There is no trade-off between prosperity and democracy

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

Recently, after the death of former dictator Lee Kuan Yew, there has been a lot of twaddle written about the so-called trade-off between prosperity and democracy. There is no such trade-off. Equal prosperity for all citizens is conditional on democracy. There are other important conditions as well, but there is no such thing as a “benevolent dictatorship” which provides equal prosperity to all citizens. The actual term “benevolent dictatorship” is only used by apologists for authoritarian regimes.

Let us take the example of Singapore. If you selectively quote the GDP per capita of Singapore, it looks like everyone is prosperous. But when you look at income and wealth distribution in Singapore you see immediately that the city state has inequality levels which are higher than Japan or Western Europe. In Singapore there are the fabulously wealthy and the Prime Minister helps himself to a salary higher than that of the U.S. president. Ordinary working class citizens in Singapore often find it hard to make end meet. But it is not just working class citizens who built up the wealth of the island state. Thousands of poorly-paid and abused migrant workers have also played an important role. But they are not even regarded as citizens with any of the social benefits which citizens might be given.

In Singapore there are no independent or free trade unions which can bargain for better living standards or a comprehensive welfare state. In practice it is more or less illegal to go on strike. Protests are banned and Socialist or opposition parties cannot compete in free and fair elections and put forward alternative policies which would increase income distribution.

The Singapore dictatorship has therefore prevented economic equality among citizens and it has excluded many workers from being considered as citizens. In other words, the Singapore dictatorship is an obstacle to the prosperity of the vast majority of people who live or work there. Now, the dictatorship might be just the kind of polity that attracts investment from multinational finance companies, and such investment has made Singapore rich and grossly unequal. It is a matter of looking at which classes are the beneficiaries.

The same criticisms could be levelled at Saudi Arabia or any of the oil-rich despotic regimes.

There are also numerous examples of authoritarian governments which rule over impoverished nations like Burma or North Korea.

However, if we look at the welfare state countries in Scandinavia, which score very high on quality of life indexes, we can see that such quality of life, prosperity and equality go hand in hand with freedom and democracy. These might not be utopias but it is the freedom to organise trade unions and political parties which have helped to create such quality of life.

If you cannot have a high quality of life for all citizens without democratic rights, then it is equally correct to say that you cannot have true democracy without equality. Highly unequal societies like the United States have low political participation rates. Politics is dominated by the rich elites. A democratic system is conditional on free and fair elections, but that is only a basic condition. Full democracy depends on mass participation and mass control of wealth distribution and production and it depends on the right to a “good life” for all.

In Thailand, inequality has traditionally been high due to long periods of military rule, interspersed with political democracy dominated by the elites. Incomes for all citizens have risen with economic growth, but the rich have benefitted most. During Taksin’s democratically elected government, pro-poor policies won the hearts and minds of the people and there was a slight decrease in inequality. But because his government was a government of big business, the impact on inequality was limited. Following the military coups, the proposed long-term destruction of democracy and the resulting extreme free-market governments, inequality will no doubt be on the rise again.

Prosperity and democracy can never be separated from each other. There is no  trade-off between democracy and prosperity.