Sunday 10 June 2012

Totalitarian by the Numbers

Totalitarian by the Numbers: The Quantification of Democracy and Despotism in Southeast Asia

      An essay from the early 1990s crossed my desk a few days ago, opening with a world-weary remark that now seems to have a very different tone in retrospect: "Democracy", it read, "is the legitimating myth of the 20th century".*¹  In surveying the prospects for democracy in Asia, the essay made repeated reference to the Freedom House rankings, a name that was familiar to me, but that I couldn't recall hearing much about since the early 1990s myself.  I rarely (if ever) see this statistic mentioned; it reminds me of the passing optimism of that era when even the most cynical of commentators looked forward from the baseline of 1989 with the expectation that we would be able to chart rapid political improvement in the years to follow.  I hesitate to write "improvement", as the term used at the time was "liberalization", and the meaning of the latter word has been very much in flux ever since.  1989 was a year marking both the demolition of the Berlin Wall and the Tiananmen square protests.
      Further removed from the headlines, but closer to the interest of this essay, 1989 also marked the year of the declared quittance of Vietnamese troops from Cambodia (though not quite their withdrawal, nor, indeed, anything like peace in the country).  It was the year that Myanmar (Burma) adopted its new name, in the prelude to the (quashed) elections of 1990.  The Communist government of Laos had resolved to adopt free market economics a few years earlier, in 1986, though the first effects of that change might have been felt around 1989, as Laos had just emerged from a brief but important war with with Thailand (1987–1988).  Thailand itself had elected a new Prime Minister in 1988, but this was to come to a violent end with a coup d'état and a counter-coup soon thereafter (1991–1992).  In mainland Southeast Asia, the year 1989 is a baseline pretty close to the base.
      In retrospect, both the cynicism and the optimism of the 1990s seem misplaced. 
      It is a measurement that is meaningless at its extremes: Cambodia's "Pol Pot" regime gets the worst possible rating (double sevens), but the government of occupation that replaced it continued to receive the same rating throughout the early 1980s.  The military government of Myanmar (Burma) earned the same rating again, and, at first glance, many would tend to dismiss the measure for creating this seeming-equivalence between such starkly different regimes. 
      The Freedom House ranking system has its merits, and these are, perhaps, easily forgotten because of its limitations; the statistic may be so rarely quoted because of its inapplicability to the stuff that newspaper headlines are made of. 
      At the opposite extreme, many Europeans would be baffled to find the highest possible rating (double ones) shared by countries as dissimilar as Estonia and the United States of America. 
      Does this invalidate the statistic?  Not at all.  Simply put, the Freedom House system does not measure the degrees of difference that separate one of these governments from another, but it does provide a useful set of indications for a middle range.  An ordinal measure calibrated for one spectrum of values will (inevitably) exclude all others.

      The chart shows that the island of Taiwan (a.k.a. the Republic of China) made a transition to a culture of political rights and civil liberties at a slower pace than South Korea (but with a somewhat smoother transition); meanwhile, in the People's Republic of China, political rights have merited the worst possible rating consistently since 1989.  Was there absolutely no improvement?  The faded green line diverging from 1994–1999 denotes the "loosening up" of civil liberties in mainland China during the same period, albeit without any relaxation of the state's political control.  On China's other frontier, I note, Mongolia (not shown on this chart) had the dreaded double-seven rating from 1979 to 1989, but then rapidly progressed to its current rating of double-twos, only a half-step behind Taiwan and South Korea (shown on figure 5, right-hand side).
      Figure 2, above, shows how this can be immediately useful in contrasting political changes over time.  At a glance, we can "see" a set of changing conditions in Asia that most researchers would be subjectively aware of over the last twenty years in the field, though, I think, most of us would lack the means to quantify such impressions.  The lines illustrate, for example, that there was a time (still very much in living memory) when Taiwan, South Korea and Communist China were all clustered together in the rankings (ca. 1984), but the decades thereafter show some clearly diverging trends.  Even if the numbers are somewhat abstract, this lets us illustrate and compare the changes of this chapter of recent history with reference to something more tangible than personal impressions, or citations of isolated political events.

      In Asia, the score that Freedom House assigns for civil liberties tends to correspond closely to the score for political rights (e.g., in fig. 2, above, the two scores are identical for the P.R.C. from 1979–1994, and thus the two separate lines are only visible for the years thereafter; similarly, Taiwan's score for civil liberties only diverges from its political rights by a single point for a few of the years shown, and is thus difficult to see on the chart).  Hong Kong is an interesting exception to this pattern: the numbers suggest that political rights moved a step closer to mainland China in the 1990s, whereas civil liberties hovered around relatively positive scores of 2 and 3 during the same period (1989–2009).  Currently, this gives Hong Kong an unusual gap between a score of 2 for civil liberties, but a dangerous 5 in political rights (the latter being a step up from mainland China, but a stark contrast to the Taiwanese and South Koreans, who have recently achieved the highest possible rankings in this category, cf. figure 5).

      In terms of year-by-year political changes, both Thailand and Cambodia's charts (below, figure 3) demonstrate a clear correlation to changes in government that the reader will hardly need to be reminded of.  Thailand's chart shows two self-evident "spikes" in the numbers, with the country's best scores (for both political rights and civil liberties) constrained to a clearly-defined period: 1998–2004.  Cambodia's year-by-year chart (shown in the same figure, below) similarly correlates to changes in government (both violent and peaceable) with the country's best score (relative to a very different benchmark) constrained to a period of just two years (1993–4, with no improvement in the elections thereafter).

     Some frustration may be inevitable with the reduction of political change to a single-digit number.  While Laos has undergone a complete transformation in the period described, the chart for the Lao P.D.R. (shown below, fig. 4) is nearly a flat line.  Similarly, there seemed to be no point in displaying a year-by-year chart for Myanmar (Burma) as their numbers remained resolutely unchanged for the entire period under consideration: the Burmese received the lowest possible ranking (double sevens) from 1989 through 2009, consistently.  For some readers, it might be interesting to place a wager on when this "losing streak" will end; for others, it would be frustrating that various upheavals during that time simply do not show up in the numbers at all (unlike the charts for countries that fall into the mid-range of values, as with Thailand, shown above).

      Anyone who reads the Freedom House methodology in detail could come up with a series of criticisms and suggestions for new approaches to the problem of the quantification of despotism.  The Freedom House seven-point scale is meaningless in isolation, but becomes more and more meaningful when it is applied consistently over many years, allowing comparison between examples in various contexts and between historical periods.  We can only work with the measurements we've got until someone is willing to sponsor the creation of something better (does anyone want to write up a proposal for the Toyota Foundation?).
      However abstract such numbers may be in isolation, the Freedom House ranking allows us to assign a number to what would otherwise be an unsubstantiated opinion, to then counterpose the figure to others generated with consistent assumptions.  For example, it is often enough said (as if it were a platitude) that Sri Lanka's long civil war resulted in an erosion of civil rights; although the chart above (figure 4) is certainly an abstract set of values, we can at least show an arc of declining civil liberties (in this period) with the Freedom House data.  In some ways, this is more useful than citing specific instances of abuses of power, or specific controversies in the court (although it is just an abstraction).  Likewise, if someone were to venture the opinion that Thailand had a stronger claim to democracy than Taiwan in 1989, but that Taiwan is significantly more democratic than Thailand today, the numbers would allow us to rapidly compare such a claim against a consistent standard (which is not the same thing as an objective standard, as it is, after all, just a normative checklist).  Of course, political conditions in all of the countries reduced to dots in these charts have been transformed in the last 20 years (in ways both big and small) and to encapsulate that political change requires a great deal of abstraction; but, for many practical purposes, a number will serve better than a platitude, and the number can be compared to politicians' platitudes.
      Change is empirical if we measure it empirically; progress is merely an ideology, no matter how we may measure it, propound it or critique it. 
      While daily life in Laos has been transformed in innumerable ways in recent years, the flat line of the Freedom House ranking (shown above) corresponds to the underlying fact that the structure of social control has hardly changed at all (in the same period of time).  A formerly isolated country with strict border controls has now become dependent on international tourism and foreign investment; however, the proliferation of hotels and casinos (even schools and doctors' offices) does not equate to any change in the scope of political rights, nor civil liberties (not as defined by Freedom House, that is).
      There remains a meaningful challenge for anyone who would create a ranking system that could accurately measure political change within countries such as Laos in the 20th and 21st centuries; indeed, it would be meaningful to see a competing system calibrated to reflect the vicissitudes of political change within contemporary Myanmar (Burma), Cambodia and mainland China as well. 
      Freedom House did not set out to create a research tool that would effectively measure contrasts between Burma, Laos and other political systems that are currently lumped together at "the bottom of the barrel" as they've defined it.  Instead, the design reflects an interest in particularizing the desiderata of what can be frankly called a bureaucratic capitalist democracy, i.e., setting out a checklist to articulate what is adequate and what is inadequate by that standard (all the while, "…not maintain[ing] a culture-bound view of freedom", in their own terms).³  The seven point scale is necessarily a blunt instrument, inasmuch as it was intended to be applicable to myriad cultures (without much adaptation to each instance) and to encompass at least some variety in forms of state power without too much prejudice (although they admit that the basic premise favors, "liberal democratic societies").³
      I was part of a generation that went through university when the professors didn't know what to do with Communism anymore, but, more pressing still, they didn't know what to teach without it.  The deletion of Cold War politics from the curriculum created an opportunity, but at the moment of my own studies it was encountered as a void: the custodians of education had responded to the challenge with an appalling lack of imagination --and had simply left it blank.
      There seemed to be very little interest in the politics of Cambodia as something that existed for Cambodians (and so on for Thai politics for the Thais, or any of the other countries mentioned).  Previously, countries on the periphery of Soviet and American influence had been treated as case-studies to illustrate critiques of Communism, American interventionism, and other themes very far removed from the rights and liberties of individuals, in practice, that Freedom House tries to measure.  Places like Laos and Nicaragua were presented as symbols that existed for no purpose other than to reveal forces at work within American politics, Soviet politics, and so on.
      Once the framework of Cold War diplomacy was removed from the equation, the study of such remote and exotic governments didn't seem like political science at all anymore (or, it wasn't what political science had come to expect itself to be).  If a government is studied as a phenomenon of its people (a thing perceived by, sustained by, and primarily existing for its own people, even if it be to their detriment) the entire undertaking starts to resemble cultural anthropology: the "case study" ceases to illustrate anything other than itself, and is instead revealed as a knot of unique cultural and historical conditions that neither support platitudes nor grand generalizations.  Alas, the facts that precede and follow politics are poorly suited to the format of the one hour lecture. 

      It is from anthropology that I would like to see some quantitative methods emerge to broach the problem under discussion: it would be interesting to design a system of evaluation that proceeds from the smallest localizable unit of the ethnos (such as a tribe or group of villages) to then establish the limits of how far certain generalizations about political conditions are applicable (through ethnography and other empirical methods).  Some political rights and civil liberties are uniform over huge territories, but others are (de facto) reserved to elites in the capital city only, or can be exercised by one ethnic group but not another, in one language but not another, and so on.  These informal "borders", demarcating degrees of liberty and of state power, could themselves be the subject of study (rather than proceeding from the abstraction of the national unit downward) to be established in the process of the quantification of social control, working from the ground up.
      There is an unexamined reverberation of American attitudes in accounting for ethnicity "last and least" in the Freedom House method: ethnic minority problems are set down as a matter to be subtracted from a national sum.
      In the case of any of the former British colonies (Canada included), we do not, in fact, come to an equation that depicts the conditions of the indigenous people by looking at an equation that first measures the privileges of the white colonists and then subtracts a penality for the mistreatment of minorities.  There seems to be a propaganda function implicit in such a sum, however it may be reduced for genocide, slavery, or apartheid, inasmuch as it still precludes the evaluation of the conditions of a plurality of indigenous peoples as units unto themselves (i.e., as something existing prior to the state). 
      Freedom House has a separate score for North Cyprus, but not for the Cree, Ojibwe or Navaho; for white Americans, this is not so much anathema as it is unimaginable (despite whatever the legal reality of sovereignty may be). 
      It is a misleading feature of newspaper writing that ethnicity is depicted primarily as a problem that exists for the state, as if the business of the state were to manage ethnic minorities, and as if state power itself had no ethnicity. 
      In general, each ethnic group would generate very different figures for how they are governed (even if the same Freedom House score were applied), and how the state exists for them, if we proceeded from the smallest unit up, instead of from the largest unit down (Burma-watchers will have myriad examples at their disposal). 
      Certainly, there are contrasts (in political rights and civil liberties) within the territory of China that are more striking than those found in comparing any two nations of Europe; these often correspond to declared but unofficial boundaries, that can be discovered through fieldwork (for example, that Burmese migrants are tolerated to come into Yunnan as far as Baoshan without paperwork, but can proceed no further).  Indeed, some significant contrasts can be found in pairs of villages along the same highway in Northern Laos, where the respective inhabitants do not share any common language, and deal with their government through very different intermediaries, with different results.  It would be a delightful task (even if nearly impossible) to try to put a number on such degrees of liberty, working from the ground up.

===== Endnotes =====
1. The event actually transpired in Phnom Penh in 2011.  The book that I discovered a copy of (in a restaurant) was: Chan Heng Chee (contributing author), 1993, Democracy and Capitalism, ISEAS: Singapore.  The remark I'm alluding to is found on page 1.
2. The most recent census data at my disposal for Laos is from 2005 (published in March, 2006, by the "Steering Committee for [the] Census of Population and Housing", Vientiane).  Average male life expectancy at birth was only 50 years as recently as 1995; it had increased to 59 in 2005.  Women's average life expectancy at birth had a corresponding increase from 52 to 63 years in the same period.  For the two genders together, we may say that life expectancy extended by roughly a decade.
3. I am quoting from the introduction to the methodology chapter of the 2010 report available from the Freedom House website (without pagination, i.e., I cannot provide a page number).  The paragraph in full reads: "Freedom House does not maintain a culture-bound view of freedom. The methodology of the survey is grounded in basic standards of political rights and civil liberties, derived in large measure from relevant portions of the [U.N.] Universal Declaration of Human Rights. These standards apply to all countries and territories, irrespective of geographical location, ethnic or religious composition, or level of economic development. The survey operates from the assumption that freedom for all peoples is best achieved in liberal democratic societies."