Preconditions for Democracy

Jack Krupansky
23 min readJan 22, 2017


People everywhere harbor a strong desire to live in a democracy, but achieving a strong, vibrant, resilient, stable, and self-sustaining democracy is no easy feat. The key, most essential ingredient is that the people must be ready, as well as a deep commitment to a long and arduous process.

It isn’t simply a matter of drafting a constitution, holding elections, and then clear sailing forever. It isn’t simply that democracy is hard work either. Democracy isn’t free — there are great costs and burdens that must be shouldered to get to the promised land of democracy.

The thesis of this paper is that there are preconditions that must be met to achieve a viable and sustainable democracy, with the implication that failure to meet the preconditions before embarking on the path to democracy will result in an unstable, unsatisfying, and ultimately unsustainable democracy, the most urgent precondition being that the people must be ready.

And besides all the exciting and fun stuff, the hard work includes a lot of boring stuff as well.

Central thesis: Are the people ready?

The people may be striving very desperately and passionately for democracy, but are they ready? The central thesis of this informal paper is that among the many preconditions necessary to create and grow a thriving, vibrant, and sustainable democracy, the one that stands above the rest is that the people must be ready, not so much that they have a passionate desire, but that they have the abilities and skills and commitment to actually pull it off.

Democracy is not a gift, something for free. Rather, democracy is a very difficult job that requires commitment, patience, and great skills to pull it off.

To claim that they are ready for democracy, the people need:

  1. Deep commitment to a long and arduous process. Patience is as important as passion.
  2. Deep bench of founding fathers who have the skills to assume the mantle of leadership of the democracy enterprise. Somebody has to provide leadership and it can’t be a single person or a small, inner circle.
  3. Deep bench of professionals who have the skills to construct a vibrant and functional bureaucracy that facilitates a vibrant economy with opportunity for all and know how to make the trains run on time. Policies, procedures, and processes need to be designed, implemented, and sustained.
  4. A deep, vibrant, and vocal civil society able to inform, check, assist, and support formal government.
  5. An informed electorate who are prepared to elect enlightened leaders and representatives, and to shoulder their own civic responsibilities in their daily lives.

There are a lot of technical, political, and economic preconditions, but the top precondition is whether the people are ready. It is not sufficient to merely passionately desire democracy, but to have the responsibility and skill to achieve it.

The full list of preconditions

These are the many preconditions required to create and grow a thriving, vibrant, and sustainable democracy, not strictly in any sequential order per se:

  1. Are the people ready?
  2. Depth of commitment to a long and arduous process — much patience will be needed in addition to much passion.
  3. Law and order — that provide stability and a foundation, and can be respected by the people.
  4. Generally free from any significant unrest or disorder — people can freely go about their daily lives.
  5. Generally free from any significant organized crime.
  6. Strong sense of the value of order and stability, at all levels of society.
  7. Strong sense of the need to promote and protect order and stability.
  8. Strong respect for authority.
  9. Strong sense of humility by those wielding authority and power.
  10. Strong commitment to prevent and fight corruption.
  11. Strong sense of physical security, for borders, communities, and homes.
  12. Strong and vibrant economy that provides everyone with a decent livelihood.
  13. Strong sense of social justice.
  14. Strong sense of economic justice.
  15. Critical mass of shared values.
  16. Strong sense of personal responsibility.
  17. Strong sense of personal agency.
  18. Strong sense of individualism.
  19. Strong respect for personal privacy.
  20. Strong commitment to education, both public and private.
  21. Reasonably educated populace.
  22. Readily available health care for all.
  23. Strong public discourse between and among both elites and the general populace on what democracy means from a practical perspective. Elites and the populace must be on the same page for all of the important elements of democracy.
  24. Strong respect for intellectual property, including trade secrets.
  25. Strong respect for the rights of individuals and human rights in general.
  26. Strong respect for the rights of women as full-fledged citizens and members of society — no second-class status in any areas of society or governance.
  27. Strong sense of freedom of association and peaceful assembly — rights of groups.
  28. Strong leaders, founding fathers — not dictators, but ready to shoulder great burdens and lead.
  29. Deep bench of leadership, any of whom can lead the country.
  30. Strong and deep cadre of professionals ready and able to take up the reins of running the practical, day to day elements of government
  31. Strong sense of community — derived from strong individuals more than just leaders.
  32. Strong sense of transparency for government.
  33. Strong and vocal non-state media — free of government interference.
  34. Strong, active, and vocal civil society able to inform, check, assist, and support formal government.
  35. Strong sense of optimism for the future.
  36. Strong willingness to set tribalism, ethnicity, and other demographic differences aside.
  37. Strong sense of ethnic and racial justice, fairness, and equality, with minimal tension, hostility, or conflict.
  38. Process and support for reconciliation of conflicts, disputes, and differences between social groups.
  39. Strong sense of mutual respect and civility.
  40. Strong commitment to religious pluralism and mutual respect between religions.
  41. Strong affinity to plural government and sharing of power.
  42. Strong willingness of the people to trust elected leaders and representatives.
  43. Strong commitment of elected leaders and representatives to faithfully represent and pursue the interests of the people.
  44. Strong commitment of appointed government officials (bureaucrats) to respect the will and interests of the people.
  45. Strong entrepreneurial spirit.
  46. Free and open markets.
  47. Heavy economic reliance on government-owned enterprises is not compatible with democracy.
  48. Kleptocracy and oligarchy are not compatible with democracy.
  49. Private capital in addition to more modest investment by government.
  50. Ready availability of substantial foreign direct investment in addition to more modest indigenous private and government capital.
  51. Currency, monetary policy, and strong central bank to maintain monetary stability.
  52. Robust and professional banking sector.
  53. Light and smart regulation.
  54. Strong belief that change is inherently good and inherently continuous.
  55. Strong commitment to sustainability in all aspects of government, the private sector, and society overall.
  56. Strong commitment to a reasonably balanced budget and fair and equitable sources of revenue.
  57. Limited and focused government investment in critical services and infrastructure.
  58. Availability of critical services and infrastructure — whether provided by the private sector or government.
  59. Rule of law — Independent judiciary, respect for and enforcement of contracts, fair and equitable application of regulations, law, and administrative decisions.
  60. Strong commitment to respect for regional and demographic differences within the country.
  61. Strong local government. Whether or to what extent it is fully democratic is less important than that there be a strong sense of civil order and civic responsibility, with strong mutual respect between local officials and local citizens. Special emphasis on plural rather than tribal governance.
  62. Strong commitment to respect neighboring countries and their peoples.
  63. A single host or sponsor country that will lend significant assistance, both to start and to follow through every step of the way for a substantial period of time.

There is no absolute, sequential ordering of these preconditions, but unless they all come together in a reasonably close timeframe, the stability of the democracy will be at great risk.

Ouch! That’s a very long list. But who said democracy was easy? Oh, well, yeah, quite a few demagogues do talk as if it really was as easy as 1–2–3 and a walk in the park (“Dream it, and it will happen. It’s that easy!”)

The simple truth remains that democracy is very hard work, but that’s the point — a lot of hard work and then the benefits are truly awesome. If a lot of democracies struggle and people are unhappy, commonly it is simply because they started to take the benefits for granted, hoping for a shortcut to bypass much of the hard work.

Some of these preconditions will be elaborated below as needed, in addition to discussion of other factors that relate to the development of a thriving, vibrant, and sustainable democracy.

Importance of civil society

There is no single universal definition for civil society, but roughly speaking it means that there are strong and vocal institutions outside of government and business and industry who help to inform, check, assist, and support government, such as:

  1. Religious institutions.
  2. Academic institutions.
  3. Media.
  4. Labor unions.
  5. Professional associations.
  6. Philanthropic organizations.
  7. Activist organizations and service-oriented nongovernmental organizations.
  8. Political parties, particularly those not in power or control of the government.

There are three alternative definitions for civil society:

  1. An ideal society, as envisioned by Plato and other early philosophers, where the entirety of an ideal society is civil society. Nice ideal, but not so practical, yet.
  2. All associations outside of government proper, particularly business and industry — some people prefer to consider business as a key part of civil society, while others prefer not to.
  3. Exclude all establishment organizations, such as religions, mainstream media, professional associations, labor unions, and traditional philanthropic organizations, focusing on grassroots organizations or so-called NGOs.

A strong government, combining both central and regional governmental entities, is essential but not sufficient for both a vibrant democracy and a vibrant society.

Civil society organizations and other civil society actors collectively help to give both society and government a sense of direction and stability. Government consists of the critical services that are common to all (but cannot be provided effectively by the private sector or civil society alone), but the discrete organizations of civil society can provide focused services that are in demand in society but not commonly-agreed upon enough to be provided by government.

Civil society can provide the sense of agility, flexibility, and diversity that government cannot and that business and industry are not cut out for.

While government must speak with a single voice, civil society can speak with many voices.

Where to start, when to start, and how to start

There is no easy and pat answer to where, when, and how to start the serious process of evolving a country into a proper democracy. Sure, revolution can indeed work, sometimes, but as the American Revolution proved, even a successful revolution is difficult to pull off.

Ultimately, it is a combination of intuition, reason, passion, commitment, people, and resources that will have to come together at a single moment and for a sufficiently extended period of time thereafter for the process to succeed.

Sorry, but there is not some single best place to start, no single best time to start, and no single best way to start. That can be a depressing thought, but it is also a big part of the magic of making a new democracy work.

It will all come together and happen when the people are ready, at all levels of society — leaders, but not just leaders, professionals, but not just professionals, civil society, but not just civil society, and the great mass of average citizens, but not citizens alone. All four groups are needed, all at once.

Spark to light the fire of democracy

The impetus to democracy is most commonly an extreme pessimism towards the present conditions rather than some grand vision when times are good or even moderately pessimistic. The actual spark to kick off the process to begin the long arduous march towards democracy can be anything. It could be some otherwise minor event, but one which draws attention to long-simmering anxieties and resentments, such as:

  1. Fear of the existing regime that transforms into insatiable anger, but an anger that can be transformed and channeled into the positive energy needed for democracy rather than merely to break windows and burn buildings.
  2. Extreme oppression.
  3. Lack of basic freedoms and human rights.
  4. Lack of economic opportunity.

But in all cases the initial negativity must be rapidly transformed into the kind of positive energy that fuels the long slow march to democracy.

The spark could be some small event which has happened many times before with no significant consequences, but this one time it is the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

The bottom line is that the spark will likely be a human factor, animal spirits, rather than some technical, economic or political equation to be evaluated.

Short list of key preconditions

It sure would be nice if only a small subset of the full list of preconditions needed to be met to at least get a fledgling democracy started and off the ground. Sorry, no can do. But, at least we can focus on the few really bigs ones, such that if you can come up with a plan for them, then you at least have some chance of then branching out to start planning for the rest. I’d start planning with these:

  1. Law and order.
  2. Individual and group rights.
  3. Ethnic, racial, and religious equality and fairness.
  4. Vibrant civil society.
  5. Thriving private sector and free and open markets, limiting government to a minority of the overall economy.
  6. Ready availability of some combination of indigenous private capital and foreign direct investment.
  7. Economic opportunity for all.
  8. Ready availability of housing, education, and health care for all.
  9. Plural political system — more than two major parties, with at least two capable of capturing a solid majority in any given election. And a willingness of each to accept the rule of the other without excessive acrimony.
  10. Commitment to minimizing and eliminating corruption in government, law enforcement, and the courts.
  11. Stable relations with neighboring countries
  12. A host or sponsoring country to get the process started and follow through every step of the way.

Even that list may seem too long, but that’s probably as short a list as is possible to have any chance to achieve a thriving and sustainable democracy.

Again, where to start

That short list was more about the functional areas of focus and left off the top two preconditions from the original list:

  1. People are ready, with founding fathers, professionals, civil society, and average citizens.
  2. Depth of commitment to a long and arduous process.

That really is the key — not so much that you want democracy really badly, but that you are in the mindset for a long-haul process, not simply a quick and painless fix.

Passion is essential, but so is very deep patience.

A relatively small but still diverse group of founding fathers are a key to fostering and pulling together that deep commitment. Their deep internal personal sense of commitment is essential to keeping the cause alive whenever things get tough.

Summary list of preconditions

If you really want a short list that summarizes the overall preconditions from a higher, more abstract level, this would be it:

  1. The people are ready — deep bench of founding fathers ready to become leaders, seasoned professionals for bureaucrats ready to make the trains run on time, a broad and deep civil society ready to both support and guide the new government, and a well-informed citizenry ready to select enlightened leaders and shoulder civic responsibilities in their daily lives.
  2. Depth of commitment to a long and arduous process.
  3. A comprehensive economic plan that will provide economic opportunity for all.
  4. A credible plan for security — military, local police, and national special police.
  5. A host or sponsoring country to get the process started and follow through on every step of the way.

Importance of a sponsoring country

Going it alone is a very tough and very risky proposition. It is much better to establish a relationship with another country to sponsor the democracy efforts of the new government, not to seek to be subservient to that country, but to gain their expertise, support, and assistance, not to mention their moral support and advice when times get tough.

A buddy system can be used to pair up fledgling officials and staff with corresponding officials and staff from the sponsoring country on an occasional but frequent basis to transfer knowledge and expertise. This can be especially helpful with law enforcement, courts, and the military, where it is essential to establish a strict sense of professionalism free of even a whiff of corruption.

Support and assistance should be sought and accepted from as many countries as possible, but the most urgent need remains the simple fact that a single country must accept ultimate responsibility for assuring that the democracy enterprise succeeds. If no single country is in charge, conflicts will tend to quickly devolve into fingerpointing.

Evolution from an existing non-democratic government

Again, true revolution is technically certainly an option, but very difficult to pull off. More likely is a gradual evolution from the existing non-democratic system. Not likely to be a very smooth process, but incremental nonetheless.

At each stage of the process, selected elements of the preconditions for democracy can be selected and tackled. Again, this is unlikely to be a smooth process, with setbacks and backtracking just as likely as solid forward progress. People, groups, and institutions with vested interests are unlikely to go quietly into the night.

The main key to success in this process is once again a very strong and very deep commitment to the long and arduous process that will be needed, with just as much patience needed as passion. The fire must be kept alive and hot.

Importance of impatience

As important as patience is for the long-haul, a short-term tactical need for impatience is also needed to assure that the long and arduous process doesn’t get too bogged down in such a way that saps the essential energy and passion needed to keep the process going.

The urgency of now is simultaneously a challenge in both the positive and negative senses of that word.

Balancing long-haul patience and tactical impatience will be an ongoing challenge in the long and arduous march to democracy.

Role of street protests

Are large street protests really a best first step in bootstrapping a new democracy? To listen to some people and activists, you would think that they were, but unfortunately that is typically not the case.

Protests serve two purposes:

  1. Let the voices and aspirations of the people be heard by the government.
  2. Blow off steam, to avoid festering resentments that might otherwise result in outright rebellion.

Neither purpose focuses attention on democratic ambitions per se, even if the protests claim to be about democracy. Why not? Again, the primary difficulty with getting a new democracy off the ground is a deep commitment to a long and arduous process, while street protests tend to be very short-term one-off affairs.

Poets, comedians, and street performers can help to rouse passion and attract attention to get the ball rolling, but it is serious follow-through by stronger hands that is the necessary ingredient most needed after the ball gets rolling. Democracy is not a gig, a performance, or even a series of gigs or performances. It is not a sport or game or hobby.

Street protests can help to focus on assuring that average citizens are passionate about the cause, but all of the other elements of readiness of the people must also be in place — deep bench of founding fathers ready for leadership, professionals to keep the trains running on time (without corruption), strong and vibrant civil society to support and guide government, and average citizens ready to shoulder civic responsibilities and prepared to elect enlightened leaders. And, of course, the deep commitment to a long and arduous process.

Role of passion

Passion is required to keep the fire of democracy alive and vibrant, but can never be viewed as a substitute for patience, commitment, diligence, and competence. All are needed to create and grow a sustainable democracy.

Role of anarchists?

Anarchists can certainly be effective when it comes to regime change and taking down existing authorities, but their political ambitions are diametrically opposed to any sane democratic effort — anarchy is in opposition to republican democratic ideals.

Anarchists cannot help you form a democratic government for the simple reason that they don’t believe in organized government, not in the slightest.

For an anarchist, governance can only be accomplished with purely voluntary, cooperative, horizontal, leaderless, direct democracy, which may work for a small village, but not for an entire country, especially where there are competing and conflicting interests.

Democracy as a hobby?

It is very easy for people to become enthralled with the ideas of democracy and get caught up in street protests and soaring speeches, but it takes a lot of energy, focus, commitment, patience, and hard work to make democracy a reality, and a sustainable reality at that. Democracy cannot be pursued as a hobby. It is not the work of amateurs.

Democracy is very serious work, not to be taken lightly. It is not primarily the work of poets, comedians, street performers, or witty pundits. Only serious professionals need apply.

Going through the motions

As noted at the outset, a successful democracy is more than just writing up a constitution and having elections. Simply going through the motions is not good enough. The motions being:

  1. Get a bunch of people together to agree on the type and structure of government.
  2. Have lawyers draw up a constitution.
  3. Draw up an org chart for the bureaucracy of government.
  4. Build some buildings for the institutions and offices of government.
  5. Have an election.
  6. Appoint people to official positions.
  7. Hire professional and support staff.
  8. Hope for the best.

All of the rest of the preconditions for democracy must be met or brought into existence for that nominal government to have any real meaning or real hope of thriving.

Role of founding fathers

A relatively small but relatively diverse group of founding fathers is essential to getting the ball rolling and keeping it rolling.

The role of a founding father is not so much to be an elite technical expert, but to bring wisdom, determination, and commitment to the table, and to be able to speak clearly and persuasively to a fairly large segment of the populace.

A large and diverse society will have a diversity of interests, so it will be critical for that diversity of interests for each segment of society to feel that at least one founding father deeply understands and has their interests at heart.

Where do founding fathers come from? They will typically be community leaders, business leaders, and civil society leaders. In any case, they are people who the populace look up to with a significant degree of respect and passion. They possess a wisdom and sense of destiny that people simply can’t resist and feel compelled to follow.

Boring stuff

As exciting as founding or transitioning to a new democracy can be, unfortunately governance is largely mundane and boring work, the daily tasks of bureaucrats. Sure, politics and leadership can be exciting, but so much of the success and sustainability of a democracy is dependent on long-haul grunt work, almost completely lacking in excitement. Or when it does get exciting, it is usually because something has gone wrong or somebody has screwed up or done something scandalous, in which case the real, true goal is to get things back to mundane and boring as quickly as possible.

Besides politics and elective office, the large measure of excitement in a democracy comes from civil society, business, and simply life in general. Best if government itself is as boring as possible.

Law, order, and security vs. freedom, equality, and justice

You frequently hear people arguing about trading off between security and freedom, but this is really a false choice, a false dichotomy. Freedom, equality, and justice are the goals we wish to achieve in society, and law, order, and security are simply means to those ends. Security is not needed per se except to protect the rights and freedoms of the people. Law and order are not needed per se except to protect equality and to administer justice.

The goal is to find a happy balance. Too little law, order and security will result in too much chaos, fear, insecurity, and lack of justice, while too much law, order, and security will lead to an oppressive police state with a lack of freedom and justice.

It’s the economy, stupid!

Sure, democracy focuses on good governance, equality, and freedom, but… ultimately everything hinges on whether people feel that they have sufficient economic opportunity to support a decent lifestyle. Without jobs, decent incomes, and affordable (and available) goods and services, unrest among the populace will build and overwhelm even the (perceived) best of governance.

Governance and economic opportunity

Good governance is essential, but is wasted and won’t last for long unless there is sufficient economic opportunity for all. Economic opportunity will depend on:

  1. Strong entrepreneurial spirit.
  2. Free and open markets.
  3. Private capital.
  4. Foreign direct investment.
  5. Light and smart regulation.

It may be tempting to focus on governance first hoping that economic opportunity springs up from nothing or directly from government, but experience has shown that it is far easier to build a government once a workable economy is already in place. That is not to say that an economy can thrive for long without good governance, but simply that governance is only a small portion of the totality of a society.

Government investment and private capital

There will always be a tension between which services and infrastructure should be provided by government and which will be provided by the private sector.

It may be tempting to say that all critical services and infrastructure should be provided by government, and maybe that could conceivably work in an ideal or small society, but from a practical perspective it makes a lot more sense to say that government should limit itself to critical services and infrastructure that the private sector is unable or unwilling to provide. A nice division of labor, each sector doing what it does best.

Foreign direct investment (FDI) is also critical since it is unlikely that indigenous sources of capital will be very plentiful in the early stages of a new democracy.

Go easy on foreign aid

Providing foreign aid, whether in the form of direct grants or loans, seems like an easy fix, but is not really the best best for getting a new democracy off the ground, especially when it comes to sustainability. Again, achieving a durable democracy is not a one-time affair, but takes a very long-term view of sustainability.

Limited, one-time, initial grants can be useful, but only to the extent that they are very limited and focused on sustainability, such as capitalizing the central bank for a new democracy.

Encouraging foreign direct investment is a better approach.

Democracy promotion and advocacy

There is no question that everybody everywhere should aspire to living in a democracy, with freedom and access to opportunity.

Further, all democracies everywhere should exert significant efforts to promote and advocate for democracy elsewhere in the world.

Exactly how to get there is the big, thorny question.

Successful democracies such as the U.S. and Europe have a variety of ongoing programs to promote and advocate for democracy in the rest of the world. This is a valuable contribution to peace, justice, and opportunity in the world, but a lot of careful and thoughtful attention is needed to assure that these efforts are as effective as we wish they were.

Peaceful democratization

Generally speaking, promotion and advocacy for democracy should be limited to peaceful transition to democracy.

Yes, democratic governments everywhere should strongly encourage a transition of non-democratic countries to democracy, but the emphasis should be on the transition being peaceful.

Regime change and incitement

Granted, an oppressed people have the natural right to revolt and use whatever force they feel is necessary to throw off the shackles of oppression, but that’s a decision for the people of a country to make for themselves, not a decision to be imposed or incited by a foreign government, no matter how well-intentioned such efforts might be.

Direct democracy vs. representative democracy

Direct democracy has its appeal, but is impractical for other than very small societies. As a general proposition, representative or republican democracy is more practical, although it does depend on the people willing to trust that elected representatives will represent their interests faithfully.

Fledgling democracies

New-founded democracies cannot be expected to have all of their ducks lined up on day one. Even if they do indeed have all of the preconditions met on paper or with names in all the boxes, it can take years and decades before the fledgling democracy is able to truly flourish.

The issue is not to have it all working on day one, but to be on a path, an arc, a trajectory that shows steady and very real progress over time.

Credibility with the people

The really important thing is that a newly-founded democracy has credibility with the people — the people have to truly believe in their government, not just on an abstract, intellectual level, but on a passionate, visceral level as well. Their enthusiasm must be boundless, otherwise the democracy will falter.

Mature democracies

Although it may be very tempting to declare “mission complete” at some stage of maturity for a democracy, the simple, ugly truth is that the hard, heavy work of democracy is never complete. In fact, it never really gets easier and only ever gets harder, but that is is nature of a truly robust and resilient democracy — the robustness and resiliency is needed to both assure that the democracy can survive in tough times of crisis, but also needed in sunny, good times to assure that the democracy does not get complacent and soft.

Credibility of a mature democracy can be just as tough to shepard as in a fledgling democracy, or even harder, much harder — it is easy to get excited about something new and existing mostly only in promise for the future, but terribly difficult to maintain a sense of excitement when the system has become a bit boring or even somewhat dysfunctional, but maintaining a deep sense of commitment to the persistence of the democracy is the primary work of any true democrat.

Continual change

The main secret ingredient need to both build a new democracy from scratch and to keep a mature democracy fresh and vibrant is a passionate commitment to continual change.

Luckily, reality is always throwing us curve balls, continuously forcing us to adapt and change. The only real question is whether we go with the flow and adapt to evolve our democracy to new and greater heights, or resist change and face the prospect of failure.

The good news is that frequent, periodic elections assure that the people can keep government focused on the necessary level of change, assuring that change occurs when needed, but also putting a check on any unneeded change just for the sake of change. Elections do not always send us in exactly the right direction, but subsequent elections can correct the occasional misdirections.

Balanced budget

Money is always a difficult matter for any form of government. Sure, you can borrow money in a pinch, but as a general rule government spending can’t sustainably grow at a faster rate than the underlying economy.

A relatively balanced budget is best. Absolute balancing is difficult other than on occasion when the economy is really booming, but any growth in budget deficits over an extended period of time should be limited to the growth rate of GDP for the underlying economy.

Although some degree of government investment in critical services and infrastructure is appropriate, a relatively balanced budget will tend to require that the lion share of investment comes from the private sector, including foreign direct investment (FDI.)

If the budget for a country gets too far out of whack (think Greece), with spending way above revenues, disaster is in the cards, maybe not in the very near future, but eventually.

The citizens of a democracy must see and feel that their government is always acting in a fiscally responsible manner, and not treating everybody and everything as a bottomless piggy bank.

Responsible government budgeting is an essential precondition for a thriving, vibrant, resilient, and sustainable democracy.

Ideological foundations and theory of democracy

Much has been said and written about democracy over the past few centuries, in addition to the work of ancient Greek philosophers, but there is no single work that suffices as a true guidebook for democracy. It is unfortunate, but practitioners are faced with a crazy-quilt patchwork of uncoordinated theories.

I myself have written a long but informal paper on what I call The Elements of Government, emphasizing modern, western-style democracies. A companion paper, The Elements of Society, is also relevant since many elements of society are preconditions for a viable government. I don’t present them as the end-all definition for modern government and modern society, but I did endeavor to distill everything I have learned about democracy and modern society over the past five decades into a more coherent theory rather than the existing crazy-quilt patchwork of theory.


Corruption is one of the more common and significant complaints against non-democratic regimes, and even many nominally democratic governments. It is an insidious affliction that saps respect and trust in government. It may take the form of outright bribery, quid pro quo, nepotism, or discrimination. Worse, it may be semi-officially sanctioned and even accepted or expected by the populace, sometimes as a quasi-legitimate form of compensation for unfairly low official salaries. Even so, it will still sap the respect and trust that citizens have for government. At the end of the day, it means that decisions in government are not being made on their merit.

Corruption is like a weed that is quick to take root and difficult to eradicate. Again, it takes a lot of deep commitment to the long and arduous path to democracy to root out and prevent corruption.


Although a court or a military victory can formally end a conflict, differences can linger, fester, and cause problems down the road. A reconciliation process is needed. Despite its enormous value, reconciliation has not yet been commonly used even in the nominally more successful democracies. Established democracies and near-democracies may be technically able to get away without any formal reconciliation process, but it may be mandatory or at least a significant benefit for more modest-sized, younger, and fledgling democracies.


Democracy really is worth all the hard work, but the hard work is still required.

Worse, beyond simply working very hard, people must work very smartly on all the right pieces to bring the full puzzle together to experience the full menu of benefits that accrue to living in a thriving democracy.

The biggest piece of the puzzle is that the people have to be ready. They have to make a deep commitment to a long and arduous process, with no quick, easy fix in sight. They need a deep bench of founding fathers ready to assume leadership positions, a deep bench of professionals ready to assume positions as bureaucrats ready to manage the economy and make the trains run on time, a deep, vibrant, and vocal civil society able to inform, check, assist, and support formal government, and an informed electorate of citizens ready to choose and elect enlightened leaders and to act with a sense of civic responsibility in their daily lives at all times.

We need to refrain from over-promising on benefits and understating the level and smartness of the work required for the people of any country to transition from a non-democracy to a full-fledged democracy.