Thursday, April 15, 2010

On meanings and contradictions

Oftentimes, the words democracy and freedom are used interchangeably in political discussions as if they have the same meaning. Yet the true meanings of these two terms are very different. To the average person, however, they are identical, or at least, the belief that democracy would not survive without freedom. Thus to many people, they are complementary, which explains why the non-political scientist among us, and we are legion, would not be able to see the difference.

Let us consider, for example, two popular indices, the Democracy Index and the Happy Planet Index.

The Democracy Index (DI) is compiled by The Economist, a respectable English-language weekly news and international publication, which examines the state of democracy in about 167 countries in the world. It is an attempt to quantify the measurement of democracy in five general categories: electoral process and pluralism, functioning of government, political participation, and political culture. The countries are then categorized into “Full Democracies,” “Flawed Democracies,” “Hybrid Regimes,” and “Authoritarian Regimes.”

On the other hand, the Happy Planet Index (HPI) is an index of human well-being and environmental impact. It was introduced by the New Economics Foundation (NEF) in July 2006. The NEF is an independent British think-tank, founded in 1986 by the leaders of The Other Economic Summit (TOES) with the goal of establishing a new model of wealth creation based on equality, diversity and economic stability. TOES, you would recall, was a counter-summit to the annual G7 summits, which also challenged the G7 leaders to speak for the world.

HPI takes the issue of sustainability into account, not just the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), which it considers inappropriate because the ultimate aim of most people is not to be rich, but to be happy and healthy. It believes that the notion of sustainable development requires a measure of the environmental costs of pursuing those goals.

The 2008 rankings compiled by the Democracy Index put Sweden on top with the highest index. All the countries in the top ten have a parliamentary democracy combined with either a constitutional monarchy or a parliamentary republic. Most of them are Scandinavian countries, with the exception of New Zealand and Australia, which were number 7 and 10, respectively.

Canada is number 11 in the list, while the United States is number 18. The Philippines is 77th in the list and is considered a flawed democracy, only 0.05 percentage points better than two other flawed democracies, Nicaragua and Guatemala. North Korea is at the bottom of the list, with 0.86 points from a possible total of 10.

The Happy Planet Index is a reversal of sorts in the rankings. A total of 148 countries were surveyed in 2009, compared to 178 in 2006. The best-scoring country in 2009 was Costa Rica, followed by the Dominican Republic and Jamaica, with Tanzania, Botswana and Zimbabwe at the bottom of the list.

It is fascinating, yet perplexing, to note that Sweden, the top-ranked country on the Democracy Index, is way below, at number 53, in the Happy Planet Index. Haiti (#42-HPI), one of the poorest countries in the world, is one rung higher on the happiness scale than Netherlands (#43-HPI) which was the fourth highest on the Democracy Index. Flawed democracies like Jamaica, Guatemala and Colombia were in the top ten happy countries, and communist-run states like Vietnam, Cuba and China were ranked higher at number 5, 7, and 20, respectively. The Philippines came higher this time on the HPI at no. 14, compared to Canada at no. 89 and the United States at no. 114.

Using a measurement called the ecological footprint per capita, the Happy Planet Index estimates the amount of natural resources required to sustain a country’s lifestyle. Those countries with large per capita ecological footprint use more than their fair share of resources, both by importing and exploiting resources from other countries, and by causing long-term and permanent damage to the environment that will impact future generations. Thus, the forecast for economic powerhouses and strong democracies like the United States, Great Britain, France, Germany and like countries is both gloomy and creepy. On the other hand, citizens of the Dominican Republic (#2-HPI) and the Kingdom of Bhutan (#17-HPI) are much happier despite their comparably lower GDP.

According to the 2005 Annual Report of the United Nations Subcommittee on Human Development, the Dominican Republic was no. 14 in the world for resource mismanagement. Bhutan, one of the most isolated countries in the world, has balanced its path toward modernization with its ancient culture and traditions under the guiding philosophy of Gross National Happiness (GNH). In 2006, Business Week magazine rated Bhutan the happiest country in Asia and eight happiest in the world.

What would make full-pledged democracies with fundamental freedoms guaranteed to their citizens, and with strong economic foundations to boot, less happy than flawed democracies and poorer countries, or even unhappier than citizens of communist or authoritarian regimes? Either there is something wrong with the metrics being used, or maybe we are comparing apples and oranges.

This discrepancy, perhaps, could also explain why being a democracy does not necessarily mean freedom for its citizens.

To the rigid mind of a political scientist, and more particularly to the U.S. Republican Party, democracy is not freedom, but simply majoritarianism. Their core belief is that the concept of majority rule is inherently incompatible with real freedom. Could this be the reason why the word “democracy” is not enshrined in the U.S. Constitution or in the Declaration of Independence?

We have been conditioned to believe that democracy is a synonym for freedom. Words like “freedom,” “democracy,” and “justice” have been used dishonestly and abused for so long that their original meanings have been adulterated. The writer George Orwell similarly lamented about meaningless words that are endlessly repeated in the political arena.

The present Tea Party movement in the United States, for example, represents less government interference. Its followers and the GOP currently loathe the present occupant in the White House and the Democrat majorities in both houses of Congress. Or in the words of the late Republican president Ronald Reagan, “Man is not free unless government is limited... As government expands, liberty contracts.”

In a very recent NY Times/CBS News poll, Tea Party supporters believe that the policies of the Obama administration are disproportionately directed at helping the poor rather than the middle class or the rich. That’s a great contradiction and a tragic human failing. What is wrong with helping the poor who really need assistance instead of shepherding the middle class or the rich who are economically able and stronger to stave off the effects of an economic crisis?

Furthermore, supporters of the Tea Party movement feel that their opinions are not represented in Washington. Looking at the current make-up the U.S. Congress, the people elected to represent them are hardly poor, but mainly rich or very rich.

Here is where the greatest contradiction lies: a democratic government that counts on the strength of its majority and the perception that there is less freedom when the government intervenes in an economic crisis. It’s like being number one in the Democracy Index, yet in the company of have-nots in the Happy Planet Index. Or worse, less happier than those with very weak economies.

We who live in so-called bulwarks of freedom and democracy are more divided politically. There are no more slaves. Instead, we have detainees in Guantanamo and some in Canadian prisons, held without due process for suspicion of terrorism or conspiring with terrorists. No more slaves. Yet, we have migrant workers and illegal immigrants who come to our soil to do indentured or back-breaking work for low wages and for little rights.

Our understanding of the meaning of freedom or democracy appears distorted, thus allowing these contradictions to prevail. To be ranked the highest or among the top ten of countries in the Democracy Index does not really measure up it seems, if those who live in poorer economies and with fewer freedoms enjoy a much happier life than many of us do.

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