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Lincoln’s Birthday Valentine’s Day Declaration: I ♥ Democracy

Democracy doesn’t attract as much love as it deserves in aid and development circles.

Many wonder if benevolent autocrats might be better for development than messy elections, even though there is no evidence to support benevolent autocracy. There is a strong positive association between democracy and LEVEL of per capita income, which at least some authors argue is causal. (It’s true there is no robust association between democracy and GROWTH of income, but then there is no robust association between GROWTH and ANYTHING.) But even if there had been SOME material payoff to autocracy, why don’t we care more about democracy as a good thing in itself?

Many just can’t get that excited about majority voting. But the MECHANICS of democracy (majority voting among many others) are not the essence of democracy, which is about VALUES. The latter we care a lot more about than the former. The donors who try to promote democracy are unfortunately obsessive about the mechanics and silent on the values.

Lincoln’s Birthday was February 12, so this is a good excuse to use the Emancipator to clear things up:

As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy. Whatever differs from this, to the extent of the difference, is no democracy.

The brilliance of this definition is how it also includes equality. No group is so second-class that we can deprive them of their rights without opening the door to deprivation of our own rights. Slavery is an extreme that can be generalized to all forms of oppression by arbitrary self-appointed authorities, which then leads to guaranteeing all individual rights.

I think I care about slavery — and my risk of being enslaved — a lot more than I care about whether elections are winner-take-all or proportional representation.

These soaring ideals had very practical consequences. The brilliant work of economic historian Joel Mokyr links the Industrial Revolution to changes in ideas and ideologies. Putting my own spin on Mokyr, the idea of individual freedom from arbitrary authority transformed many fields besides politics, opening them up to many more independent participants:

Scientific democracy: ANYONE, no matter how junior, can overturn wisdom of anyone, no matter how senior, using scientific method.

Technological democracy: ANYONE, any junior innovator, can overturn incumbent elites with something new that just “works.”

Social democracy: ANYONE can be a social reformer, as long as they persuade their fellow ANYONES of a social evil.

So the freedom of the individual as a VALUE was far more consequential than any specific MECHANICS on how this idea was implemented — like the endless obsession with electoral rules.

Drawing on Aid Watch’s endless and increasingly farfetched supply of metaphors, here’s another timely example of mechanics vs. values:


The hypothalamus transmits chemicals to the pituitary gland, which releases hormones into the bloodstream, creating a rapid heartbeat and lightness in the head.

value that corresponds to these mechanics:


Perhaps some Valentine’s Day Development Bureaucracy worked on the mechanics, say a Hypothalamus Transmission Stimulation Program, featuring “results indicators” like heartbeat speed. But I think most Valentine’s Day celebrations stressed the value rather than the mechanics.

This entry was posted in Democracy and freedom, History, Language and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.


  1. This post caught my eye. ‘Benevolent autocracy’ is a straw man and a handy debating device, but of no consequence. It is on the other hand absolutely true that wealthy countries tend to be democratic, and democratic countries tend to be wealthy. Now *there’s* a lesson worth having. It is also not hard to agree that democracy is a good in value terms. And, yes, democratic enlightenment ideas facilitated or motivated innovation in a broad range of fields including economics for centuries before democracy was even institutionalized.

    Nevertheless hope your reading public in the developing world won’t infer from your post that development begins with democracy. It has not in history, and it does not now. Development begins with markets, gains momentum with law, which feeds into improvements in public administration. The outcome is democracy. That’s modern, formal, impersonal, and genuinely competitive democracy in a parliament (or equivalent) with supervision and division of powers, as opposed to *direct* or participatory democracy.

    Knowledge of the basic legal mechanics of democracy, i.e. an understanding of first principles, is indispensable for translating idealistic values into concrete outcomes. Abraham Lincoln — a lawyer and exceedingly strong leader who was a master in the artful management of constitutionally-constrained political machinery — knew this better than many.

    NGOs and academics often do not want to hear or admit it, but emotional value-directed adherence to principles of ‘direct democracy first’ is a recipe for catastrophe in developing countries without strong formal institutions. Analogies with love or freedom from the master-slave relationship might be true and magnificently luxurious thoughts, but don’t offer practical assistance.

    Posted February 16, 2010 at 5:50 am | Permalink
  2. Wayne Smith wrote:

    “I think I care about slavery — and my risk of being enslaved — a lot more than I care about whether elections are winner-take-all or proportional representation.”

    These things are not unrelated. Does your voice count or not?

    Posted February 16, 2010 at 8:24 am | Permalink
  3. Ryan wrote:

    This is an interesting post, and you make some really good points. However, I wonder if the terminology might be a bit clearer. Instead of distinguishing between the “mechanics of democracy” and the “values of democracy”, wouldn’t it be more immediately clear and less apt to confusion (as you say many in the aid community get confused) if we distinguished between “democracy” and “liberal values”? After all, there are many things that seem to be democracies (e.g., elections) that don’t have “democratic values” as you define them.

    Posted February 16, 2010 at 10:31 am | Permalink
  4. William Easterly wrote:


    terminology is important as it clues us in to what has been at stake historically. The demand for elections was only one byproduct historically of the spread of liberal Enlightenment view that all men & women are created free and equal, which sought to overturn all sorts of oppression by traditional elites.

    A definition of democracy limited to majority voting is not even viable in itself, since the majority can keep taking the vote away from the minority in each election — so majority voting can easily lead to the elimination of majority voting!

    Posted February 16, 2010 at 1:38 pm | Permalink
  5. William Easterly wrote:

    Michael, I think you contradict yourself: “democratic enlightenment ideas facilitated or motivated innovation in a broad range of fields including economics for centuries before democracy was even institutionalized” and yet you say it is wrong to argue “development begins with democracy.” Because “It has not in history, and it does not now.” To me, “dem enlightenment ideas” were the advent of democracy, and as you say these did contribute to a shift towards progress in many fields, including economics. The market economy was not possible under feudal oppression, for example.

    Posted February 16, 2010 at 1:43 pm | Permalink
  6. I’m glad you mentioned Descartes because you’re making his same mistake here.

    Values cannot be separated completely from the mechanism whereby they are constituted and transmitted. The attempt to locate the definition of a social phenomenon such as democracy in one or the other is doomed to failure because both are aspects of the dynamic process that describes such phenomena.

    Posted February 16, 2010 at 2:14 pm | Permalink
  7. Sam Gardner wrote:

    Values are central, and not what is focused on when measuring development. Child rights should not only be promoted because they are leading to more productive adults, also because it is the right thing to do. BTW isn’t there a good evidence base that promoting child rights leads to more respect for the rights of the child?

    Posted February 16, 2010 at 3:53 pm | Permalink
  8. JPell wrote:

    I couldn’t agree with you more on the importance of values, which is why I find the derogatory dismissals of human rights and rights-based development on your blog disheartening:

    I think you (or at least the author of the linked post) may be missing the point on these topics.

    Posted February 16, 2010 at 8:22 pm | Permalink
  9. Michael G. Heller wrote:

    Agreed, sort of, but I don’t see a contradiction. An idea, an aspiration, or an ideology, is not the same thing as an outcome. It motivates and educates for the purpose of achieving the outcome. First the outcome needs to be defined. Then the means of achieving it must be investigated. Values are not scientific. The eighteenth century philosophes theorized economic, legal, administrative, and political transformations, and helped propagate a democratic *spirit*, but did not themselves experience mechanically-feasible and durable democracy as we know it today. They realized there are necessary preconditions for democracy, such as rule of law. It was difficult to achieve rule of law without markets that generate demands for law. The enlightenment ideology of doux commerce was that regulated commerce would civilize and soften the world. Actually this proved to be correct.

    Posted February 17, 2010 at 12:26 am | Permalink
  10. Robert Tulip wrote:

    Lincoln’s ‘do as be done by’ morality regarding slavery goes back well beyond the 18C Enlightenment to the Golden Rule. shows the golden rule is the basis of many religious traditions regarding human rights. Democracy is so corrupted in failed states – eg DRC, DPRK, Zimbabwe – that a focus on suffrage is really quite pointless in the absence of other democratic rights, such as the right to run a private business for profit. External action to remove despots, followed by a period of international administration, is likely to be a precondition for development in the most benighted countries, where internal circumstances prevent the emergence of democratic values.

    Posted February 17, 2010 at 5:32 am | Permalink
  11. George wrote:

    “External action to remove despots, followed by a period of international administration, is likely to be a precondition for development in the most benighted countries, where internal circumstances prevent the emergence of democratic values.”

    Indeed! There are a variety of examples of previous attempts at this from the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries – a rich history from which to draw best practice to help us implement this kind of policy.

    Posted February 17, 2010 at 6:16 am | Permalink
  12. The market economy was not possible under feudal oppression, for example.
    That is waaaayyy too simple. The notion of elected representatives grew out of medieval society. The first “enterprise zones” were boroughs. There is a process of institutional evolution that goes on that eventually leads to modern democracies. But the competitive jurisdictions of medieval Europe were central to setting off the process.

    Posted February 18, 2010 at 7:50 am | Permalink
  13. Kelly wrote:

    Didn’t Abraham Lincoln preside over the civil war? You know, that war where over 600,000 people died because a group of states who at one time democratically entered the union wanted to also leave the union, but were blocked? And then proceeded to conquer and occupy said territory for 20 years? Far be it from me to support any of the horrific acts of slavery permitted by the south, but the role of slavery in the civil war is vastly over-estimated by most people. I find many of Lincoln’s words to sound, when removed from context, very similar to the language the Serbians used to justify their war, or the Chinese in reference to Taiwan, or Nigeria to Biafra, or Ethiopia to Eritrea, etc etc etc.

    You might think this whole comment is a little off track from the original post. And it is. I just find it funny how often Lincoln is used as a symbol of democracy, where as if he were alive today the west might have called him a tyrant.

    Posted February 18, 2010 at 5:22 pm | Permalink
  14. William Easterly wrote:

    Kelly, are you from the South, by any chance?

    No worries, I have Confederate ancestors myself :>)

    Posted February 18, 2010 at 5:51 pm | Permalink
  15. Kelly wrote:


    No, actually. Born and raised on the west coast, college level education in Europe. The rest of my family is from New England. Other than crossing the DC/Virgina border to go drinking with my friends after work, I have hardly spent any time in the south. And before you reply with another snarky comment, I am far from conservative in my social or political views.

    I suppose if I was from the south, your trite deflection of arguments would be cute. But hey, feel free not to address anything I said.

    Also, as a side note: If I were from the south, would that make my arguments less valid? You’re assuming a loaded political message behind my words, when in reality I am trying address the issues facing many states who wish to secede without the fear of violence. History is written by the victors, and maybe you need to analyze the roots of your own take on Lincoln’s version of democracy divorced from the piles cultural hubris and nostalgia piled on top of it.

    Posted February 19, 2010 at 2:58 am | Permalink
  16. TGGP wrote:

    I side with the materialism of Greg Clark over Joel Mokyr. Ideas don’t matter. I also agree with Robin Hanson: prefer law to values.

    I second Kelly. Lincoln exiled Congressmen he disliked and tried to arrest a Supreme Court justice when his actions were ruled unconstituitonal. I’m a northern chauvinist and have no love for the Confederacy, but just because I dislike Hitler doesn’t mean I have to like Stalin.

    Posted February 20, 2010 at 8:46 pm | Permalink

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  1. […] interpretation of “democracy” mentioned in Mike’s earlier post, in which Easterly quotes Lincoln as a moral authority on the value of democracy: As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a […]

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    The Aid Watch blog is a project of New York University's Development Research Institute (DRI). This blog is principally written by William Easterly, author of "The Elusive Quest for Growth: Economists' Adventures and Misadventures in the Tropics" and "The White Man's Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good," and Professor of Economics at NYU. It is co-written by Laura Freschi and by occasional guest bloggers. Our work is based on the idea that more aid will reach the poor the more people are watching aid.

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