Global Policy Forum

Democracy Starts at Home


By Joseph E. Stiglitz*

April 6, 2005

When all is said and done, George Kennan was right: America's most powerful tool in international affairs is our example. Highlighting the hypocrisy of a leader who promotes democracy abroad while weakening it at home, Joe Stiglitz describes our domestic democracy deficit in detail.

The Bush administration has put expansion of democracy at the center of its foreign policy. This is a far nobler calling than simply expanding American hegemony. The question is, does Bush really mean it, and does he genuinely understand what democracy means?

The Bush administration praised Saudi Arabia's municipal elections, but what about the rights of women—including their voting rights? It welcomed (if it did not actively participate in) the toppling of Venezuela's democratically elected leader, but it continues to support Pakistan's military dictator. It criticizes Russian President Vladimir Putin, but only after he goes against business interests. And it may raise concerns about media concentration in Russia, but remains silent about media concentration in Italy.

There is a taint of hypocrisy in a more fundamental sense. The Bush administration is right to emphasize the importance of elections, without which democracy is inconceivable. But democracy entails more than periodic elections, and the legitimacy of elections depends on the public's confidence in the electoral process itself. In this respect, the last two American presidential elections have hardly been models for the world.

Former President Jimmy Carter, whose Atlanta center monitors elections around the globe, has raised questions about whether America's recent election lives up to the standards the United States should uphold. Where former President Bill Clinton sought to ensure that all Americans who are entitled to vote are registered to vote, the Republicans have tried to reverse these advances, putting obstacles in the way both of registration and voting. Modern technology makes it easy to have a paper trail for voting machines at little cost; yet several states using electronic voting machines chose not to provide this minimal safeguard.

Beyond elections, citizens can provide an effective check on government only if they are well informed. That is why right-to-know laws are so important. Of course, politicians prefer to work in secrecy, without oversight. No one can imagine hiring a worker, but allowing him not to inform his employer about what he is doing on the job. Politicians work for the citizenry—which has the right to know what their employees are doing.

Citizens also have the right to know how their money is being spent, and who is being consulted to form policy. They have the right to know whether Enron and the oil companies are shaping energy policy. They have the right to know why America, and the world, was misled by false claims about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

My research has focused on the consequences of asymmetries in information for the functioning of the economy. But a lack of accurate information has equally, if not more, severe consequences for political processes.

The decision to go to war in Iraq is the most dramatic example of this, but there have been many others in America under Bush. Providing drug benefits under Medicare, America's health-care program for the aged, may have been the right decision. But restricting government's ability to bargain with the drug companies was a pure giveaway, and nothing justifies providing grossly distorted information about the costs—now estimated to be in excess of 1.1 trillion over the next decade. This is three times the amount original projected by the Bush administration.

Today, the Bush administration is engaged in a disinformation campaign about an impending social security crisis. While something should be done, the magnitude of the problem hardly foreshadows a crisis. On the contrary, the system could almost surely be put on a solid footing for the next 75 years with a fraction of what was spent on the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts.

Good information requires not just the right to know, but also the right to tell—a diversified media. There are, as we noted, justified complaints about the lack of diversity in television broadcasting in Russia, yet Bush has not opposed efforts by America's Federal Communications Commission to weaken laws on media concentration.

Democracy also requires recognizing the rights of individuals. Undermining any individual's rights jeopardizes everyone's rights. Yet under Bush, the United States has undermined basic civil rights, such as habeas corpus , which guarantees individuals recourse to judicial review when the state detains them. The extended detention of dozens of individuals in Guantánamo—without charge and without trial—is a basic abrogation of this right. Fortunately, even if Bush does not understand such basic principles, America's courts do. They are now, albeit belatedly, forcing his administration to abide by them.

Finally, of what value is the right to vote without recognition of the right to a certain minimal standard of living, as enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights? In countries where much of the population lives below subsistence level, buying votes is all too easy. But the only economic rights the Bush administration recognizes are intellectual property rights, putting the interests of drug companies ahead of those with life threatening diseases, and the free mobility of capital, which has had such devastating effects on many countries.

America's democracy remains the envy of much of the world, and it is good that the Bush administration now champions the expansion of democracy forcefully. But the administration would be far more credible—and have far more success—if it took a closer look at home, if it examined its own practices more honestly, and if it engaged in a broader discussion of what democracy really means.

About the Author: Joseph E. Stiglitz, a Nobel laureate in economics, is professor of economics at Columbia University and was chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers to President Clinton and chief economist and senior vice president at the World Bank. His most recent book is The Roaring Nineties: A New History of the World's Most Prosperous Decade.

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