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Why oil is bad for democracy

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Pumpjack located south of Midland, TX (Credit: Eric Kounce via en.wikipedia.org)

My wife balances our checkbook so I don’t go to jail.  Perhaps she should do the same for the entire banking industry.  Swiss banking giant UBS announced yesterday that a rogue trader has caused it an estimated $2 billion in losses.  Police in London arrested a 31-year-old UBS trader named Kweku Adoboli in the alleged fraud.

I have long maintained that democracy requires morality.  Now it is becoming clearer that a free market economy requires the same.  As another example, a fascinating article in the current edition of Foreign Affairs journal argues that oil revenues are a direct enemy of democracy.  In the last three decades, countries that produce $100 per capita of oil or less per year were three times more likely to democratize as countries that produced more than that.

There are three reasons for what scholars call the “oil curse.”  First, countries like Iraq, Libya, and Bahrain are able to buy off their citizens with financial support from oil revenues.  By keeping taxes low, they lessen the likelihood that their people will demand accountability for their government’s financial activities.

Second, countries with high oil revenues are more able to keep their finances secret from their people.  Since many rulers channel such income directly to themselves, they bypass governmental regulations or disclosure to the public.  The people don’t know how corrupt their leaders are, so they are less likely to demand democratic reforms to replace them.

Third, oil wealth helps autocrats buy the loyalty of their armed forces.  When popular revolts do begin, the military is highly motivated to quash them to protect the largess they receive from their rulers.

It has long been true that citizens in a healthy democracy must vote for the collective good over personal agendas.  it is also true that democracy requires leaders who place the good of their people ahead of their selfish advancement.  When leaders in a democracy use their position to placate those whose votes will return them to office, they are no more moral than oil autocrats who do the same with petroleum revenues.

What does God say about this issue?  Jesus modeled his Father’s intention for leaders when he washed his disciples’ feet.  The night before his death, he wrapped himself in a slave’s towel and crawled from Peter to James to John to Judas and the rest.  Hands that fashioned the universe washed their dirt-caked, smelly feet.  He served the coward who would deny him, the traitor who would betray him, and the deserters who would abandon him.  Then he instructed us to do the same: “Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet” (John 13:14).

To learn if you’re a servant, see how you respond the next time someone treats you like one.  Whose feet will you wash today?