Friday, October 12, 2007

Changing terms

Following the discussion in this post from earlier this week, I found this article at the Economist website of interest.
It opens by exploring the evolving terms used to describe Europe, but then shifts into a discussion of democracy, and suggests, "ban the word 'democracy', which has been worn smooth by misuse." It proposes as alternatives "law-governed," "free," and "public-spirited," with Karl Popper's "open society" serving as useful short hand for societies with these qualities.

As per my previous comments on this, the problem with democracy promotion is often one of language, because democracy means different things to different people. Like "empire" or "imperialism," the term has been overused to the point of analytical uselessness. For a government to proclaim itself in favor of spreading democracy almost ensures disappointment, both for transmitters and receivers, as the reality never quite matches what either had imagined. Replacing democracy with more concrete terms, such as those mentioned by the Economist, would provide for more concrete targets — and thus more realizable visions for what the developed democracies can actually achieve in helping other countries develop politically.


Anonymous said...

Although the more realistic sense of democracy is welcome in many ways, it is too early to pronounce the death of democracy promotion. Democracy promotion by force as in Iraq is certainly approaching eclipse but democracy promotion as for example in Myanmar and perhaps Russia shows it is far from a dead issue.

Garrett said...

Wait, "democracy" is overused and worn to the point of uselessness, but "free" isn't? One need only imagine a government calling for the expansion of freedom once to see that it's even less measurable and specific than "democracy."

"Law-governed" sounds good, but that would include even more countries than "democracy," which is counter to the point in terms of classification, analysis, and explanation.

Maybe there should be come kind of certification, as in "governed by laws tested against a situation in which rulers could have changed them to suit their own needs, but didn't and the rule of law prevailed and this appears to be a matter of course rather than an anomaly."

The trouble with any concise explanation is that it is going to be vague and, in this case, come to be meaningless a few months after the first existing government uses it.

Japan Observer said...

I'm not saying that I necessarily agree with the examples provided by The Economist — although I think free can be quantified more than democracy can. (There's a reason, after all, that Freedom House labels countries as "free" or "unfree," not democratic or undemocratic.)

The problem is that democracy is simply a process, while these terms are qualitative factors. Democracy can be a buttress for these other factors, or it can hinder or undermine them. And so to promote "democracy" plain and simple doesn't necessarily make anything better.

Of course, one result of substituting other terms for democracy is that it would immediately make clear how difficult it is for governments to shape domestic institutions in other countries, hopefully prompting a reassessment that scales back efforts to areas in which outside help actually can achieve something.