Democracy's "Negative" Virtue

Living in a mature democracy, it is easy to point to the positive virtues of representative government (and to the myriad ways in which our system of government fails to deliver or fails to deliver fully on its promises along these dimensions): Regular elections, civil rights and political rights lead to public policies that serve the public's interests, even while ensuring that those whose interests go unserved have means of changing public policy.

But democracy serves a more basic function, one that we might call "negative" for what it avoids rather than "positive" for what it affirmatively does: Democracy substantially reduces the likelihood of bloody succession crises. From ancient through late medieval times, the death, incapacitation or overthrow of the ruler was frequently an occasion for war, as rival would-be rulers sought to seize power or to have their power validated by some other means. Clear rules and strong dynastic leadership provided one way to reduce the risk of bloody succession struggles, but many realms lacked such rules (consider the fate of Charlemagne's empire after his death), and strong dynastic traditions create incentives for fratricide. Democracy, by contrast, provides a ready solution: the winner of the next election is the ruler.

Understanding this negative virtue of democracy provides an additional perspective on the recent events in Pakistan. In addition to all the other reasons to protest what General Musharraf has done, we can add this: Even if he permits free and fair elections, and even if he hands over the reins of power to the winner of those elections, he will not do so automatically. To be sure, even before Musharraf's first coup, there was no longstanding tradition of democracy in Pakistan. But one has to start somewhere, and just as democratic traditions can develop over time, so their continued interruption delays the day when that process can begin.

Finally, and to bring the point back home, I'd add that the succession-struggle-avoidance virtues of democracy---indeed, all the virtues of democracy---can be lost even in a mature democracy. The bloggers and others who joke about Bush secretly envying Musharraf are not entirely joking, not only because of how Bush has governed but also because of how he came to power. We are still far from the point at which a President or general could simply seize power, but the notion that a close election can be stolen is, sadly, not so far-fetched.

Posted by Mike Dorf