Democracy and development look different from inside a jail cell

One of my most inspirational experiences lately was to meet with an African democratic opposition leader whom I had long admired from afar. He earned his credentials the hard way -- he spent years in jail under the dictatorial government of his country.

While in jail, he read the foreword to one extremely popular book on The End of Poverty. The author thanked the dictator who had jailed the opposition leader for the dictator's "help and guidance" on the book, naming this same autocrat as one of "Africa's new generation of democratic leaders."

He also was not a big fan of statistical regressions that tell poor people when they are allowed to have democratic rights. He can't understand why there's a double standard: real democracy for rich countries, yet doubts about whether poor societies deserve to be free. Not to mention active support of aid organizations for authoritarian leaders. One aid organization gave their representative an award for creative financing of this same dictator while this opposition leader was in jail.

He knew that I am  in favor of democracy for poor nations, and he encouraged me to do better at making that case, partly on idealistic grounds and partly on pragmatic ones. I feel like I have let him down by not making more progress on this longstanding debate.

I am keeping the country and opposition leader unspecified, for fear of further harassment of this courageous activist by his country's "new generation of democratic leader."

Coincidentally, I read today a superb article by Carl Schramm on democracy and capitalism in the Fall 2009 Claremont Review of Books (alas the article itself is not available online). Among other things, Schramm takes down Thomas Friedman for his book "Hot, Flat, and Crowded."  Schramm says:

This is what happens in free market democracies, Friedman tells us -- an unacceptable mess ensues when there are no expert overseers to direct our affairs.

According to Schramm, Friedman's ideal system seems to be if

intellectual elites could rule us in a benign autocracy. And it likely would be benign, because intellectuals are ... so nice.

You can keep all your experts, I'll take one real democratic opposition leader anyday.