Outcomes of Democracy

1072CH07.tifAs we begin to wind up our tour of democracy, it is time to move beyond our discussion of specific themes and ask a general set of questions: What does democracy do? Or, what outcomes can we reasonably expect of democracy? Also, does democracy fulfil these expectations in real life? We begin by thinking about how to assess the outcomes of democracy. After some clarity on how to think on this subject, we proceed to look at the expected and actual outcomes of democracy in various respects: quality of government, economic well-being, inequality, social differences and conflict and finally freedom and dignity. Our final verdict – positive but qualified – leads us to think about the challenges to democracy in the next and final chapter.
 How do we assess democracy’s outcomes?

Do you remember how students in Madam Lyngdoh’s class argued about democracy? This was in Chapter 2 of Class IX textbook. It emerged from that conversation that democracy is a better form of government when compared with dictatorship or any other alternative. We felt that democracy was better because it:

Promotes equality among citizens;

Enhances the dignity of the individual;

Improves the quality of decision-making;

Provides a method to resolve conflicts; and

Allows room to correct mistakes.

© RK Laxman - Brushing up the yearsscan-1.tif
Is democracy all about coping with multiple pressures and accommodating diverse demands?

Are these expectations realised under democracies? When we talk to people around us, most of them support democracy against other alternatives, such as rule by a monarch or military or religious leaders. But not so many of them would be satisfied with the democracy in practice. So we face a dilemma: democracy is seen to be good in principle, but felt to be not so good in its practice. This dilemma invites us to think hard about the outcomes of democracy. Do we prefer democracy only for moral reasons? Or are there some prudential reasons to support democracy too?

Over a hundred countries of the world today claim and practice some kind of democratic politics: they have formal constitutions, they hold elections, they have parties and they guarantee rights of citizens. While these features are common to most of them, these democracies are very much different from each other in terms of their social situations, their economic achievements and their cultures. Clearly, what may be achieved or not achieved under each of these democracies will be very different. But is there something that we can expect from every democracy, just because it is democracy?

Our interest in and fascination for democracy often pushes us into taking a position that democracy can address all socio-economic and political problems. If some of our expectations are not met, we start blaming the idea of democracy. Or, we start doubting if we are living in a democracy. The first step towards thinking carefully about the outcomes of democracy is to recognise that democracy is just a form of government. It can only create conditions for achieving something. The citizens have to take advantage of those conditions and achieve those goals. Let us examine some of the things we can reasonably expect from democracy and examine the record of democracy.

Did we reach these conclusions in Madam Lyngdoh’s class? I loved that class because students were not being dictated any conclusions.
 Accountable, responsive and legitimate government

There are some things that democracy must provide. In a democracy, we are most concerned with ensuring that people will have the right to choose their rulers and people will have control over the rulers. Whenever possible and necessary, citizens should be able to participate in decision making, that affects them all. Therefore, the most basic outcome of democracy should be that it produces a government that is accountable to the citizens, and responsive to the needs and expectations of the citizens.

Governmental Secrecy  
03-08__07sunshine.tif© Mike Keefe - Cagle Cartoons Inc
Can you think of what and how the government knows about you and your family (for example ration cards and voter identity cards)? What are the sources of information for you about the government?

 Before we go into this question, we face another common question: Is the democratic government efficient? Is it effective? Some people think that democracy produces less effective government. It is, of course, true that non-democratic rulers do not have to bother about deliberation in assemblies or worry about majorities and public opinion. So, they can be very quick and efficient in decision making and implementation. Democracy is based on the idea of deliberation and negotiation. So, some delay is bound to take place. Does that make democratic government inefficient?

Let us think in terms of costs. Imagine a government that may take decisions very fast. But it may take decisions that are not accepted by the people and may therefore face problems. In contrast, the democratic government will take more time to follow procedures before arriving at a decision. But because it has followed procedures, its decisions may be both more acceptable to the people and more effective. So, the cost of time that democracy pays is perhaps worth it.

Now look at the other side – democracy ensures that decision making will be based on norms and procedures. So, a citizen who wants to know if a decision was taken through the correct procedures can find this out. She has the right and the means to examine the process of decision making. This is known as transparency. This factor is often missing from a non-democratic government. Therefore, when we are trying to find out the outcomes of democracy, it is right to expect democracy to produce a government that follows procedures and is accountable to the people. We can also expect that the democratic government develops mechanisms for citizens to hold the government accountable and mechanisms for citizens to take part in decision making whenever they think fit.

If you wanted to measure democracies on the basis of this expected outcome, you would look for the following practices and institutions: regular, free and fair elections; open public debate on major policies and legislations; and citizens’ right to information about the government and its functioning. The actual performance of democracies shows a mixed record on this. Democracies have had greater success in setting up regular and free elections and in setting up conditions for open public debate. But most democracies fall short of elections that provide a fair chance to everyone and in subjecting every decision to public debate. Democratic governments do not have a very good record when it comes to sharing information with citizens. All one can say in favour of democratic regimes is that they are much better than any non-democratic regime in these respects.


So, the best outcome of democracy is that it is a democracy! That is what we have discovered after all this mental gymnastics?

In substantive terms it may be reasonable to expect from democracy a government that is attentive to the needs and demands of the people and is largely free of corruption. The record of democracies is not impressive on these two counts. Democracies often frustrate the needs of the people and often ignore the demands of a majority of its population. The routine tales of corruption are enough to convince us that democracy is not free of this evil. At the same time, there is nothing to show that non-democracies are less corrupt or more sensitive to the people.

There is one respect in which democratic government is certainly better than its alternatives: democratic government is legitimate government. It may be slow, less efficient, not always very responsive or clean. But a democratic government is people’s own government. That is why there is an overwhelming support for the idea of democracy all over the world. As the accompanying evidence from South Asia shows, the support exists in countries with democratic regimes as well as countries without democratic regimes. People wish to be ruled by representatives elected by them. They also believe that democracy is suitable for their country. Democracy’s ability to generate its own support is itself an outcome that cannot be ignored. 


Economic growth and development  

If democracies are expected to produce good governments, then is it not fair to expect that they would also produce development? Evidence shows that in practice many democracies did not fulfil this expectation.

If you consider all democracies and all dictatorships for the fifty years between 1950 and 2000, dictatorships have slightly higher rate of economic growth. The inability of democracy to achieve higher economic development worries us. But this alone cannot be reason to reject democracy. As you have already studied in economics, economic development depends on several factors: country’s population size, global situation, cooperation from other countries, economic priorities adopted by the country, etc. However, the difference in the rates of economic development between less developed countries with dictatorships and democracies is negligible. Overall, we cannot say that democracy is a guarantee of economic development. But we can expect democracy not to lag behind dictatorships in this respect.

When we find such significant difference in the rates of economic growth between countries under dictatorship and democracy, it is better to prefer democracy as it has several other positive outcomes.

The Rich Get Buff  

© RJ Matson - Cagle Cartoons Inc  
Cartoon on this page and next three pages tell us about the disparities between the rich and poor. Should the gains of economic growth be evenly distributed? How can the poor get a voice for a better share in a nation? What can the poor countries do to receive a greater share in the world’s wealth?
 Economic outcomes  of democracy

Arguments about democracy tend to be very passionate. This is how it should be, for democracy appeals to some of our deep values. These debates cannot be resolved in a simple manner. But some debates about democracy can and should be resolved by referring to some facts and figures. The debate about the economic outcomes of democracy is one such debate. Over the years many students of democracy have gathered careful evidence to see what the relationship of democracy with economic growth and economic inequalities is. The tables and the cartoon here present some of the evidences:

Poor Kids  

© Jimmy Margulies - Cagle Cartoons Inc  

Table 1 shows that on an average dictatorial regimes have had a slightly better record of economic growth. But when we compare their record only in poor countries, there is virtually no difference.

Table 2 shows that within democracies there can be very high degree of inequalities. In democratic countries like South Africa and Brazil, the top 20 per cent people take away more than 60 per cent of the national income, leaving less than 3 per cent for the bottom 20 per cent population. Countries like Denmark and Hungary are much better in this respect.

You can see in the cartoon, there is often inequality of opportunities available to the poorer sections.  

What would be your verdict on democracy if you had to base it purely on economic performance of democratic regimes in terms of growth and equal distribution?  

Reduction of inequality and poverty  

 Perhaps more than development, it is reasonable to expect democracies to reduce economic disparities. Even when a country achieves economic growth, will wealth be distributed in such a way that all citizens of the country will have a share and lead a better life? Is economic growth in democracies accompanied by increased inequalities among the people? Or do democracies lead to a just distribution of goods and opportunities?

Democracies are based on political equality. All individuals have equal weight in electing representatives. Parallel to the process of bringing individuals into the political arena on an equal footing, we find growing economic inequalities. A small number of ultra-rich enjoy a highly disproportionate share of wealth and incomes. Not only that, their share in the total income of the country has been increasing. Those at the bottom of the society have very little to depend upon. Their incomes have been declining. Sometimes they find it difficult to meet their basic needs of life, such as food, clothing, house, education and health.

Voice of the Poor

 © Ares - Best of Latin America, Cagle Cartoons Inc

In actual life, democracies do not appear to be very successful in reducing economic inequalities. In Class IX Economics textbook, you have already studied about poverty in India. The poor constitute a large proportion of our voters and no party will like to lose their votes. Yet democratically elected governments do not appear to be as keen to address the question of poverty as you would expect them to. The situation is much worse in some other countries. In Bangladesh, more than half of its population lives in poverty. People in several poor countries are now dependent on the rich countries even for food supplies.

Democracy is a rule of the majority. The poor are in majority. So democracy must be a rule of the poor. How can this not be the case?

World’s Wealth Owned by a Few  

© Manny Francisco - The Phillippines, Cagle Cartoons Inc.
 Accommodation of social diversity

 Do democracies lead to peaceful and harmonious life among citizens? It will be a fair expectation that democracy should produce a harmonious social life. We have seen in the earlier chapters how democracies accommodate various social divisions. We saw in the first chapter how Belgium has successfully negotiated differences among ethnic populations. Democracies usually develop a procedure to conduct their competition. This reduces the possibility of these tensions becoming explosive or violent.

All you are saying is that democracy ensures that people do not break each other’s head. This is not harmony. Should we be happy about it?

 No society can fully and permanently resolve conflicts among different groups. But we can certainly learn to respect these differences and we can also evolve mechanisms to negotiate the differences. Democracy is best suited to produce this outcome. Non-democratic regimes often turn a blind eye to or suppress internal social differences. Ability to handle social differences, divisions and conflicts is thus a definite plus point of democratic regimes. But the example of Sri Lanka reminds us that a democracy must fulfil two conditions in order to achieve this outcome:

It is necessary to understand that democracy is not simply rule by majority opinion. The majority always needs to work with the minority so that governments function to represent the general view. Majority and minority opinions are not permanent.

It is also necessary that rule by majority does not become rule by majority community in terms of religion or race or linguistic group, etc. Rule by majority means that in case of every decision or in case of every election, different persons and groups may and can form a majority. Democracy remains democracy only as long as every citizen has a chance of being in majority at some point of time. If someone is barred from being in majority on the basis of birth, then the democratic rule ceases
to be accommodative for that person or group.


Dignity and freedom of the citizens  

Democracy stands much superior to any other form of government in promoting dignity and freedom of the individual. Every individual wants to receive respect from fellow beings. Often conflicts arise among individuals because some feel that they are not treated with due respect. The passion for respect and freedom are the basis of democracy. Democracies throughout the world have recognised this, at least in principle. This has been achieved in various degrees in various democracies. For societies which have been built for long on the basis of subordination and domination, it is not a simple matter to recognize that all individuals are equal.

Take the case of dignity of women. Most societies across the world were historically male dominated societies. Long struggles by women have created some sensitivity today that respect to and equal treatment of women are necessary ingredients of a democratic society. That does not mean that women are actually always treated with respect. But once the principle is recognised, it becomes easier for women to wage a struggle against what is now unacceptable legally and morally. In a non-democratic set up, this unacceptability would not have legal basis because the principle of individual freedom and dignity would not have the legal and moral force there. The same is true of caste inequalities. Democracy in India has strengthened the claims of the disadvantaged and discriminated castes for equal status and equal opportunity. There are instances still of caste-based inequalities and atrocities, but these lack the moral and legal foundations. Perhaps it is the recognition that makes ordinary citizens value their democratic rights.

Expectations from democracy also function as the criteria for judging any democratic country. What is most distinctive about democracy is that its examination never gets over. As democracy passes one test, it produces another test. As people get some benefits of democracy, they ask for more and want to make democracy even better. That is why, when we ask people about the way democracy functions, they will always come up with more expectations, and many complaints. The fact that people are complaining is itself a testimony to the success of democracy: it shows that people have developed awareness and the ability to expect and to look critically at power holders and the high and the mighty. A public expression of dissatisfaction with democracy shows the success of the democratic project: it transforms people from the status of a subject into that of a citizen. Most individuals today believe that their vote makes a difference to the way the government is run and to their own self-interest.  

Rosa Parks Still Inspires  


I am anxious about my board exams. But democracy has so many exams. And millions of examiners!


1. How does democracy produce an accountable, responsive and legitimate government?

2. What are the conditions under which democracies accommodate social diversities?

3. Give arguments to support or oppose the following assertions:

Industrialised countries can afford democracy but the poor need dictatorship to become rich.

Democracy can’t reduce inequality of incomes between different citizens.

Government in poor countries should spend less on poverty reduction, health, education and spend more on industries and infrastructure.

In democracy all citizens have one vote, which means that there is absence of any domination and conflict.

4. Identify the challenges to democracy in the following descriptions. Also suggest policy/institutional mechanism to deepen democracy in the given situations:

Following a High Court directive a temple in Orissa that had separate entry doors for dalits and non-dalits allowed entry for all from the same door.

A large number of farmers are committing suicide in different states of India.

Following allegation of killing of three civilians in Gandwara in a fake encounter by Jammu and Kashmir police, an enquiry has been ordered.

5. In the context of democracies, which of the following ideas is correct – democracies have successfully eliminated:

A. conflicts among people

B. economic inequalities among people

C. differences of opinion about how marginalised sections
are to be treated

D. the idea of political inequality

6. In the context of assessing democracy which among the following is odd one out. Democracies need to ensure:

A. free and fair elections

B. dignity of the individual

C. majority rule

D. equal treatment before law

7. Studies on political and social inequalities in democracy show that

A. democracy and development go together.

B. inequalities exist in democracies .

C. inequalities do not exist under dictatorship.

D. dictatorship is better than democracy.

8. Read the passage below:

Nannu is a daily wage earner. He lives in Welcome Mazdoor Colony, a slum habitation in East Delhi. He lost his ration card and applied for a duplicate one in January 2004. He made several rounds to the local Food & Civil Supplies office for the next three months. But the clerks and officials would not even look at him, leave alone do his job or bother to tell him the status of his application. Ultimately, he filed an application under the Right to Information Act asking for the daily progress made on his application, names of the officials, who were supposed to act on his application and what action would be taken against these officials for their inaction. Within a week of filing application under the Right to Information Act, he was visited by an inspector from the Food Department, who informed him that the card had been made and he could collect it from the office. When Nannu went to collect his card next day, he was given a very warm treatment by the Food & Supply Officer (FSO), who is the head of a Circle. The FSO offered him tea and requested him to withdraw his application under the Right to Information, since his work had already been done.

What does Nannu’s example show? What impact did Nannu’s action have on officials? Ask your parents their experiences when they approach government officials to attend to their problems.