While measuring democracy is infeasible, examining dimensions of democracy – constitutional, elective, popular, procedural, operational and substantive – can be useful, especially when comparing disparate polities like the US and China.

Formally, the US Constitution never mentions ‘democracy’ (the Founders hated it) and China’s Constitution mentions it 32 times.

Electively, China has bigger, more transparent elections than the US, supervised and certified by The Carter Center, which runs China’s election website. By contrast, US presidential candidates are chosen by wealthy backers and appointed by an unelected Electoral College.

Popularly, voter turnout in China is 20% higher than in the US (62% to 52%), suggesting that more Chinese voters think their vote counts.

Procedurally, China uses a public, democratic process to appoint senior officials and approve legislation, who can and do delay legislation for decades until it earns 2/3 support of Congress.

Operationally, American presidents hire and fire 5000 senior officials, order citizens kidnapped, tortured, imprisoned and assassinated, secretly ban 50,000 people from flying on airlines. No

Chinese leader–including Mao–could do any of those things.

Substantively, China’s government policies produce democratic outcomes. Ninety-six percent of Chinese voters approve the government’s policies and eighty-three percent say China is being run for their benefit rather than for the benefit of a special group, whereas thirty-eight percent of Americans think this of their country.

If President Xi was right when he said, last week, "Whether a country is a democracy or not depends on whether its people are really the masters of the country," then the US is simply undemocratic

Princeton political scientists Gilens and Page discovered arithmetically what Americans have known for decades: "The central point that emerges from our research is that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence."


Expand full comment

At the philosophical level, democracy can only be legitimated over all other possible and existing forms of government if we presuppose one thing: the infallibility and absolute universality of the people (which can be summed up by the Christian motto "vox populi, vox Dei". That would mean every decision the majority of the people takes must be always and automatically be executed and obeyed without question and immediately, no matter their consequences. If we don't take this as given, then we have that, logically, democracy is just an attenuated oligarchy (dictatorship is not antonym to democracy; indeed, the first form of dictatorship was invented to save, not destroy, democracy, in the Roman Republic, and was enforced many times).

In this sense, does true democracy exist today? That's up for anyone alive here today to decide.

As for the concepts of agency and democracy, by the reviewed author, well, at least from a historical point of view, his model doesn't hold in reality. Rome is considered nowadays as freer than Europe of the Middle Ages, but the Middle Ages (manorialism) solved Rome's food scarcity, even though it may have taken some time.

There's no empirical evidence humanity ever sought more freedom and democracy throughout History. The best theory of History we have is Marx's, which put the economy as the main force of historical motion. Humans like material prosperity, not democracy or freedom (which are moral-ethic concepts either way). This process is not linear because, in order for any kind of societal formation to produce said material prosperity, there has to be division of labor (classes)- people who do the "dirty jobs" and people who reap the benefits. In order for any kind of mode of production to give way to a new, superior mode of production, the lower class has to topple the dominant class. Therefore, there is a contradiction between the relations of production ("politics") and the mode of production ("economy"). This model explains everything, including why, many times, things get worse before they get better.

Prados' theory would only make some sense in Sociology, and only in the context where one sees liberal democracy as the definitive system, the best possible system, everything before and after being inherently inferior. In this sense, his is a form of End of History theory.

Expand full comment

Is democracy part of human development? I would say yes: humans have always sought to have more inclusive and equitable say in their lives and particularly their governance. But you’re completely correct that consultative mechanisms other than liberal democracy exist. There is a growing international effort to look at the components of democracy and to better understand how these build to a whole. The “varieties of democracy” (v-dem) project is a great example of this. All that to say that there is a good deal to explore about the topic, and I couldn’t tell from your write up or the book blurb if the “liberal democracy” you mentioned was a nuanced or ‘blunt’ description.

Partly because of microeconomic training, economists tend to find it easier to deal with individual agents than systems. My own opinion is that we don’t operate in a vacuum, so the aggregated part of the index is valuable, if done properly.

Expand full comment

When considering education in terms of human capital it makes sense to drop it from HDI since it represents a means to achieve economic returns (education leads to more productivity thus higher income). However, I remember in one of your older posts you criticise the concept of human capital which in this case, also supports the idea that education is not a primary good. Sticking to your criticism of human capital, shouldn't education, contrarily to Palma's view, be considered as a primary good given that the survival of the low skilled depends on the constant adaptation to advances in technology. After all, even the low-skilled need a certain level of skills (basic traning/education) to do their jobs and cover their material needs.

Expand full comment

Not life expectancy. As a home health aide, I have met many people in their 80s and 90s who feel they have lived too long, and for whom life has ceased to be enjoyable. So instead of life expectancy, I'd rather measure "thrive expectancy" - how long a person may expect to have an active, engaged, purposeful, satisfying life.

Expand full comment

Great article that triggers my mind. Thank you. From the comments it becomes visible that:

A. as soon as we start to measure something we need to know (i.e. have a common understanding) where we want to lead it to in the future (develop).

B. we have to make sure that we understand the systemic interactions (causal relationships) as well as the side effects of measuring it.

C. the more complex a topic is the less easy it is to be measured.

This leads to my own conclusion: thinking about HDI is a great discussion and thinking trigger. But it needs much more ground work and awareness in topics like *global* accepted ethical principles, values and goals. HDI can trigger this discussion and lead to further questions and maybe uncover interesting signals. If we treat it that way then it becomes useful.

Amending: after reading „The Dawn of Everything“ by Graeber and Weingrow a lot of my understanding regarding cultural and sociological development has changed dramatically: Yes - it seems that we are stuck in a one dimensional view of how the world ought to be (politics, economically, culturally) or how it became to. Reality is that we as Humans have experimented quite a lot more and had such a wide range of „solutions“. It’s time to rediscover them.

Expand full comment

Dear Branko, could you please quote Palmas' paper -or work- on education and HDI?

Expand full comment

Agree. Would add that the idea of democracy by itself does not equate to what many think it does because it has no limits, as freedom does through the limitation of not reducing the freedom of others (the tyranny of the majority is another example). Social Democracy on the other hand does contain limits inherent in the second word. However, as said, social democracy would have the same problems in terms of measurement.

Expand full comment

Agree. Nicely tuned with important distinctions. One might add that unlike negative freedoms or "development as freedom" democracy by itself has no limits. (The tyranny of the majority is a telling example.) "Social democracy" on the other hand inherently does. However, the argument stands for the reasons stated. Both are impossible to measure, etc. Thanks.

Expand full comment

Mush-up indexes, including hdi, are always provocative and create unnecessary noise to delight some 'minds' that they enjoy at the expense of public money. Mush-up indexes are easy to manipulate and they can be used for the delusion of people in explaining complex things with means of simple tricks. A charlatan's piece attracts the masses but it never counts as art. The same is with mush-up indexes. Take as an example your own WB's doing business index. An honest and brilliant academic person, who happened to hold a senior position within the organization, killed this index for the sake of academic rigor and honesty and honor. Maybe other indexes will have to face the same fate sooner or later.

Expand full comment

I don't really know what "agency and voice" denotes. People in prison, however, clearly to not have agency so a measure of agency might be just the proportion of the population in prison.

An oppressive unfree society will produce people who protest it (I mean by this just do what they are not supposed to) and get put in jail so the measure might work.

I'm not confident though. To be useful it should find a high prison population in ante bellum USA, or c18 Russia. Of course Stalin's gulag fits the model.

Thanks for the piece, very interesting.

Expand full comment