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Wars, Guns and Votes

New book links honest democratic elections to rising incomes

By Kenneth Bagnell

Wars, Guns and Votes: Democracy in Dangerous Places
 By Paul Collier
 (Harper) $34.99

Over recent decades, millions of people in China have been brought out of dreadful poverty. Their country, with its long-standing totalitarian regime, has had remarkable advancement by turning to free market economics. Still, China’s people lack democratic governance and therefore have no real say in public policy.

That’s one of many issues that interest Paul Collier. He’s a respected Oxford economist and author of The Bottom Billion, last year’s winner of the Gelber award for the world’s best non-fiction book. It urges market methods to address Third World poverty. His new book, Wars, Guns and Votes, examines various societies in Africa, Latin America and Asia, and asks the question: What will end corruption and oppression, giving people real democracy, not facades like Mugabe’s Zimbabwe or Kibaki’s Kenya? And, indeed, what of China, where despite its prosperity, human rights are grim?

Collier has hope. It’s supported by data that links honest democratic elections with rising incomes and other benefits. “Democracies get safer as income rises,” he notes, “whereas autocracies get more dangerous.” So of China, he has a telling observation: “If China runs true to form, year by year, its spectacular economic growth is now making it more prone to violence unless it democratizes.” He provides data supporting the idea that rising incomes motivate citizens to settle for nothing less than true democracy.

He makes one suggestion that leaves me questioning: in countries with entrenched corruption, we may have to support internal military coups. “I am not proposing that the UN cavalry should ride in to topple President Mugabe or to impose peace in Darfur.” Still, Collier writes that a coup led by Zimbawe’s own military might have changed the course of its history. However, the African Union refuses to accept coups as legitimate. “While it is entirely understandable that incumbent presidents would happily agree to such a rule, it is misplaced. Zimbabwe needed a coup but not one that led, as in Côte d’Ivoire and Ethiopia, to further ruin. Coups need to be harnessed, not eliminated.”

A point to ponder. Deeply.

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