Learning from Athens

Josiah Ober in the Boston Review:

The great legacy of the 20th century may be the emergence of democracy as a universal value: the conviction that whenever people are subjected to power, their views about the exercise of that power must be taken into consideration. This democratic principle, it is now widely agreed, is a fundamental moral requirement on the governance of states, global institutions, and even nongovernmental organizations.

But if democracy is now generally regarded as morally superior to other forms of political organization, its effectiveness in delivering the goods remains a matter of sharp contest. How does democracy fare when it comes to assuring physical security, protecting health, and fostering economic growth? We know, for example, from the economist Amartya Sen that famines are all too common under authoritarian regimes but do not occur in democratic states with a free press. Yet Sen also acknowledges that we do not know the effects of democracy on economic growth: “If all the comparative studie s are viewed together, the hypothesis that there is no clear relation between economic growth and democracy in either direction remains extremely plausible.”

Democracy may be right, then, but is it good?

More here.