Equality, Democracy or Wealth?

Rememberance Day seems like an appropriate time to think about changing the world.

If you gained a superpower to help a poor, undemocratic, unequal country to either equality, wealth or democracy, what would you do?

The problem is, although all those things are potentially beneficial, there are two problems lurking. One is the King Midas problem – that things don’t always turn out the way you expect them to. The second is that because of the unpredictability, heterogenity and specific circumstances of different countries, there is a potential of doing harm rather than good.

Definition Problems

Inequality “is not self defining” (Cowell, 1998, cited in Chakravort, 2006, p.16.); there are questions regarding what measurements to use (income, resources, rights, health, power and many more), how it should be measured spatially (individual households, regions, countries etc.), how it should be measured statistically (Gini coeffiecient, Theil, Relative Mean distribution) and how reliable measurements are (under/over estimating because of pressure from social groups, governments etc.) (Chakravorty, 2006, Boyce, 2007 and Sutcliffe, 2004). If this country were to become equal, it is not clear what sort of equal would it become. And equal with what?

“To study democracy is to study a moving target”, (Markoff, 2005, p.396.) because it is temporally, spatially and politically variable. Democracy has been been differently defined through time. The USA is often credited as being the first Constitutional Democracy, however it barred both women and blacks from voting initially and would not be considered a democracy now. Spatially, democracy is variable in its requirements. Freedom House (2008) classes an average score of 1 – 2.5/7 as ‘free’. Averages however can encompass huge amounts of variation – a country could be particularly weak in electoral process criteria and make it up on civil liberties, vice versa, or equal in both. Democracy is also politically variable, there are both single and multi winner systems, which potentially return different results. For instance: a first past the post voting system gives power a seat to the party with most votes in each area, whereas a party-list proportional system allocates seats as a proportion of all votes cast.

Wealth comes in many different forms. Three essential problems in measuring wealth exist: What measure should be used, comparative wealth spatially and comparative wealth temporally. Measurement can be through total Gross Domestic Product (GDP), GDP per capita, Capital assets, Gross National Product (which includes assets abroad) and many others. Wealth is spatially and temporally distinct. The poorest nation in 2008 would be the richest in its current state in 1700. Because of variability in purchasing power within and between countries, wealth is also spatially distinct. The amount of US dollars needed to be wealthy in Chad is significantly different to the amount needed in Singapore.

The Potential harm in Progress

A country which is made equal may be made equal in many ways, including equally poor. This would decrease the overall GDP available for distribution and damage any sort of charitable donating that existed, reducing the income of both the rich and the poor of the country. A poor country is also more vulnerable to attack from foreign, richer, countries.

“Democracy is an invitation to change” (Markoff, 2005, p.401.) and that change is not necessarily desirable by all parties. The paradox of democracy is, that since it gives free choice to people, they may choose to act in ways detrimental to the country as a whole. The majority in a country may be convinced of their superiority, vote in a government of that mind and pass a law to destroy the minority. There may be such a strong “value power” (Boyce, 2007, p.315) remaining from the previous regime that a dictatorship may be voted back in immediately. Another serious potential consequence of democracy is that the change in power structure may allow repressed elements to exploit the situation. For instance, when Brazil became a democracy after a military dictatorship, the police and criminals exploited the situation and filled the power gap. Crime increased drastically under democracy and additionally police violence became a significant problem (Linz and Strepan, 1996, cited by Markoff, 2005). A similar problem occurred in Spain when Franco died and power transferred to a democratic system. The Catalans increased their campaign to gain independence, arguably because of the relaxing of regulations created by democracy (Markoff, 2005).

making a country wealthy gives no indication about how the wealth may be spread. It may be spread very unequally, or at the expense of others. Wealth can also create vested interests which can inhibit development of democracy (Glaeser, 2006, p.633.). Wealth in the form of natural resources has in some cases created wars, as in the cases of Nigeria and Sierra Leone (Birdsall, 2005). And this is to speak nothing of the potential effects on CO2 levels or the question over the relationship between wealth and happiness.

Given that this country is currently undemoctratic, unequal and poor and these supernatural powers have been created, it is assumed that the situation in this country is bad enough to justify action, even though it incurs risk. Put another way: if this country were a person, it would die unless we operate, but still may die if we do operate. If the situation were not so dire, my recommendation would I think be that the risk of doing harm is not worth taking, under the principle of ‘first, do no harm”.

But that is a cop out isn’t it? If you pushed me, I think that the transformation least likely to do significant harm appears to be equality. Equality starts things back at zero, giving people a chance to build their world without preconceptions but with experience. Besides, it doesn’t break too many physical laws as nothing need to created or destroyed. But that is no guarantee of success.


Boyce, J.K., (2007) “inequality and Environmental Protection” In: Baland, J.M., Bardham, P. and Bowles, S. (eds.) Inequality, Cooperation, and Environmental Sustainability. Woodstock: Russell Sage.

Chakrovorty, S. (2006) Fragments of Inequality. Abingdon: Routledge.

Freedom House. (2008) Freedom in the World. [Online].
Available at: www.freedomhouse.org
[Accessed 7 November 2008].

Sutcliffe, B. (2004) World Inequality and Globalization. Oxford Review of Ecnomic Policy, [Online]. 20 (1) p.15 -37.
Available at: www.oxrep.oxfordjournals.org
[Accessed 1 November 2008].

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