Economic History

Information society and the future of democracy.


Western world governments take advantage of tech revolution. However, Non-democratic regimes may benefit from technology revolution as well.

Liberal political institutions in the western world have been developed long side capitalism and information. The wisdom we inherited from the Cold War is that capitalism fosters liberty and therefore democracy as long as information and free speech rights are protected. Likewise, -regardless information and technology changes- Francis Fukuyama’s thesis ends the debate about further development of democracy. For him, the western world does not see changes on democracy as it does in social and moral issues (Fukuyama, 2000). It is as it is currently and it is not going anywhere else. However, now that capitalism seems to be crossing its more dramatic crisis since the Great Depression and at the same time facing technology changes, it is relevant to think about how political institutions will change in the future as well. This essay takes a look at the future of liberal democracy in a small sample of twenty nine countries by considering the so-called Information Age as a conditional factor for institutional change and democracy quality. Our conclusion is that political regimes –regardless its type or definition- adapt to technological changes and legitimize themselves by using electronic tools. It basically means that the convergence of liberal democracy and technological advances does not end in more democracy in non-democratic regimes. 
Western world governments take advantage of tech revolution: 
Developed societies have been exploring the consequences of becoming increasingly service oriented economies. That phenomenon has been characterized as the Information Age.  Castells states it as follow: “Although econometric equations are obscure in identifying the precise source of the new productivity pattern, the “statistical residual” found to be critical in the new production function has been often assimilated to the new inputs represented by the deeper penetration of science, technology, labor skills and managerial know-how in the production process” (Castell, The Information Economy). Technology is becoming more accessible nowadays. Internet literacy expands everyday as broadband initiatives populate public policies. The same countries have also established democratic political institutions. Most of them rank high when measured in terms of stability of the rule of law, competitive elections, check and balance institutional system and free market.    
If we consider knowledge as the intensive factor of production in postindustrial societies, then we should assume its scarcity at the same time, which means necessarily higher costs of getting information. Information cost seems to be decreasing since developed societies enjoy faster access to news and reports. Citizens seem to be more informed now that they were before. Facing that challenge, governments started to have a stake in this problem by providing access to communities, and at the same time, by providing access to services and procedures electronically. Government services started to take advantage of modern technology. Some have candidly claimed that there is a new evolution in democracy system: electronic democracy.  “Electronic democracy can be understood as the capacity of the new communication environment to enhance the degree and quality of public participation in government. For example, the Internet can enable certain citizens (namely, those with access to IT) to vote electronically in election, referendums, and plebiscites. The Internet also can facilitate opinion polling” (Kakabadse.A. & Others. 2003. Pag 47). 
Non-democratic regimes may benefit from technology revolution as well: 
In this process, which has taken place for the last two decades, E-Government models have made a transition from just e-mail and internal work use of technology toward a joined-up government which involves participation (Coursey & Norris. 2008). “In this model, e-government is clearly expected to evolve to a higher plane at which citizens have moved beyond accessing information and services, interacting with governmental officials, and transacting business with government. At this stage, citizens participate electronically in the very activities of governance” (Coursey & Norris. 2008. Page 525). So far, the process does not mean or make any reference to the kind of political system. 
Furthermore, challenges are understood in terms of public administration rather than in terms of the change of political institutions. To summarize the challenges, political systems face crises that the public administration must tackle in terms of accountability, governance and legitimacy (Huddleston, 2000).None of what Huddleston identifies as challenges are strongly related to regime type. All of those challenges may be tackled by authoritarian regimes as well as democratic ones.  A solution for facing effectively those three foresight crises relies on e-government or a better engagement of citizen in public service and democratization in where it takes place. 
Empirical evidence from twenty nine countries: 
The following table matches two different indexes. The first column shows scores of Citizen Participation from the Digital Governance and Municipalities Worldwide report 2007. Citizen Participation is defined as online participation in decision making, allowing policy feedback by constituencies, publishing public information, polling key issues, or citizens surveys (Holzer & Kim, 2007. Pag. 27). The second column refers the scores at the Polity IV index made by the University of Maryland 2010. The score that we take here is the general score which summarize variables such as competitive election and public service recruitment, executive constraints and political participation. The index also considers political stability and rule of law as a proxy for determining how democratic a country is.      
Citizen Participation
Polity IV Index
Republic of Korea
8
Singapore
-2
Thailand
3
Finland
10
Netherlands
10
Austria
10
Bulgaria
9
Latvia
8
Japan
10
Slovakia
10
Russia
4
USA
10
Switzerland
10
Canada
10
Ireland
10
South Africa
9.5
Croatia
9.5
Germany
10
Italy
10
Spain
10
Venezuela
1
France
10
UK
10
Australia
10
Belarus
-7
Bosnia
5
Costa Rica
10
Indonesia
8
Serbia Montenegro
8
Table #1 illustrates a paradox. Information age allegedly bring more democracy, however, countries such as Singapore, Thailand, Russia, Venezuela, -Belarus and Bosnia Herzegovina, have been gotten low scores at the Polity IV democracy index. Clearly, it is not possible to establish a relationship between the usage of information technology and democracy regimes. Electronic political participation does not translate in more democratic system. Actually within democracies such United States “contrary to the hopes of some advocates, the internet is not changing the socioeconomic character of civic engagement in America. Just as in offline civic life, the well to do and well-educated are more likely than those less well-off to participate in online political activities such as emailing a government official, signing an online petition or making a political contribution” (Smith & Others, 2009. Pag 3). More internet access does not mean a better democracy. 
Conclusion: 
By looking at the outliers, which happen to be non-European countries, we may conclude that more internet access may help totalitarian regimes legitimize themselves. Therefore we cannot expect more democracy as an outcome of the technological revolution. As we can see in the table, cases such as Singapore may represent a paradox for participation in which a society bolsters one party system regime. Although the People Action Party in Singapore is very popular among the population and the electorate, there is also evidence that the party has controlled the media and also intimidated the opposition.  Hugo Chavez in Venezuela also may represent a case in which democracy is kidnapped by a political party that publicizes its policies through an effective use of media, including Internet. Alyksandr Lukashenko in Belarus is also a good example of how by using the media and information technologies a government may legitimize constitutional changes that severely affect political rights, ended up in a closed democratic regime.
Bibliography:
Fukuyama, Francis. (2000). The great disruption: human nature and the reconstruction of social order. New York: Free Press.
Castells, Manuel. The Information Economy. 
Kakabadse, A., Kakabadse, N.K.& Kouzmin, A. (2003). Reinventing the democratic governance project through information technology? a growing agenda for debate. Public Administration Review. 63 (1), 44-60.
Smith, A, Scholzman, K. Verba S. & BradyH (2009). Pew Internet and American Life Project. The Internet and civic Engagement. 
Holzer & Kim (2007). Digital Governance in Municipalities Worldwide. The E-Government Institute. Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey. 
Coursey, D. & Norris, D. (2008). Models of e-government: are they correct? an empirical assessment. Public Administration Review. May/June 2008. 
Marshall, M. Polity IV Project. Political regimen characteristics and Transitions, 1800-2010. http://www.systemicpeace.org/polity/polity4.htm 

Categories: Economic History

Leave a Reply