Freedom is one of our most basic human rights. “Give me liberty or give me death“, a phrase coined in 18th century America, is now one of the most defining cries of modern times. But with the rise of authoritarian states like China, that give its people economic prosperity in exchange for a total eclipse of free expression, the belief that democratic capitalism is the only path to economic development has been shattered. And this has led to the rise of popular dictatorships which erode democratic rights and brand criticism as treason. It has led to a type of government of autocrats posing as democrats, and here lies the greatest challenge to liberty in our times.
To stem the growing tide of strongman politics and authoritarian governments, it is important to understand the reasons for their rise. Poverty leads to despair, despair leads to anger, anger boils over and leads to a conviction that freedom has proved worthless. What is the point of having the right to protest when you cannot afford to clothe your body? What is the point of having the right to criticise your government when you have to put your children to bed on an empty stomach? And it is this centuries-old evil of poverty that has led to resentment against democrats and confidence in dictators.
Democracy is not perfect. It has it’s flaws- huge ones. In democracies, politicians need money to win their elections. Huge amounts of money- running into billions of dollars- are spent on election campaigns. This money comes from multinational corporations, conglomerates and big business. In exchange for these political donations, the elected politician does a few favours for his friends in the business community- multimillion dollar government contracts, for example. This has created a nexus between industry and political power. It is legalized corruption. The people realize this and tend to be wary of such democrats.
But the problem is that there is no better alternative. Dictatorships do not end corruption, they just send the money into the pockets of politicians rather than the coffers of the party. The deposed dictator of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe, has a net wealth of over a billion dollars, according to TIME. The rumours about Putin’s wealth are as ubiquitous as they are startling—an alleged net wealth ranging from $40 billion to as high as $200 billion. This is in no way an excuse for corruption in democracies, it is only a criticism of the opinion that without democracy there is no corruption.
Democracy also gives us the right to question corruption, a right which would be denied to us in communist China or Putin’s Russia. Democracy gives us the right to throw politicians out of power when they do not put the people’s interests first. A true democracy, however, not only gives its people the right to vote but also its press the power to criticise, its people the right to protest, and its judiciary the right to independence.
As history has shown, dictators fall. The Russian Tsars were toppled. The Shah of Iran was toppled. Robert Mugabe was toppled. There is no government without the consent of the governed. That is the most basic reason why all dictatorships are doomed to fail, either now or ten or even a hundred years from now. Which is why I believe that a democratic system of government is the most stable system of government.
As Winston Churchill once said, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the rest.”