After War: The Political Economy of Exporting Democracy

I packed myself into a full room of budding economists and future policy makers, mostly students from Hampden-Sydney College, to hear Chris Coyne. As the late professor of economics here at Hampden-Sydney speaks, Coyne’s fast, but often sporadically connected, arguments attempt to answer: “Why liberal democracy takes hold in some countries but not in others?”

Coyne, an Assistant Professor for the Department of Economics at West Virginia University, is rumored to have a “Who is John Galt?” (from the popular Ayn Rand novel), tattooed on his arm, illustrating his passion for free markets—which makes Coyne an excellent candidate to address the issues of economics in the exportation of American democracy.

In After War, Coyne, the economists, addresses foreign policy questions by applying an economic mindset to a topic traditionally tackled by historians, policymakers, and political scientists.

Or as Coyne explains, “Economics focuses on how incentives influence human action. From an economic standpoint, a successful reconstruction effort requires finding and establishing a set of incentives that make citizens prefer a liberal democratic order over any available alternatives.”

Coyne provides insight into why occupiers have failed in their efforts to create the incentives that underpin liberal democracy. But, as he mentions liberal democracy, he admits he doesn’t vote, stating instead that an individual’s vote doesn’t count (unless that vote tips a tied election). “You have a higher change of dying on the way to vote, than breaking a tied election,” said Coyne.

Addressing the issue of successfully exporting democracy, Coyne writes “Historically, the United States has attempted to generate change in foreign countries by exporting liberal democratic institutions through military occupation and reconstruction.”

Yet, “despite these efforts, the record of U.S.-led reconstructions has been mixed at best. For every West Germany or Japan, there is a Cuba, Haiti, Somalia, or Vietnam, and more recently, Afghanistan and Iraq.” Coyne suggests, because of these failed attempts, the United States doesn’t understand the factors responsible for establishing a liberal democracy. Successful liberal democracy that is, because at gunpoint a liberal democracy is a fundamental contradiction. Forced democracy isn’t freedom.

It could be said that Coyne’s main idea suggests efforts to export democracy by military intervention are always inherently doomed to fail. Because of the special interest groups and poor information signals leading to bureaucratic waste, “we should consider other ways to fostering democratic reforms in areas where democratic governments have yet to succeed,” notes Coyne.

This book argues that the ability of foreign occupiers to create incentives for the local population is limited by several constraints, mainly constraints from politicians. The policy makers forget the characteristics of liberal democracy, the protection of civil, political and property rights, as well as the rule of law. Those characteristics would seem to have universal appeal, yet we know very little about how to foster them. After War illustrates these central arguments, both politically and economically, with examples from history and current reconstruction efforts.

Coyne’s book, After War, sheds light on how the U.S. political system contributes to failure in reconstruction efforts. And Coyne points to “major problems of coordination, both within and across the numerous bureaucracies involved in reconstructions.”

A large focus of Coyne’s work is both the domestic and foreign interest groups attempting to influence the U.S. government’s policies in a manner benefiting their own self-interest at the expense of the goals of the broader reconstruction effort. As the reconstruction effort halts the unintended consequences, from an occupation of Iraq, start creping further costs to the American people. The U.S. will feel, Coyne adds, the “blowback against the United States in the years ahead.”

While mainly focusing on recent events in Iraq and abroad, Coyne shows the failure of reconstruction efforts in Iraq and elsewhere is not a matter of political ideology or of the political party in charge. Nor is it an issue of trying harder with more troops or better planning. Instead, failure is due to the fundamental inability of any government to centrally plan economic, political, and social institutions abroad.

Coyne argues for “free trade combined with principled non-intervention affords the best chance for finding a common ground between cultures and for laying the foundations of global peace.”