I’m not at all sure it isn’t also present in history. At least if we define progress in the same terms as Civilization, democracy has proved itself to be more than just an airy-fairy ideal; it’s the most effective means for organizing a society which we’ve yet come up with.

Appeals to principle aside, the most compelling argument for democracy has long been the simple fact that it works, that it’s better than any other form of government at creating prosperous, peaceful countries where, as our old friend Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel would put it, the most people have the most chance to fulfill their individual thymos. Tellingly, many of the most convincing paeans to democracy tend to come in the form of backhanded compliments. “Democracy is the worst form of government,” famously said Winston Churchill, “except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” Or, as the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr wrote, “Man’s inclination to justice makes democracy possible, but man’s capacity for injustice makes it necessary.” Make no mistake: democracy is a messy business. But history tells us that it really does work.

None of this is to say that you should be sanguine about your democracy’s future, assuming you’re lucky enough to live in one. Like videogames, democracy is an interactive medium. Protests and bitter arguments are a sign that it’s working, not the opposite. So, go protest and argue and all the rest, but remember as you do so that this too — whatever this happens to be — shall pass. And, at least if history is any guide, democracy shall live on after it does.

(Sources: the books Civilization, or Rome on 640K A Day by Johnny L. Wilson and Alan Emrich, The End of History and the Last Man by Francis Fukuyama, The Republic by Plato, Politics by Aristotle, Plough, Sword, and Book: The Structure of Human History by Ernest Gellner, Aristocracy: A Very Short Introduction by William Doyle, Democracy: A Very Short Introduction by Bernard Crick, Plato: A Very Short Introduction by Julia Annas, Political Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction by David Miller, The Myth of the Rational Voter by Bryan Caplan, Anarchism: A Very Short Introduction by Colin Ward, Communism: A Very Short Introduction by Leslie Holmes, Corruption: A Very Short Introduction by Leslie Holmes, The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Capital by Karl Marx, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker; What’s the Matter with Kansas: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America by Thomas Frank, The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt.)


1 The collapsed democracies of places like Venezuela and Sri Lanka, which managed on paper to survive several decades before their downfall, could never be described as mature or stable, having been plagued throughout those decades with constant coup attempts and endemic corruption. Ditto Turkey, which has sadly embraced Putin-style sham democracy in the last few years after almost a century of intermittent crises, including earlier coups or military interventions in civilian government in 1960, 1971, 1980, and 1997. Of course, we have to be wary of straying into the logical fallacy of simply defining any democracy which collapses as never having been stable to begin with. Still, I think the evidence, at least as of this writing, justifies the claim that a mature, stable democracy has never yet collapsed back into blatant authoritarianism.

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56 Responses to The Game of Everything, Part 8: Civilization and Government II (Democracy, Communism, and Anarchy)

  1. whomever

    May 4, 2018 at 8:27 pm

    Oooh! Jimmy goes political! Go Jimmy! (not being sarcastic, I actually thing this was a really well written article). However, devils advocate, even ignoring the extremely complicated history of Greece/Macedon (which had become a backwards tourist resort by Roman times) I would just point out that Rome was a republic for a bit under 500 years, and then wasn’t. And my favorite bar bet, what is the longest running Republic in world history? Why yes, that would be the Serene Republic of Venice (a bit over a thousand years depending on how you count, and to be clear, if I was living anytime between say 12thc-15thc I’d totally pick Venice). Both of course republic in the “rich guys get the vote” but that describes 19th c America and UK as well, so. Anyway, neither exists anymore (Rome descended into dictatorship and Venice was incorporated into the 19th century mess that eventually became modern Italy, so ironically both are technically the same democracy today). OTOH Iceland can point to the Allthing as being from the 900s so that’s totally to your argument.

    • Jimmy Maher

      May 4, 2018 at 8:54 pm

      I knew I would get push-back on that. ;) Your points are well-taken, but none of these examples quite qualify as democracies in the modern sense of extending the voting franchise to most or all adult citizens. The modern democratic tradition really dates back to the American Declaration of Independence and Constitution, and it’s democracies in that tradition and that era that are encompassed by the term “democracy” today. If you prefer, however, we can say that no mature, stable democracy has collapsed since 1850, by which time the voting franchise in the United States had been extended to almost all while males in almost all of the states. ;)

      • Gnoman

        May 5, 2018 at 5:05 am

        I’m not at all sure that this position is fair to the English or the Dutch. By the time of the American revolution, the Dutch Republic was nearly two centuries old, and the English system that took shape in the mid 1500s and evolved into that of today was the direct inspiration for the US Government.

        When the political situation of England in the 1780s is considered (in those days, the King still governed, not merely reigned, even if his formal powers were not that much greater than those Elizabeth II has today), there is an almost direct mapping of the components. President = King, House of Representatives = House of Commons, Senate = House of Lords.

        Apart from having the Presidency being an elected rather than an inherited position, the only major addition the Founders made to the British system was the Supreme Court, and the only major alteration was to give each branch a great deal of power to overrule the others in specified ways. These are not minor changes, but they are also nowhere near enough to hide the English bones.

        • Jimmy Maher

          May 5, 2018 at 2:13 pm

          Certainly there are huge structural similarities. But those details, while important in their place, aren’t quite the point. With those opening paragraphs of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson popularized the *ideal* of democracy and equality, which led directly to the French Revolution and the democratic wave that swept across Europe during the nineteenth century. The United States provided the ideal to strive for, even as the American implementation remained, to state the obvious, deeply flawed. I highly recommend The Past is a Foreign Country by David Lowenthal for a great analysis of perceptions of the United States through time.

  2. doctorcasino

    May 4, 2018 at 10:48 pm

    Lots to dig into here! As always, I’m interested in making things messier and more complicated; not to say that your analysis is naive, but rather to state once again that this game in its peculiar choices opens up all kinds of space for discussion and consideration of alternatives.


    In general, I think the game’s model of “democracy” is, like the others, radically simplistic and tough to map onto the real world since we don’t really know what counts as a “democracy” here. In turn this makes it hard to generalize about how societies that are “more democratic” fare. Does “more democracy” presume universal suffrage? Does it require constitutional checks and balances on authority and incumbency? If so, which ones? Are the procedures for altering the basic terms of the democracy comparatively accessible or stupefyingly difficult? Are majority-rule powers like recall elections more democratic, or less so? Is democratic power extended to spheres like the workplace or walled off from them? Is it democratic for a state to vest most of its powers in a nationally-elected leader (the “imperial presidency” model), or to keep it vested in a legislature? Is hiving off major decision-making to educated experts undemocratic (shifting towards a technocracy) or democratic (choice of the people to trust particular guides)? How many systemic violations of human rights and equality do we have to see to declare that a country is no longer a “true” democracy, that its democratic institutions might not survive? How many institutions need to fail for this to be a problem? Which ones? If the government is utterly failing to address obvious and blindingly important issues (like, say, climate change, or systematic human rights violations by the government, or democratically-approved expansions of despotic power) does that mean that the “self-correcting” mechanisms have failed, or just that we just need to wait a little while?

    Some of these things are naturally far more drilled-down than the scope at which Civ operates, but I do think they make it very tough to generalize in a Fukuyama way about the march of democracy or to sketch out rules for how the world works and how democratic states deal with each other. Two “democracies” could be in a massively unequal and exploitative relationship (as in many neocolonial formations) without being at “war.”

    But as far as Civ goes as a game, the conceptual muddle hits a wall with this one: if my Civ is a democracy, what am *I* doing deciding what buildings they build and technologies they research? At this point, the player role only makes logical sense as a *historian* of that Civ, where your moves in the game are historical statements (“at this date, they decided to irrigate the swamps near Peoria”), not “choices.” But we could imagine a game where as you switch to “democracy,” an increasing number of decisions are actually taken out of your hands: your power as sovereign director of your Civ is actually constrained, certain menus are taken away. To keep that game interesting and lively would take a whole nother gigantic development project – I’m just saying that boiling it down to “citizens are more restless but the economy grows” is sort of a weird set of variables to bundle together around “democracy.” On the other hand, an even *more* triumphalist game would just have the game be declared complete when you arrive at democracy: “you” step out of the seat of power, your civ goes, on, history is at an end. Cleaner – but I have to say I’m grateful they didn’t go with that one.

    ON WAR:

    “Civilization‘s mechanics actually vastly understate the case for democracy here.” Indeed, democracy can easily be a force *for* war, as the example of Vietnam reminds us: a succession of administrations each recognized that the war was not winnable or worth winning, but still chose to deepen and broaden the war in order to save face and avoid the perceived electoral consequences of withdrawal. And of course, politicians might actively campaign on war as a means to achieve some other desire with popular appeal (“we should go and grab the oil”) or to ally inchoate anxieties (“we live in dangerous times, I will keep us safe by destroying the bad guys”).


    I’ll table my concerns about democracy’s putative ties to capitalist economic growth, as you acknowledge the problem of Deng’s China; I guess we’ll be back to this. But Fukuyama’s tidy story of education and the desire “to be masters” strikes me as convenient capitalist cheerleaderism that doesn’t leave any space for the possibility that the lower classes and/or their middle managers could be “educated” with ideology, to the effect that actually the current status quo is really great, that they should be glad of what they have, and that the narrow opportunity for a very few of them to become “masters” through that education is proof that the society works.


    The “corruption” mechanic is, I fear, complete nonsense in the game, as you begin to recognize with your points about the “distance from the capital” mechanic. Your efforts to make sense of it are valiant, but I think they depend on fudging a bit around what people generally think of as “corruption.” As you acknowledge when glancing over at the Trump administration, ubiquitous corruption is hardly unique to “non-democratic, less-developed countries.” Pay-for-play politics, government jobs handed out to the highest donor, police and courts looking the other way or covering up for each other, revolving doors between regulators and the economic spheres they regulate, development projects and job centers distributed as political kickbacks – these are all endemic in many “stable, mature” democracies. The fact that the architects and beneficiaries of the 2008 financial meltdown are walking around free (and wealthy) smacks more of classically “corrupt” conditions than tourists getting overcharged on souvenirs. The only “corruption” in that story would be if the vendor pays the tax collector some of the surplus to avoid their full tax burden, or something like that.

    In turn, I think the attempt to show a correlation between corruption indices and economic performance around the globe has another, missing factor: the history of colonialism. The wealthy democracies got wealthy by the very undemocratic process of draining the rest of the world; those other places have faced a whole panoply of difficulties which have come up in my comments here before, but the cause-and-effect chain towards a present day difficulty in establishing corruption-proof institutions is not hard to envision. In other words, if we want to ask “just why democracy has accrued so much wealth and power in the developed West,” it’s unwise to assume this is just an inherent outcome of democracy’s relationship to the economy.

    This has bigger implications for your arc overall. Is a “democracy” that approves colonial wars and tolerates savage labor conditions in its internal or external hinterlands really creating “prosperous, peaceful countries”? If a world run by powerful “democracies” means hundreds of millions or billions of people at the edge of poverty, do “the most people have the most chance to fulfill their individual thymos”? In the Hunger Games, the people living in the capital are plenty prosperous and peaceful, but the other people they rule are not. Civ, as I’ve noted before, just doesn’t “do” colonialism, or asymmetrical power relationships generally, so it can’t really let us model or role-play these questions.


    You are absolutely correct that Civ’s communism is modeled on the monstrous autocracies of the Soviet and Maoist spheres, and not any other model. While I’ve touched on this before, I’ll just add that the problem goes beyond choosing between “the idealistic theory or the corrupt reality” – there are numerous other possible communisms, just as there are numerous other possible capitalisms. The game’s conflation of economic models and systems of government has once again led Meier and Shelley into a fairly narrow and square-peg-round-hole instrumentalization of the concept. More and more I think they should have gone with a dozen or so “political economies.”

    I’ll conclude by suggesting that the “success” of liberal democracy should be measured not against mass-murdering authoritarian dystopias but against identifiable goals of what would constitute a just and equitable society. If, as you say, democracy provides a framework for a “healthy economy,” what characterizes “health”? Can we say that a democracy has succeeded if GDP is high and keeps growing (i.e. capitalists are making money)? Count me with those suggesting we might instead consider how the worst off are doing. As noted a few threads back, Civ has no language to talk about this except the quasi-Reaganite formulation of spending on “luxuries” (not “infrastructure” or “safety net”). A missed opportunity, I think.

    • Tom

      May 5, 2018 at 12:36 pm

      As to your last paragraph, why?

      No, seriously, why?

      When it comes to measuring “is this the best system we have available,” we don’t compare it to some mythical ideal, but instead to the other systems that are currently available. And by that standard, liberal democracy is the best form of government–for everyone. (The Soviets did some serious book-cooking on most of their stats, FWIW.)

      • doctorcasino

        May 7, 2018 at 2:36 am

        Well, because otherwise the focus on the best system “available” often devolves into celebrating the systems currently *in place*, which isn’t quite the same thing. And even within the frame of contemporary liberal democracy, as I tried to suggest above, there are a huge range of possible combinations of basic constitutional decisions “available,” which means it’s very hard to point to any one system and declare that one more embodies democracy than another, let alone “aha, we’ve found the best possible model.” I was brought to these musings by the presence here of a figure like Fukuyama, a reminder that the Churchillian type of position can easily flip over into an uncritical triumphalism concerning a very specific kind of society (in his case, capitalism with American-style democratic institution) which may *not* be the “best form of government – for everyone.”

    • Jimmy Maher

      May 5, 2018 at 1:57 pm

      Interesting food for thought, as usual.

      We’ve already discussed the weird leader dynamic in Civilization — the fraught question of just who it is that’s doing the leading in the game — so I won’t get into that again here. Personally, I prefer to turn off the “palace-improvement” option and see myself as a sort of god or, better yet, force of fate nudging my civilization along. Obviously, mileages will vary here.

      Some non-comprehensive comments on your other comments:

      I would be a bit careful of equating democracy writ large with its deeply idiosyncratic and increasingly creaky American implementation. You seem to be doing quite a lot of that here. Given the historical connection between the United States and modern democracy, it will always be tempting to judge the latter through the lens of the former. Yet in a lot of really important ways the United States is an outlier among developed democracies.

      Recent decades have indeed seen a slow but alarming drift from basic democratic principles in the United States: the gutting of the Fairness Doctrine has allowed much of what the people consume as news to become full-on political propaganda; the gutting of campaign-finance and lobbying rules has caused too many politicians to put their doners before their constituents (“Corporations are people too”); rampant gerrymandering has profoundly distorted the people’s representation in Congress; and of course the antiquated electoral college has lifted someone whom the majority of the people did *not* choose to the presidency twice in the course of the past five elections. Where all this will ultimately lead is uncertain. I tend to believe that the country can and will self-correct, although it may take another generation or so to get there. Already we can see some encouraging signs, with the courts finally beginning to address the absurdities of gerrymandering. As long as one of the two political parties depends on these friction points in American democracy to remain viable, constructive change will, to say the least, be difficult. But that party can’t dodge demographics forever.

      More germane to the present discussion: European and Australasian democracies as well as Canada have shown themselves to be far more effective at addressing many of the concerns you mention in recent years. They do a better job of taking care of the worst-off, and in terms of starting wars have been guilty mostly of deferring overmuch to the United States in its wars of choice. And their approach to climate change has been sober and realistic, even if much, much more still needs to be done. After living in Scandinavia for the past nine years, I’ve come to conclude that a parliamentary democracy of *many* parties has much to recommend it, not least in that it forces constructive compromise, since no party can ever hope for anything like a clear majority.

      I do have more to say about globalization, but that’s coming in the next article. For now, I’ll just say that I’m certainly aware that the globalized economy depends on a lot of troubling asymmetries of wealth among nations. But I don’t believe we can say — not that you necessarily were — that the colonizing countries were the ones who just happened to become democracies, and that the former rather than the latter factor accounts entirely for their wealth. There are a number of examples of countries that were not colonizers who adopted democracy and saw their economies soar. There really is a clear linkage between democracy and economic performance when the two factors are taken in isolation — which isn’t, of course, to say there aren’t other factors at play as well in specific cases.

      Finally, I do agree with Tom that we have to be careful not to make perfect the enemy of good — or for that matter of better — on the subject of government. A certain Winston Churchill quote is definitely apropos here. ;)

      • doctorcasino

        May 7, 2018 at 2:55 am

        regarding the US: I would be the first to agree that we should not equate the US system with “democracy!” That’s what Fukuyama was doing AFAICT and it’s not super helpful. But I brought up the spree of problems endemic to the US to make a specific point, that the way you’re writing about “corruption” here, as this thing of tourists getting overcharged in developing nations, really doesn’t sound like what “corruption” means in most contexts. Another context: a friend of mine did his thesis work on corruption in Spain and the stuff he was looking at sounds like the stuff I’m talking about – influence-peddling, shady contracts, infrastructure pork, etc. etc. Of course, the *idea* of citizens being in control of a government belonging equally to them all is antithetical to these kinds of activities. But in practice, there’s not really much about “citizens will control their government through voting” that guarantees these things won’t happen.

        I am not so sure about the European comparison but time will tell, perhaps. To be clear, I am writing as an advocate of democracy from a leftist point of view so I certainly agree about taking better care about the worst-off (though even in Europe, for many this question seems to stop short at “the worst off who were born to citizenship in this country”). Meanwhile: how does “deferring overmuch” to war-making nations let them off the hook? If the idea is that democracies are less apt to say “yes” to war, should it be relevant that they’re saying “yes” to somebody else’s war? This is another way of getting round to the question I was bringing up through colonization and economic exploitation: if you’re voting for the suffering of someone else, far away, who doesn’t get a vote, is that “democratic”? If not, what would a truly democratic system look like?

        With regard to democracy, economic performance, and colonization: I am really not sure how we could take any of these factors in “isolation,” especially since each one is contestable on its own, as I tried to show above. That is: we could disagree tremendously on whether any given country is a democracy or how much of a democracy it is; we could disagree tremendously on whether any given country has good “economic performance or bad; we could probably even disagree on whether or not a given country was a “colonizer.” Anyway, these developments are all profoundly interrelated and messy; history really doesn’t lend itself to zoomed-out large scale formulas, though a game engine may depend on them. I’m reminded a bit of Groening’s parody of a single-issue historian: “The nation that controls magnesium controls the universe!” It’d work great for a game called Master of Magnesium, but might not be so good a starting point for a real-world discussion…

        • Jimmy Maher

          May 7, 2018 at 6:14 am

          Well, my point in describing corruption in those terms isn’t that the overcharging of tourists is its most deadly result, but rather that the mindset which leads to said overcharging also leads to all of the other, far more serious syndromes you describe. I would argue that a mature, stable democracy demands faith in institutions, and that that same faith in institutions (as opposed to personal, transactional relationships) leads to less corruption. The tourist anecdote comes into play only because it’s something many of us who have traveled a bit have experienced, giving us a window into the mindset that leads to rampant corruption of other, more significant forms.

          How does “deferring overmuch” to war-making nations let them off the hook?

          But I didn’t let them off the hook…

          If the idea is that democracies are less apt to say “yes” to war, should it be relevant that they’re saying “yes” to somebody else’s war?

          An at least equally relevant question is, were they the prime drivers for starting the war?

          This is another way of getting round to the question I was bringing up through colonization and economic exploitation: if you’re voting for the suffering of someone else, far away, who doesn’t get a vote, is that “democratic”?

          Um, of course it is. Democracy doesn’t require always making the best or most moral choice.

          I judge whether and to what extent a country is a democracy by looking to the Economist’s Democracy Index. I judge a country’s economic performance by GDP-per-capita. I judge whether a country is a colonizer or not by asking whether it possessed overseas colonies. You can choose to engage with the discussion on these terms as well, or to propose your own criteria that you feel are better-suited. Just saying it’s “messy,” however, isn’t terribly helpful. Correlation is not always causation, but the statistical correlations I describe using the aforementioned data really are present, which rather indicates that something important is going on here. Heck, if you can show me centuries of similarly compelling data regarding the nation that controls magnesium, I’d be happy to add it to the mix as well. ;)

          • doctorcasino

            May 7, 2018 at 4:06 pm

            Well, I say it’s “messy” not to avoid further discussion but specifically because I think trying there are serious and potentially insurmountable problems in constructing a statistical argument out of such gigantic, complex, and very different situations in play. IMHO, history really doesn’t lend itself to formulations like “democracy correlates with economic growth,” though I appreciate your efforts to try and pin some of these categories down with specific data sets.

            Re: corruption: Not sure I follow the suggestion that there’s a causal relationship between a generalized faith-in-institutions mindset and all these different things labeled corruption…. or whether faith in institutions is even at issue in any of them. The billionaire getting sweetheart legislation doesn’t lack faith in institutions – the institutions work great for him! The difference here between the “institutional” and “personal/transactional” models may be hard to identify, if the corrupting figures have gotten the institutional rules written around their needs. And in which institutions is the overcharging gift shop owner displaying a lack of faith? I just find this way of defining corruption a tad idiosyncratic, but maybe that’s because I’ve spent too much time with people like my old roommate who used the term in a particular political science context. :) (Also, in America at least we have a real problem with lots of things being labeled “corruption” that aren’t, or elisions between “corruption” and “policies I don’t like” – related to the accusations of “Fake News”…. Obviously this is not the kick you’re on, but maybe you can understand if I feel like it’s a word to be used carefully right now.)

            re: “prime drivers for starting the war”: Obviously I think this is an important political and ethical question in general, but I’m not sure it’s super relevant to the question at hand, which is whether democracy has some correlation with not-waging-war. The countries voting democratically to approve, authorize, look the other way, provide material support, etc., have to ‘count’ in the evaluation of such claims, right?

            re: “Um, of course it is” – well there we’ll just have to disagree. Not because I’m trying to introduce “making the best or most moral choice” as a criterion, but because my point was that if democracy is supposed to mean the rule of the people, and some people don’t get a vote in things that affect them (catastrophically) then clearly we may have some ways to go. If it’s a problem for people to be able to tax you without you getting a vote, surely it should be a problem for people to be able to bomb you without you getting a vote.

            Turning to your definitional criteria… here I’m not looking to win you over but just to establish that these are not objective and all lead us back to my long list of different questions around which we could assess a country’s status as a “democracy” or how “stable” and “mature” it is.

            “The Economist’s Democracy Index” – OK. This is based on responses by certain individuals or groups to sixty questions, so those questions are going to reflect assumptions about what’s important in assessing democracy. As it happens, looking over them at a glance I don’t see too much that I’d personally disagree with, though some questions are circular, vague, or based on unexplained assumptions, e.g. “Is there a sufficient degree of societal consensus and cohesion to underpin a stable, functioning demcoracy?” (Who decided this was an “underpinning” factor? How do we know how much “consensus and cohesion” is “sufficient”?) Other items suggest we are roaming into the realm of policy questions: “Extent to which private property rights protected and private business is free from undue government influence.” Obviously, depending who they are asking this to, what would qualify as “undue” might vary wildly! Also, at least in the report that I found, we don’t seem to be able to break out individual questions for individual countries (though I’m sure that’s available somewhere) making it hard for me to get a sense of how much “government influence” is viewed as “undue” by comparing to specific countries.

            “GDP per-capita” – I disagree strongly! First, averages are generally less indicative than medians. A country with a million people, mostly starving, but one trillionaire would appear to be a country of millionaires. Second, IMHO GDP itself is a bad place to start from if we’re interested in how the society is performing for its population overall; it’s not a number that talks about how people are *doing* but on how much firms are *producing*. Some of the highest-ranked GDP-per-capita countries are rife with economic inequality and exploitation: Qatar, Brunei, Saudi Arabia. Are we choosing to define this as “success”?

            “by asking whether it possessed overseas colonies” – That seems reasonable at a glance. Maybe it would help me if you could indicate which countries you had in mind when you said there are a number of examples “who were not colonizers who adopted democracy and saw their economies soar.” For my part I would be inclined to examine these with regard to whether they were sponsored in any way by former colonizers (passing forward the wealth transfer from the colonized world) or whether they engaged in forms of economic exploitation (neocolonialism) that did not involve planting a flag anywhere.

            If it seems like I’m beating a dead horse here, it’s just because I think that a lot of textbook and pop histories of the West *seriously* shortchange how crucial colonial wealth was to the Enlightenment and industrial eras that fostered these putative democracies. Recognizing that it’s Caribbean sugar money that finances the steam engine and the textile mills, and that those mills were processing cotton from Egypt, India, and the slaveholding American South, means that it’s hard to disentangle questions of the undemocratic colony from both England’s economic performance and its voting proletariat. But I reckon I’ve said my peace and then some. :) Thanks for reading!

            • Jimmy Maher

              May 7, 2018 at 6:28 pm

              I do think we’re talking past one another to some extent because I’m judging liberal democracy through the lens of the individual country and its citizens, while you’re looking at it from a more global perspective. The latter is important as well, but I’ve deliberately saved it for my next article.

              Anyway, some more specific replies:

              The gift-shop owner, I would argue, is displaying a lack of faith in the institution of a codified business model based on set pricing, preferring instead to negotiate each transaction on a personal, ad-hoc basis. But in noting that perceptions of what is and isn’t corruption vary from culture to culture, you’re getting closer to the point I was making. Giving plum positions to friends and family — what we in the developed West would call blatantly corrupt nepotism — is regarded as the ethical thing to in some cultures. There’s actually a fascinating body of statistics showing that cultures with strong extended-family ties have far more problems with corruption than those that don’t. The Very Short Introduction book on corruption is a good primer on some of these psychological factors.

              I agree that median income — i.e., the income of the 50th percentile — is a better way of judging how well a government/economy truly serves its citizens than raw GDP-per-capita. But I wasn’t quite making any claim of that sort, only looking to judge economic performance in the aggregate. While I don’t have the numbers handy for median income — although I’m sure they’re available — my gut instinct tells me that democracy may actually come out looking even better by this measurement, as it would eliminate distorted non-democratic economies like those of many Middle Eastern countries, where a tiny oligarchical class profits from oil while most of the population lives in poverty.

              Off the top of my head, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, Israel, and the rather special case of Taiwan are all examples of liberal democracies with strong economies that were not colonizers. The United States as well could almost be included in that group, as it got into the colonization game only a few years before the era ended. Of course, many of these were themselves former colonies, and one could certainly argue that they profited from colonization in another way. But even in these cases, we can make useful comparisons with other former colonies blessed with similarly rich resources, such as Mexico and much of Central and South America, that were not as successful at democratizing from the get-go and remained much poorer. Other compelling examples can be made of Germany and Japan. Both countries had overseas colonies at one time, but had those possessions stripped from them in the course of having their economies, infrastructures, and societal institutions absolutely demolished in World War II. Yet both embraced democracy with a passion in the second half of the twentieth century, and today both are among the strongest economies in the world — all coming from a base of nothing or perhaps worse than nothing. (Yes, American aid helped, but it hardly explains everything.)

              • Simon_Jester

                September 20, 2022 at 11:33 am

                Coming back to this much later, but I think one of the reasons the definition of “corruption” got argued over in the comments here is that what institutions we consider corrupt does (as the comment I’m replying to acknowledges) depend heavily on perspective.

                Most of us can agree to call nepotism “corruption,” and while there are societies where it’s normative, we’re comfortable saying those societies have a corruption problem.

                People are less sure that a haggling economy (especially one where commodities being sold to tourists that are insanely rich by local standards and wouldn’t even be on this continent if they didn’t have money to spare) constitutes corruption.

                After all, even in low-corruption economies it’s extremely common for prices to be negotiated between economic actors rather than set at some fixed point for everyone. We just think of fixed prices as normal because:

                1) As private individuals walking into stores, we don’t have much economic leverage with which to negotiate. “If you don’t buy it, someone else will!”

                2) And we’re often dealing with giant businesses whose employees themselves have no authority to negotiate. A Wal-Mart cashier can’t haggle with us over the price of an alarm clock or whatever.

          • doctorcasino

            May 8, 2018 at 4:06 am

            It’s not letting me click ‘reply’ at the bottom of the thread – perhaps a sign that enough has been typed – so I’ll click up here and hope for the best.

            There are lots of things I can say but I think the only actually important one to me is in response to “Off the top of my head, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, Israel, and the rather special case of Taiwan are all examples of liberal democracies with strong economies that were not colonizers. The United States as well could almost be included in that group, as it got into the colonization game only a few years before the era ended.” Er…. do Palestinians and the murdered indigenous peoples of North America and Australia not exist in this scenario? As for the USA – in addition to the people of the Philippines and the other territories taken over in the Spanish-American war, we are talking about a country whose foundational capital was profoundly tied up in slavery (both within the country and in the Caribbean sugar plantations previously mentioned) and whose 20th century economic might was deeply dependent on propping up military autocracies all over the globe (hello corruption btw) to maintain neocolonial resource extraction, while providing military and espionage expertise to various other colonizer-democracies looking to stay in the same game. To the Cubans, Guatemalans, Iranians, Brazilians, South Vietnamese, et al. whose countries were ground down by dictators taking cues from the CIA or State Department (crush the unions, crush the dissidents, provide commodities cheaply to American corporations), the US was pretty evidently in the “colonization game.” In essence, Americans were democratically voting to ensure their own prosperity by the expedient of having other people ruled by murderous thugs. To return to one of my original points: many of the countries affected are still facing enormous problems today as a direct result of these actions; if their economies and their political systems remain shaky, doesn’t this even further muddy the waters of the statistical pool?

            Among these US-backed dictatorships were, of course, the various regimes that for long and short periods ruled South Korea and Taiwan, making me wonder how they met your forty-year benchmark for “mature and stable.” Both were under military rule when Pirates! came out! In any event their very existence (even and especially during their various autocratic periods) has been almost entirely dependent on US economic aid and military backing.

            Once again, none of this is me attempting to say that democracy is bad! Just that we shouldn’t get ahead of ourselves in thinking that we’ve more or less arrived at a system that, warts and all, is still about as good as we can hope for. It is unquestionably better in many respects than rule by divine-right kings but it has a long way to go.

            • Jimmy Maher

              May 8, 2018 at 6:41 am

              I agree with some of what you say, my friend, but it doesn’t do much to get to the heart of whether liberal democracy leads to strong economic performance. As it is, the dividing line between those colonies settled by Europeans that did extremely well economically, such as the United States and Canada, and those that did less well, such as Mexico and Peru, would seem to be how enthusiastically and effectively they embraced liberal democracy. This is what needs to be addressed in order to formulate an argument that the two are not casually interlinked.

          • doctorcasino

            May 8, 2018 at 5:51 pm

            My point (I think – we’re a few posts deep now!) is that I don’t read that as the “dividing line.” There are plenty of other things shared by the United States and Canada and not shared by Mexico and Peru, not least the economic structure of their colonial experience, that might be relevant to how they have done economically since then. The USA and Canada were primarily settler colonies, and they were permitted to develop their own bourgeois class of small- and medium-scale banks and traders, primarily generating renewable provisions for the Caribbean slave colonies (so they wouldn’t have to waste land raising food animals, maintaining trees for wood, etc.)…. but also developing a robust web of mutual ties to firms based in Europe. The Spanish colonies were primarily extractive operations (sending silver and gold back to the crown) without the same networks, and that kind of one-sided relationship (more typical of colonialism worldwide) continued after independence in the former Spanish and Portuguese colonies with such late 19th century bonanzas as guano-nitrate extraction, the various fruit companies that called into existence the various “banana republic” dictatorships, the infamous Amazon rubber boom, etc. etc.

            So, if I did want to put these two terms (democracy and economic growth) into a causal relationship, I’d be inclined to flip it: I think the USA managed to become a democracy *because* it had local stores of capital and resources (as a result of the kind of colony it was), not the other way around. But I still think looking for a single cross-contextual causal relationship like this risks falling into armchair historiography and magnesium-ism.

            World political history isn’t my field either of course, and I don’t necessarily want to adopt a simplified/vulgar-Marxist paradigm where the economic system effectively ‘chooses’ the political system. Still, sometimes that does seem like the formula that does more explanatory work, and gibes with more situations.

            • Jimmy Maher

              May 9, 2018 at 8:27 am

              Okay. These economic theories of history, whether espoused by Karl Marx or Charles Beard, have always struck me as vastly reductionist; in their case at least, I agree with your critique of the “single-issue historian.” But at least we’ve arrived at the possibility of some sort of casual linkage between democracy and economy, so I’ll take that and stop here. ;) Thanks for an interesting discussion!

    • Simon_Jester

      October 10, 2022 at 3:54 pm

      Coming back to this much later, we see something like what you recommend (“More and more I think they should have gone with a dozen or so “political economies.”) in Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri (effectively a spinoff of the main series with similar mechanics and a futuristic setting) and Civilization IV and subsequent iterations of the main sequence.

      I’ve gone into this in more depth in the comments of Part 7 of this same series, but these games allow you to tailor your government by selectively mixing and matching different discrete elements that often bring with them significant modifiers or even unique mechanics.

      For instance, in Civilization IV, your nation can have either a republic or “Hereditary Rule,” its economy can revolve around slavery or industrialized wage-labor, and it can practice conscription or rely on an army of hired mercenaries. In each category there are, of course, several other choices alongside of the ones I just named; an exhaustive list would run for multiple paragraphs.

      Any conceivable combination of choices in each of several categories can exist, and in principle there are thousands of possible governments created by mixing and matching.

  3. Jacen

    May 4, 2018 at 11:04 pm

    “the only why they could muddle through at all.” way?

    • Jimmy Maher

      May 5, 2018 at 2:04 pm


  4. Sniffnoy

    May 5, 2018 at 1:54 am

    I’ve been staying out of these political entries, but I must point out, that if you want an idea of what a possible improvement on democracy — one that actually takes democracy’s lessons to heart, as opposed to so many other proposals — I’d look up Robin Hanson’s idea of “futarchy”. It potentially has its problems, but it’s the first proposal I’ve seen that actually seems like a plausible improvement on the core idea of democracy.

    • Simon_Jester

      October 10, 2022 at 4:09 pm

      Futarchy (“rule by prediction/betting markets”) presents a few obvious concerns:

      1) What people want done does not necessarily align with what people expect to happen. Sometimes we expect a crisis to get worse, but want our leaders to be trying to fix it. People casting bets in a prediction market have incentives to bet on outcomes they don’t want, if they expect those outcomes to happen anyway. Sometimes that’s good for the society as a whole, but sometimes it’s bad because it creates conflicting incentives.

      2) The ability to place bets in the futures markets would need to be decoupled from the amount of money people have, except perhaps for the amount they have won in the betting markets. Otherwise, it would be relatively trivial to shape government policy by being willing to invest more money in the betting market, and “who has more money” would be very much a defining feature of who gets to have a relevant voice and whose bets are noticed. But trying to fix this issue is a special case of a third problem…

      3) One of the core principles of futarchy is that people make better choices if they have “skin in the game,” that is, if they are prepared to wager something they’d miss on the outcome. This inherently gives a major advantage to people who have the luxury of something to lose. If you have very little surplus mental bandwidth or money, investing in a government prediction market may seem like a foolish waste of your time and resources… But now your situation becomes largely decoupled from the prediction markets and you lose any plausible hope of influencing government policy except as one tiny contribution to a statistic other people are betting on. Elections at least offer some hope that the desperate and dispossessed may be able to demand action in their favor without having to stage a riot and man the barricades.

      The fundamental criticism of futarchy is that it boils down to the idea that markets and elections are the same thing, and can be used to do the same thing. While both markets and elections in some way derive their capacity to make good choices from the same source (“the wisdom of crowds”), they do so through very different processes and have very different strengths and weaknesses. Even if a betting market performs well in some areas, that does not mean it will perform well in all areas.

  5. Adam

    May 5, 2018 at 6:01 am

    “when your economy run on corruption”

    • Jimmy Maher

      May 5, 2018 at 2:19 pm


  6. Michael L Waddell

    May 5, 2018 at 10:48 am

    > the staggering economic might of the United States is undoubtedly the primary reason the Allied Powers were able to reverse the tide of Nazi Germany

    I love this series of articles, but the Soviet Union was far more influential on this front than the U.S. was, any way you measure it. Sure, U.S. wealth helped… but Stalin’s willingness to throw 10 million Soviet lives at the problem was a bigger factor.

    • Jimmy Maher

      May 5, 2018 at 2:24 pm

      I think the best way to put it is that the Soviet Union provided the blood while the United States provided the treasure. Would the Soviet Union have won the war without American aid? Possibly. They certainly would still have done so if D-Day alone had never happened, but the question is much more up for debate when it comes to all those staggering quantities of tanks, planes, rifles, bullets, bombs, blankets, uniforms, and rations that the United States shipped to the Soviet Union. At the very least, it would have been a far longer and far uglier war — and given how long and ugly World War II already was, that’s a rather terrifying prospect in itself.

      • Tom

        May 5, 2018 at 6:34 pm

        It’s also worth noting that, arguably, the kick-start event for WWII was the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.

        If Hitler doesn’t get that, then he probably doesn’t start a war, because he’s terrified of a two-front conflict. If there’s no war in Europe, then Japan doesn’t decide to expand in the Pacific (probably).

        • doctorcasino

          May 7, 2018 at 2:58 am

          Chronology is a bit janky there – the Japanese invaded Manchuria in 1931, and what was historically China proper in 1937.

  7. Tom

    May 5, 2018 at 12:31 pm

    “…in amplifying the votes of the country’s generally less-educated rural areas in recent years, it has arguably had exactly the opposite of its intended effect”

    I think you’re confusing “educated” and “credentialed.” I would argue that the rural areas have a much better appreciation of what it takes to keep society functional than the cities do.

  8. Martin

    May 5, 2018 at 12:53 pm

    The main problem I have with democracy is when the electorate realizes that they can vote themselves money/resources that future generations will have to pay for, they head down a road to ruin. To be fair, all the others, excluding anarchy perhaps, can send a country down that same path and it isn’t clear what happens when the can can’t be kicked any further down the road but until that problem is inherently addressed, I don’t think any of these government formations are long term stable.

    • Jimmy Maher

      May 5, 2018 at 2:52 pm

      I don’t agree. The vast majority of people think *a lot* about their children, and the question of leaving a good structure in place for future generations is taken very seriously indeed in the vast majority of democracies. As I noted elsewhere, it’s important not to judge democracy writ large through the lens of contemporary American politics. Germany, for example, has been running massive tax surpluses and squirreling away money for years to deal with its looming pension crisis. (Not that Americans don’t love their children too — to paraphrase that awful Sting song — but… well, that’s a really complicated discussion. As it happens, I’ll have more to say about it in the next article.)

      • Martin

        May 5, 2018 at 3:31 pm

        Sure countries can choose to that today but nothing stops them from not doing it tomorrow if they decide not to. I can see where it goes into globalism which you say in next week, so nothing more to say about that until then.

        • doctorcasino

          May 7, 2018 at 3:00 am

          To be fair to Jimmy, within the Civ range of options there is nothing stopping any of the other government models from doing this as well. History is rife with kings piling up massive, future-ruining debts to finance their pet wars, palaces, layer cakes and epic poems.

    • Simon_Jester

      October 10, 2022 at 4:25 pm

      Coming to this much later, I have seen this concern raised before, but I have two objections.

      One is that it seems to commit the fallacy of assuming that national economies are like personal budgets. First, because a government taking out loans is not necessarily identical to a person racking up credit card debt, for a variety of reasons. Second, because in practice most of the things that the electorate votes to spend money on will themselves tend to spark further economic growth. The electorate “votes themselves” a public school system, and the government may go into debt building it up, but then it turns out that the benefits of the average child of the next generation knowing how to read and write and do many other things more than pays for itself. The electorate “votes itself” government-funded health care, and then it turns out that the government is able to negotiate with health care providers so that the public gets broadly speaking the same health outcomes while paying a lot less per capita for health care than you’d see in a country without such a system. The electorate “votes itself” a welfare system, and this somehow fails to result in the anticipated total meltdown of everyone being too lazy to work, and the reduced risk of citizens turning to crime or growing up in broken, desperate homes winds up paying off in the long run. The electorate “votes itself” roads or buses or subway trains or state-subsidized Internet access or a space program or any of a thousand other things… and yet almost every time, we can find ways that this makes society a better place and winds up paying for itself. Maybe not all investments made by the government and funded by the taxpayer pay off, but enough do that the system seems stable.

      The other reason I have a problem with this concern ties into the first: It seems almost entirely theoretical. We haven’t actually seen cases of fully democratic states undergoing economic collapse because “the mob” voted themselves too many welfare benefits. People occasionally point to examples such as Venezuela, but they then turn around and point to the rulers of Venezuela as actually being corrupt autocrats running a sham democracy, in which case the obvious solution is just to ensure maximally free and fair elections in which the would-be strongmen can be thrown out and the welfare programs reformed into something that works (as outlined above).

      “The Democracy Where The Welfare State Went Mad” seems to be a fictional dystopia, not a real society people can point to. And the problem with building your political views around the desire to avoid a fictional dystopia is that one throws oneself at the mercy of the biases of the author who invented the dystopia in the first place. In this case, we’d be effectively taking the advice of Ayn Rand and those much like her as to how to build a healthy civilization. But a review of Ayn Rand’s biography doesn’t suggest that she had a firm enough grasp of human nature to be much of an authority on how to do that.

  9. xxx

    May 5, 2018 at 6:53 pm

    Wonderful article! It always makes my morning to wake up and see another well-written, thought-provoking post from you. Looking forward to the conclusion!

    I think that you may be overstating the case for stable, mature democracies being self-healing and indestructible. The evidence certainly suggests that they’re more resilient to collapse than other forms of government, but as Nicholas Nassim Taleb is fond of pointing out, a Thanksgiving turkey on the day before Thanksgiving thinks that it’s got a pretty great life and has no reason to think it won’t continue. That we haven’t witnessed a major democracy crash and burn yet means that it’s a rare event, not an impossible one.

    • Jimmy Maher

      May 5, 2018 at 7:25 pm

      Oh, I agree that it *can* happen and, if history goes on long enough, it presumably *will* happen at some point. But they’re far, far more robust things than some people seem willing to accept amidst all the hand-wringing over Donald Trump.

      • Alex Freeman

        May 10, 2018 at 11:49 pm

        I agree there’s no chance Trump will turn the U.S. into a dictatorship, but I do fear someone who’s like Trump but far, FAR smarter and more ambitious might find a way to seize power permanently. It’s worth noting that other countries that have adopted America’s presidential system have turned into dictatorships.

  10. judgedeadd

    May 5, 2018 at 7:26 pm

    “You can combat [corruption] only by building palaces in some of your non-capital cities; they’re fairly expensive in both purchase and maintenance costs, but reduce corruption within their sphere of influence”

    More precisely, you can only have one palace at a time; when you build a new one, the previous one vanishes (so you can only ever have one “capital” city at a time.)

    • judgedeadd

      May 5, 2018 at 7:27 pm

      Unless you meant courthouses, which reduce corruption by 50% in the city where they are built.

      • Jimmy Maher

        May 5, 2018 at 7:31 pm

        I should indeed have said courthouses. Thanks!

  11. Pedro Timóteo

    May 6, 2018 at 8:44 pm

    But the game isn’t always so clear-sighted; the Civilopedia describes democracy as “fragile” in comparison to other forms of government. I would argue that in many ways just the opposite is the case.

    I think the telling word in the game’s description is “a”, as in “a democracy. In other words, Shelley isn’t saying democracy as a government system is fragile, just that any specific government/administration in a democracy can itself be extremely fragile — after all, it can be voted out!

    Of course, since in Civ you’re more or less playing an immortal leader, the problem arises: what should happen if you lose an election? Should you lose control of your country for several years until the new AI government screws up too much and you get voted back in? I don’t think that would really work in a game such as this, so I guess that forcing a period of anarchy on you was the best way they came up with to simulate an election loss…

    • Jimmy Maher

      May 7, 2018 at 6:29 am

      Interesting. I hadn’t thought about the mechanic in those terms…

  12. Captain Kal

    May 9, 2018 at 8:21 pm

    demos (δῆμος) in Ancient Greek means the common people of the city, and occasionally the people of common, not noble, ancestry.

    ochlow (ὄχλος) means the mob.

    • Jimmy Maher

      May 10, 2018 at 6:22 am

      I don’t know ancient (or contemporary) Greek, so I hesitate to get into a debate about its nuances with someone who does. However, that spectrum of meaning is presented in a number of respected academic works, which does make me believe that, at the least, the word can have both positive (or neutral) and negative connotations.

      From Democracy: A Very Short Introduction by Bernard Crick:

      Plato, of course, detested democracy. To him it was the rule of doxa over philosophia, of opinion over knowledge. The Greek for rule was kratos, and demos was ‘the people’, but many other ancient (and modern) writers gave it a pejorative sense, simply the majority as the mob – a powerful, selfish, fickle, and inconsistent beast.

      • Captain Kal

        May 11, 2018 at 11:15 am

        Considering that his beloved mentor Socrates, was executed by the Deimos, of course he detested democracy. Not to mention that he had a noble descent, he was an “aristocrat”.

        But at the time of the execution of Socrates, democracy in Athens had failed, after a 30 years Civil War, ending with Athens on the losing side , the 30 Tyrants Oligarchic Coup and the mass persecution of political dissidents that followed , and the state wide corruption caused by the huge amount of Persian gold, that Athens had “borrowed” in the last years of the War.

      • killias2

        August 30, 2021 at 3:10 pm

        Pointing to Polybius, among others, the Greeks saw “bad” and “good” versions of all the governmental forms. (To the Greeks, this was all cyclical (Kyklos), with communities basically bouncing from good to bad to another good to bad to another good to bad. We etymologically keep that idea with the term ‘revolution’.)

        The list from Histories: Democracy (people rule), Aristocracy (the best rule), and Monarchy were “good”. Ochlocracy (mob rule), Oligarchy (the few rule), and Tyranny were the corrupted versions.

        However, you’re correct that Plato basically just used ochlocracy and democracy interchangeably.

  13. Alex Freeman

    May 10, 2018 at 11:32 pm

    When we look at the ten least-corrupt countries in the world according to the Corruption Perceptions Index for 2017, we find that nine of them are among the nineteen countries that are given the gold star of Full Democracy by the The Economist‘s latest Democracy Index.

    Well, Mexico is in 66th place and is a flawed democracy like the United States. It’s really corrupt.

    Finally, my argument from principle comes from the same idealistic place as those famous opening paragraphs of the American Declaration of Independence.

    I can’t help thinking we’d be better off if the British had won. Then we’d have a parliamentary system.

    Still, I think the evidence, at least as of this writing, justifies the claim that a mature, stable democracy has never yet collapsed back into blatant authoritarianism.

    What about Germany becoming Nazi Germany, though?

    And yet accepting the latter’s way of framing the conflict is giving twentieth-century communism far too much credit — as is, needless to say, accepting communism’s claim to have fostered democracies.

    That reminds me of an amusing little anecdote. A family friend, about forty years ago, showed my mother a book titled Democracy in Cuba because he was enthused about Fidel Castro. My mom said, “No wonder that book is so thin.”

    When Lenin ordered the cold-blooded murder of Czar Nicholas II and his entire family, he sketched the blueprint of communism’s practical future as little more than amoral despotism hiding behind a facade of Marxist rhetoric.

    That reminds me of how Bertrand Russell travelled to Russia as part of an official delegation sent by the British government to investigate the effects of the Russian Revolution. He met Lenin and had an hour-long conversation with him. In his autobiography, he mentions that he found Lenin disappointing, sensing an “impish cruelty” in him and comparing him to “an opinionated professor”. His experiences destroyed his previous tentative support for the revolution. The group of 24 other citizens from the UK came home thinking well of the regime despite Russell’s attempts to change their minds. For instance, he told them that he heard shots fired in the middle of the night and was sure they were clandestine executions, but the others maintained that it was only cars backfiring

    Still, communist governments did manage some impressive achievements… The first decade or even in some cases several decades after the transition to communism would often bring an economic boom… arguably at a much faster pace than could have been managed under a government more concerned about the individual rights of its citizens… unemployment and the pain it can cause were literally unknown, as was homelessness.

    It makes you wonder if Russia would’ve been better off doing a centralized economy and then moving to capitalism rather than going in the order Karl Marx predicted.

    For all that history since the original Civilization was made has had plenty of troubling aspects, it hasn’t seen any resurgence of communism; even Russia hasn’t regressed quite that far.

    Well, Venezuelans might beg to differ there.

    Like Rousseau’s vision of the “noble savage,” it will always have a certain attraction in a world that only continues to get more complicated, in societies that continue to remove themselves further and further from what feels to some like their natural wellspring. For this reason, we’ll have occasion to revisit some anarchist ideas again in the last article of this series.

    I hope you touch on the Unabomber, anarcho-primitivism, Wall-e, and the singularity!

    • Jimmy Maher

      May 11, 2018 at 5:09 am

      Interesting anecdotes! Thanks!

      In the case of Nazi Germany: the Weimar Republic was never mature or stable. It was imposed by the Allied powers to replace Germany’s old monarchical government after World War I, and was regarded with contempt by a good portion of the population throughout the decade and change it managed to survive — years of staggering inflation and constant chaos.

      • Simon_Jester

        October 10, 2022 at 4:41 pm

        Coming back to this much later, I think the Weimar Republic was doomed as soon as a sufficiently powerful center-right bloc decided that keeping the socialists out of power in the legislature and “maintaining order” (that is, putting down riots and street violence, much of it started by the Nazis) was important enough to justify making Hitler chancellor.

        Because Hitler had never made a secret of his disregard for democratic institutions, and had the energy, ambition, and fanatical support required to make that disregard into national policy. And once he was put into power, he soon had no further need of those democratic institutions, sidelining them to a still greater extent that had been the norm in the Second Reich of the Kaiser’s imperial Germany.

        The most troubling indicator of impending collapse in a democracy is the combined presence of:

        1) Some specific ambitious person with a hard core of extremely loyal followers, who has plans for the state that would require the abolition of democracy, plus

        2) A larger and more nebulous coalition within the population that values an alliance with that ambitious person more than it values the continued existence of the democratic system.

  14. Lhexa

    May 16, 2018 at 8:50 pm

    Not only was Aristotle not ambivalent, he didn’t render judgment on types of politics at all. I have read copious amounts of Aristotle. -_-

  15. quinoa

    July 29, 2021 at 4:45 pm

    Hey Jimmy,

    last week I had a severe flu which kept me up at night due to coughing and fever. During the day I fell asleep again and again. But during my waking hours I read all your Civilization articles. I kept going back to them, paragraph after paragraph. Your writing really eased my pain and helped me during the illness.

    Also, even as a non-native English-speaker I think your texts are good to understand!

    • Jimmy Maher

      July 30, 2021 at 6:08 am

      Glad I could be of service. And I hope you’re doing better now!

  16. Alejo

    November 9, 2021 at 11:47 am

    “…places like Venezuela”

    Oh hey, that’s my country! We got a mention on The Digital Antiqu-

    “The collapsed democracies of places like Venezuela”

    *cries in chevere*

  17. Steve Pitts

    December 30, 2023 at 5:07 pm

    ” (a mixed economy which, while still purely theoretical at the time he wrote, actually that isn’t all that different from most of the developed democracies of today)”

    Removing the subordinate clause we end up with ‘which actually that isn’t all that’ where I suspect the first ‘that’ is redundant. Either way the whole construct trips my ‘ugly’ meter halfway through, even if it isn’t definitely grammatically incorrect.

    • Jimmy Maher

      January 2, 2024 at 2:47 pm

      Yuk. How did that survive so long? Thanks!


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