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Global Democracy by Design?

US President Joe Biden should be applauded for taking the lead on reinvigorating democracy worldwide. But foiling dictators requires not only good intentions but also a strategy based on sound analysis.

NEW YORK – US President Joe Biden’s recent Summit for Democracy was an important global event, but it slipped by almost unnoticed. With democratic norms fraying from Southeast Asia to Central Europe, Biden was right to warn of “the sustained and alarming challenges to democracy and universal human rights.” But too few acknowledge that rising authoritarianism around the world, like climate change and the evolution of lethal viruses, can pose an existential risk to humanity.

Most people do not appreciate the extent to which civilizations depend on pillars of norms and conventions. Some of these have evolved organically over time, while others required deliberation and collective action. If one of the pillars buckles, a civilization could well collapse.

Efforts to counter the current threats to democracy should start with the fact that every economy is embedded in culture and institutions. As Daron Acemoglu, Simon Johnson, and James Robinson have argued, long-run growth may depend more on institutions than on anything else. But institutions are not always exogenous. As the growing field of cultural evolution shows, human beings are adaptive learners who rely, often unwittingly, on social learning to entrench norms that are necessary for a society to flourish.

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