Thursday, April 3, 2008

Why Does Democracy Work?

Today at lunch my Indian colleague, an urban planner, asked me how I like the roads here in India. I told him they were terrible and I didn’t understand why there were no rules and nobody followed the ones that did exist. “Because the penalties are very low here for breaking the rules; I think in the U.S. you have very high fines.” I responded that yes, the high fines were definitely a deterrent, so why doesn’t India just raise its traffic violation fines? That way we won’t be risking our lives every time we cross the street to go to lunch. He told me that traffic violation fines can’t be raised because India is a Democracy and the people will protest and the official who raised the fines will be voted out of office. Really? Raising the fines for people breaking the law will cause someone to lose an election?
Surprisingly, this is not the first time I’ve heard this argument made here. I am currently working with a water board whose mission is to become financially self-sufficient. While it seems like common sense to me that a government agency should aim to recover its costs, this is a huge change for them. While the agency is technically bankrupt, they have always relied on Delhi to bail them out. Now, in their goal to become self-sufficient, they need to reduce inefficiencies and revisit their tariff structure. Having done the analysis, our recommendation to them is that they must raise the water tariff. They simply cannot support the cost of cleaning and providing the water without a tariff increase. But no, raising the tariff is not an option. “If we try to raise the tariff, the politicians will replace the district commissioner. People won’t stand for higher water rates.”
Ok, so yes, tax hikes aren’t popular. We know that. However, in the U.S. there doesn’t seem to be THAT big of a link between who we vote for and independent municipal agencies. Also, we seem to understand that penalties have to be sufficiently high to have order on the roads and that someone has to pay for the cost of the water we use. We don’t often protest and throw people out of office for implementing effective and necessary cost-recovery measures. Or do we? Am I just completely oblivious to local politics? Have you ever voted against someone for balancing the budget? While you may not like getting a $400 speeding ticket, do you recognize that you earned it? Do you ever think about that ticket when you enter the voting booth?
Why is it that Americans seem to accept these costs of living in society while Indians don’t? How do you decide who to vote for, or rather, who to vote against? While we could argue for days about the recent effectiveness of U.S. Democracy, there is no doubt that it is more effective than Indian Democracy. Why? What is it about our culture and democratic process that makes it work?
Please leave comments or email me about your ideas… getting people to change their thinking and action about these types of issues is the only way we will ever be able to increase the quality of life in this country.

1 comment:

Linda said...

Democracy is the preferred governing model to date, but is usually quite inefficient and slow to make widespread change because of the things you noted. Yes, politicians everywhere get opposed when they talk about raising taxes. Examples abound and that is why the talk is plentiful, but real change rarely takes place. India is starting from a place of more chaos and less money. US started with formal and strict British heritage. Europeans show several styles of democracy/economic mixes. Overall, I think we are learning that lasting change comes more easily from incentives and inspirational leadership, not tax increases or threats of penalties that are difficult to enforce. This is an ongoing balance all leaders struggle with. You are asking the right questions and many classic and contemporary writings continue to to try to educate others about the same societal good vs individual freedom issues. It often comes down to a leader gets the power saying one thing, but then does other things once they have the authority. Or they actually do what they said they were going to do and history reveals the real impact. "W" certainly has spent his political capital in one way and Gandhi spent his in another. Linda