Sunday, July 6, 2008

It Takes More Than Democracy

There's a lot about the world that we're never told in The United States. I don't mean this in a sinister or conspiratorial way. Americans just have a rather insular focus, that's all. And there's a lot of what we ARE told that's bogus. Chief among the pieces of misinformation is the myth that the world would be some kind of utopia if only all the nations of the world were democratic.

The fact is that democracy is not rare. It's the most common form of government on earth. And about the only thing that democratic nations have in common is that they're headed by some person who beat some other person in an election. Democracy is no more sublime than that. The strength and success and splendor of the United States is not the result primarily of democracy. It's due far more to a pair of other fundamentals that originated with our Founding Fathers. They aren't codified in our Constitution, but they're so ingrained in our national function that we take them completely for granted. One is the notion that any citizen in the U.S. has a reasonable shot at owning the land that he lives on. The other is the prospect that any citizen in the U.S. can start his own business if he so chooses, and do it with a minimum of hassles. This is what's lacking in the rest of the world. I wasn't smart enough to figure this out on my own. But then I sailed around the world on a ship with guest speakers who presented on-board lectures. They pointed out what to look for, and I simply took their advice and saw with my own eyes how things operate in the countries that we visited. Here's what I found.

In Brazil and Argentina, it takes almost two years to get a license to open a business, and the fees for that license are so costly that the business takes about three years to recoup the investment. The result is that almost nobody bothers with the license. In Brazil and Argentina- in fact in South America as a whole- 50% of the GNP is black market. I don't mean this in the criminal and underworld context. It's just that half of all business conducted in South America is off the official radar screen. The businesses don't pay any tax. The government loses income as a result and can't afford any kind of business oversight or regulation, so customers interact with business at their own risk. But the real negative is that business lacks the motivation to reinvest in capital improvements because the business can be closed down by the government at any time. In South America, most of the voters are affiliated in some way with illegitimate business, so the majority voting block stays committed to the status quo. A change in leadership might mean tighter requirement for licensing or greater license enforcement. This is the essential reason why North America is rich and South America is poor even though both continents are democratic. Truth is- there are many people in South America who would be much better off living in a well-run kingdom rather than in their democracy.

Now about property ownership. I'm about to tell you more than you probably want to ever know about the slums that constitute a major part of many of the world's big cities. There is a deplorable phenomenon called, "exponential urbanization," and it's intimately tied to the inability of people to own property. We don't have anything like this in the U.S. so I'd like to paint you a word picture. I live in Denver where the municipal airport is twenty miles from the nearest edge of the city. If you have ever flown into Denver's airport, DIA, or if you've never been there, just try to imagine this. Imagine that all of the vacant land, now mostly fields of hay, between Denver and the airport is chock full of tiny shacks with roofs of corrugated tin or blue plastic cover material. Miles and miles are like this, with small irregular roads threading through the shantytowns, all unpaved and alternating between mud and dust depending on the weather. Imagine that everyone living there has to walk about ten miles to the Platte River near Brighton to fill two-gallon water jugs, and then carry the jugs back home to have a daily supply of water. No toilets, of course. And then imagine that all of these slums and shacks have been built in the last 10 to 15 years, so that the population of Metro Denver is 7 million instead of 2 million, because 5 million live in the slums. All of the land covered by slums, even including airport land between the runways, belongs to either the federal, state, or city government, or in some cases private owners who lack the clout to evict the squatters on their land. The point is, none of the land is owned by the people living on it, so nobody has any incentive to improve their dwelling beyond the status of a shack because they potentially can be booted out at any time.

Most all of these slum conditions are found in democratic countries. The squatters are a majority of the voting people, so the government in power can stay in power by raising the fear that a change in leadership might mean eviction from the government land. In 25 years, Rio de Janerio grew from 2.7 million to 14 million, Bombay went from 4 million to 23 million, and Delhi went from 4 million to 19 million. These numbers explain why the urbanization is called, "exponential." Most all of the population growth of these cities took place in the slums and shantytowns which they euphemistically call, "informal housing." And one last thing about the slums, they're a vast breeding ground for Islam. You can see the minarets poking into the sky throughout the slums because they are the only thing higher than a single story. Many more Muslims are now living in the slums of democratic nations than are living in all the Arab kingdoms and theocracies of the world, but you never hear about that.

I've described cities that I've actually visited on my global trip. I saw these places for myself. These were cities in democratic nations. Much of what I learned, I learned by a kind of simple osmosis, touching and feeling things and places that most Americans have never even heard of, and here's what I learned. The next time I hear someone tell me that spreading democracy is worth the sacrifice of American lives, I'll take that with a grain of salt, because I've learned that the world is just not that simple.

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