It’s not often that I rise to democracy’s defense.  But the last section of an otherwise thoughtful piece by Robin Hanson compels me.  Robin:

3. When people think about changes they’d like in the world one of their first thoughts, and one they return to often, is wanting more democracy. It’s their first knee-jerk agenda for China, North Korea, ISIS, and so on. Surely with more democracy all the other problems would sort themselves out.

This is a baffling statement if you know the basic history of these three countries.  While the effects of more democracy for contemporary China are at least debatable, dictatorship was clearly essential for a quarter-century of Maoist horrors, including the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution.  North Korea’s dictatorship has an unbroken history of pursuing almost-certainly unpopular policies, beginning with the invasion of South Korea and culminating in mass starvation in the 90s to maintain the Kims’ Communist dictatorship after the loss of Soviet subsidies.  And ISIS is hated throughout the Muslim world; while free elections in Syria could easily elect authoritarian Islamists (indeed, fairly free elections already elected authoritarian Islamists in Iraq), they wouldn’t sustain a totalitarian bloodbath.

But in fact scholars can find few consistent difference in the outcomes of nations that depend much on their degree of democracy. Democracy doesn’t seem to cause differences in wealth, or even in most specific policies. Democracies today war a bit less, but in the past democracies warred more than others. Democracies have less political repression, and our moral spotlight finds that fact to be of endless fascination. But it is in fact a relatively small effect on nations overall.

Robin strangely fails to mention domestic mass murder, which dictatorships essentially monopolize.  And this outcome, more than any other, marks the hellish histories of Communist China, North Korea, and ISIS.

Nations today have huge differences in outcomes, and we are starting to understand some of them. But most of them have little to do with democracy. Plausibly larger issues include urbanization, immigration, foreign trade, regulation, culture, rule of law, corruption, suppression or encouragement of family clans or
religion, etc. If you want to help nations, you’ll have to look outside the moral spotlight on democracy.

I’ll happily agree that democracy has little systematic effect on economic growth – and that economic growth is the closest thing humanity has to a panacea.  But if North Korea or ISIS were democracies, their true horrors would quickly cease.  And if China had been a democracy since 1945, its true horrors never would have happened.

Update: After I tweeted this post, Robin replied with refreshing forthrightness: “I accept your point; I had in mind less extreme variations, so North Korea was a poor choice on my part.”  In conversation, I learned that Robin and I were thinking of two different ISIS hypotheticals.  I was picturing, “How would ISIS govern if it were a democracy?,” and Robin was picturing, “If neighboring countries were democracies, how would they deal with ISIS?”