Libyan Democracy: The Islamists Aren't the Greatest Threat

The war in Libya has been, as wars go, a great success. A horrendous dictator has been overthrown by his own people, with a bit of help from an international coalition that, for once, has gotten together to do the right thing (though perhaps not entirely for the right reasons, see my earlier post on this). The big question on many people's minds now is: will democracy emerge, or will Islamists take over and refuse to allow any further elections? This may be an oversimplification of the fears, but it's not a gross one, nor is it entirely unjustified. Still, the Islamists are not the greatest threat to Libya's fledgling democracy.

The number one threat is oil. Oil and other natural resources are always a threat to unstable democracies. The reason is that they can generate loads of cash and push up the value of the currency, killing other exports and making the economy lopsided towards oil. This concentrated source of cash means that politicians control (often by government ownership of the oil company, but not necessarily) much of the money the entire country relies on. Even more importantly, it is a source of cash completely "divorced" from the people the government is meant to serve, to borrow a term from Jason Pack and Shashank Joshi's recent article in The World Today. We might all complain about taxes, but at least they create a link between taxpayers and politicians. With natural resources as the main money spinner, citizens become the recipients of whatever politicians in their infinite wisdom decide to give them. This is a recipe for complacency, dependence, and corruption on the highest level. Politicians should be dependent on voters, not the other way around.

Look around the world at any place that has discovered natural resources (especially oil) first before developing a stable, democratic government. See any democracies? I don't. Discovering such resources can be a boon to a country like Norway or Australia, whose state institutions were already solidly in place upon discovery. They are a disaster for places like Nigeria or, I fear, emerging Libya.

There is a second danger as well that functions along similar lines: foreign assistance. As Libyans try to build institutions for the first time (Gaddafi intentionally built none so that no one could compete with his final say in things), international assistance will be a necessity. It's also very dangerous for the same reason that oil is dangerous: it supplies the rulers of a country with a cash supply independent of the country's citizenry (again, I must credit Jason Pack and Shashank Joshi for bringing this so acutely into focus).

It is important to note the other implications of this, too. The citizens of a country generate tax revenue by working in the economy. It's therefore essential to have a working and growing economy to fuel tax revenues. If a government does not require taxes to have cash flow, it has no incentive to power the economy. In addition, if citizens get handouts they have little incentive to push the economy onwards, either. Not only will the political elites be independent of citizens/voters, those voters won't have much in the way of economic clout anyway, unless they become part of the machine themselves. The result is economic stagnation and rampant corruption.

This problem is incredibly hard to solve. In fact, it is hard to see when it has been overcome. Even when outside aid focuses on assisting a local government and tries hard not to be patronizing and not to take the reigns itself, its very presence can push a country away from the very democracy it is trying to promote. Looking at the Balkans, though, we can conclude that this can still be overcome slowly, with vigilance and patience. The "resource curse," as it is known, is harder to surmount.

So what is the solution? If I knew that, I'd be pretty stellar. What I can say is that it is better to tax oil companies than for a government to own them outright. Believe it or not, having foreign-owned oil companies would be a blessing in disguise (still, they can be expropriated at any time -- just look at Venezuela for a recent example).

In the end, the only thing that can protect Libyans from the resource curse is the Libyans themselves. They must be sure that there are laws and institutions in place that can stop elites from enriching themselves with oil money. No easy task. How do you ensure that the courts and institutions that are supposed to make sure everything is done by the book aren't bribed by loads of oil money? One way is to see that they are well paid. Another is to have a free and competitive press to keep the bright light of the public eye shining on shady dealings. The final thing, of course, is that the Libyan people themselves remain vigilant against this threat. They have shown what can happen if they stand up together. They must make sure future governments never think for a second that they are "divorced" from the Libyan people in any way.


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