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Is democracy the best form of government? We looked at the data

by The Ethics Centre
15 March 2017
POLITICS AND GOVERNMENT
Does democracy give us the society we want? World data suggests democracy gives us a good shot at happiness but might not do much to help with economics.

Democratic values like free speech, equality and representative government are played like trump cards in public debates. It seems if you can label something an 'attack on democracy', you've thrown the winning punch (even it is an illogical argument).

But what's so great about democracy? We assume it’s good but on what basis? The merits probably depend on your perspective on ethics. If you prioritise duty and rules you will respect democracy's checks and balances. If you believe ethics is about virtue, the faith democracy places in people's good character might strike a chord.

What if you believe ethics is about making sure good consequences outweigh bad ones? Then you'd want to know what the actual effects of democracy are on people. Do they make life better for their citizens or not?

As a service to our consequentialist readers, we decided to look for some data to find out.

What the data says

Consequentialism is the ethical theory concerned with maximising happiness and minimising suffering. For consequentialists to support democracy, they'd need to know if it makes people happy. This is a bit tricky because pinning a definition onto happiness isn't easy.

Philosopher Peter Singer thinks there are two ways to describe happiness: "as the surplus of pleasure over pain experienced over a lifetime, or as the degree to which we are satisfied with our lives".

LISTEN: Dr Matt Beard talks about democracy and happiness with ABC's The World Today.


We decided to cross reference a few global studies to see if we could spot any correlations between democracy and happiness. To address Singer's problem with defining happiness, we used two different studies.

First we looked at The World Happiness Report 2016, which ranks how happy countries around the world are. The authors identified six different variables they think determine happiness:

 
  • GDP per capita
  • Generosity
  • Social support
  • Healthy life expectancy
  • Freedom to make choices
  • Perceptions of corruption

The second study we considered is the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) 'Better Life Index'. This aims to test wellbeing – a slightly broader concept than happiness. It examines 11 factors:
 
  • Housing
  • Income
  • Jobs
  • Community
  • Education
  • Environment
  • Civic engagement
  • Health
  • Life satisfaction
  • Safety
  • Work/life balance

These two studies will give us an idea of how different nations score on a stack of different measures of human flourishing. We then compared those scores to The Economist Intelligence Unit's Democracy Index 2016. This report gives "a snapshot of the state of democracy worldwide". It divides nations into 'full democracies', 'flawed democracies', 'hybrid regimes' and authoritarian states based on five indicators:
 
  • Electoral processes and 'pluralism' (i.e. the diversity of political parties and candidates citizens can choose between)
  • Functioning of government
  • Political participation
  • Political culture
  • Civil liberties

Here’s what we found

A total of nine countries score in the top ten for all three categories: democracy, happiness and quality of life. Norway, Iceland, Sweden, New Zealand, Denmark, Canada, Switzerland, Finland and Australia all popped up in the top ten across the board. So at first blush, it seems democracy makes people happy.

However there was some variance within the rankings. Australia comes in tenth for democracy but second for wellbeing. This suggests there are factors other than democracy at work. Could it be our beaches and big open spaces?

We don't yet know how democracy, happiness and quality of life relate to one another, even though we all might sense they are. Does democracy cause happiness? Does happiness bring out people’s democratic tendencies? Is it just a happy coincidence? We need to be careful not to confuse correlation with causation. Just because two things happen together doesn't mean they're connected.

With this said, there is a clear trend. The same nations tend to cluster near the top for happiness, wellbeing and democracy.

Also important, they don't tend to be the same nations who perform strongest on economic measures like GDP. Only Canada is a top ten democracy and top ten GDP earner and only Iceland, Norway and Switzerland appear in the top ten GDP per capita.

Maybe the saying is true: money can't buy you happiness after all.

In case you’re interested in the full top ten, here you go:

 
  Democracy  Happiness  Quality of  Life  GDP GDP per capita
1 Norway Denmark Norway United States Luxembourg
2 Iceland Switzerland Australia China Switzerland
3 Sweden Iceland Denmark Japan Norway
4 New Zealand Norway Switzerland Germany Macao SAR
5 Denmark Finland Canada France Ireland
6 Canada Canada Sweden India Qatar
7 Ireland Netherlands New Zealand Italy Iceland
8 Switzerland New Zealand Finland Brazil United States
9 Finland Australia United States Canada Denmark
10 Australia Sweden Iceland Korea Singapore

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