OPINION: Is democracy a cancer? Or is smoking good for your health

Tobacco consumption has been part of human society for three thousand years. Smokers have long talked about how great smoking is, and in the mid-1900s there used to even be advertising featuring doctors extolling the virtues of smoking. Nicotine is a stimulant; smokers say it helps them stay relaxed and focused. Smoking is also a major cash crop, being good for the economy and tax revenues. With this long history behind it, being herbal and backed by doctors; smoking has to be good for you, right?

What about exercise? Do you know of someone who died while exercising or right after, due to exertion, or a weak heart? How many people do you know who have broken their limbs playing sports or partaking in physical activity? Surely exercise is unsafe, and we should all be home watching Netflix instead of jogging in the park. Say nothing of the PM2.5 pollution that you would be exposed to through exercise, nor that feeling of being close to, or at times, praying for death.

Readers may find the premise absurd, but think about it. Smoking is dangerous, and exercise being beneficial for you can often be counter-intuitive. So how does one really know if either is good or bad?

The answer lies in data, collected over many decades, painstakingly documenting the contrast between people who smoke and people who don’t, people who lead active lifestyles and people who are glued to the couch.

After several decades of studies, we have volumes of evidence to support the fact that people who are relaxed inhalers of herbs end up with worse health than people who voluntarily tax their physique. Smoking tends to cause cancer, while exercise tends to prevent it.

But what can be said about forms of government? Look at the amazing and efficient nature of the dictatorships all around us but the completely chaotic nature of the democratic processes, one must conclude that faddish democracy is a farce and generally bad for human society while orderly dictatorships are clearly the way to go, or at least we require a hybrid model to taper its excesses.

With humans, we can measure a person’s health generally by things such as their age, blood pressure, how far they can walk, and the absence of disease. How does one measure the health of a country and its people? We need something that can capture the essence of high quality of life, for this purpose, I would like to propose the Human Development Index (HDI).

According to the UNDP website: “Three foundations for human development are to live a long, healthy and creative life, to be knowledgeable, and to have access to resources needed for a decent standard of living.”

The following table compares the top 25 countries ranking in the Human Development Index and Democracy Index (source: Wikipedia)

One can see that with the exception of Singapore and Hong Kong, the top 25 countries in the HDI corresponds to the countries with high levels of Democracy.

South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan are notable entries because they’re East Asian countries which not long ago were under authoritarian rule and are now thriving; ranking highly in both the Democracy Index and the HDI.

For reference: Thailand presently ranks 68 on Democracy Index and 77 on the HDI.

China for all its progress ranks 153 on the Democracy Index and 85 on the HDI.

Not one authoritarian country ranks highly in the HDI, most lie at the bottom of the indexes. It seems that authoritarian governments are the equivalent of smoking; addictive, comforting, but cancerous.

Whoever proposes that Thailand doesn’t need a “democracy” needs to be shown this table, have the HDI explained to them, and then asked if these aspirations aren’t worth our time.

Just as one generally cannot smoke one’s way into good health, one is very unlikely to have an authoritarian regime that delivers meaningful benefits to all sectors of its society and people who claim otherwise needs to be treated like that doctor who recommended cigarettes for sore throats.

So how can one ensure that democracy can survive in order for the people to reap its benefits?

Professor Larry Diamond, a professor of Sociology and Political Science at Stanford University noted in his lecture “… democracy can be consolidated at the mass level. When the vast majority of the public, I would say at least 70 per cent, consistently believe, that democracy is preferable to any other form of government as a general principle.”

Professor Diamond then introduces the Churchill Hypothesis, where Churchill famously said “No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

He proposes that this hypothesis serves as a useful way of measuring actual commitment to democracy, irrespective of what one personally feels about the process.

So for example, an individual when asked if they liked Democracy, could say “no” but also when asked “under certain circumstances, is it acceptable to have an unelected leader” if the answer is also “no” then this validates the Churchill Hypothesis.

In 2014 a NIDA poll asked who should the unelected NCPO appoint as the next Prime Minister, other than the candidate list containing General Prayut, K. Anand, amongst others.

In it, there was an option: “Anyone honest, can solve national problems and is elected democratically”, which is a classic test of democratic commitment. That answer got only 3.10 per cent of respondents, far below the 70 per cent threshold required to sustain democracy.

Where do we go from here? We still don’t understand why different systems of government work, nor have we discovered the one that brings justice, happiness, peace, and prosperity to all mankind.

We do have data, which in the context of the history of human civilisation, is somewhat limited. But whatever data we have, displays an irrefutably strong correlation between a liberal democracy and the HDI.

Many readers, like myself, may have at some point expressed support for a coup. For us, I would like to close this with a quote commonly attributed to British Economist John Maynard Keynes, “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?”

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