Software of Democracy

Thomas Friedman points out a major flaw in the “India will take all our good jobs” thesis.

While India has the hardware of democracy — free elections — it still lacks a lot of the software — decent, responsive, transparent local government. While China has none of the hardware of democracy, in the form of free elections, its institutions have been better at building infrastructure and services for China’s people and foreign investors.

When I was in Bangalore recently, my hotel room was across the hall from that of a visiting executive of a major U.S. multinational, which operates in India and China, and we used to chat. One day, in a whisper, he said to me that if he compared what China and India had done by way of building infrastructure in the last decade, India lost badly. Bangalore may be India’s Silicon Valley, but its airport (finally being replaced) is like a seedy bus station with airplanes.

Few people in India with energy and smarts would think of going into politics. People don’t expect or demand much from their representatives and therefore they are not interested in paying them much in taxes, so most local governments are starved of both revenues and talent.

Krishna Prasad, an editor for Outlook magazine and one of the brightest young journalists I met in India, said to me that criminalization and corruption, caste and communal differences have infected Indian politics to such a degree that it attracts all “the wrong kind of people.” So India has a virtuous cycle working in economics and a vicious cycle working in politics. “Each time the government tries to put its foot in the door in IT [information technology],” he said, “the IT guys say: `Please stay away. We did this without you. We don’t need you now to mess things up.’ ”

That attitude is not healthy, because you can’t have a successful IT industry when every company has to build its own infrastructure. America’s greatest competitive advantages are the flexibility of its economy and the quality of its infrastructure, rule of law and regulatory institutions. Knowledge workers are mobile and they like to live in nice, stable places. My hope is that the knowledge workers now spearheading India’s economic revolution will feel compelled to spearhead a political revolution.

One suspects they will, over time. But, despite all the complaints from Americans about political corruption, our system is remarkably clean by almost any world standard. Things that land politicians in jail here wouldn’t raise an eyebrow in most of the world. That’s a huge advantage.

FILED UNDER: Economics and Business
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. hln says:

    There’s a big question of quality, too. I’ve taken over after some failed offshore projects, and, wow, hard to think anyone could sell this as a money-saving solution.

    Twice anyway.

    hln

  2. Delta Dave says:

    One thing that is commonly overlooked is that while other countries can copy what we do…they lack the culture to be the pioneers, leaders, and innovators.

    As long as we retain a culture and spirit that anyone can rise to their dreams, we should never be afraid economicallyh of the Indias and Chinas of the world taking away our ability to create jobs for they will always be a step or more behind.

    In the end what goes overseas is mostly what we ourselves no longer want to do. The stuff that goes overseas is stuff that has been reduce to the simplest of commodities.

    Americans generally prefer jobs with a challenge … when that challenge is absent, then they go overseas where just having a job is a challenge.

    Our danger is that we will lose the pioneering spirit, that the new generations, the illegal immigrants will lack the spirit of innovation and pioneering, and be satisfied with “having a job”.

  3. Dean's World says:

    Our Remarkably Clean System
    James Joyner discusses a recent Thomas Friedman column, and also notes something that too few people realize: our system of government is one of the…

  4. Flit(tm) says:

    Why is Government Infrastructure the Only Option?
    Outside the Beltway has an interesting conversation regarding India and their poor political system. Sure they have a democracy but the politicians are utterly hopeless at building infrastructure. This is a tremendous opportunity for libertarian minded…