Why Do Countries Become/Remain Democracies? Or Don’t? (2): From Prosperity to Democracy

Prosperity creates time and leisure, which can be used for democratic participation, public life and other uses of human rights. We often see democratic aspirations and claims of rights arising almost automatically in states that do well economically (see for example Taiwan, Korea and many South-American countries in the 1980s). People do not live on bread alone. They want something more.

Economic misfortune, on the contrary, forces people to focus on the struggle to survive and forces them to give up rights in exchange for material progress. If the expression of an opinion can cause the loss of your job and if there are not many jobs available, then the choice is simple. Certain classes of people in particular, will not have the time nor the money to participate in politics and will leave democracy to the rich. Seeing democracy degenerate into a tool for the rich, they will reject it and turn to authoritarian alternatives in despair. Unequal wealth or insufficient wealth for some classes of the population is often a characteristic of a lack of economic development and at the same time it hinders the proper functioning of democracy. Those who are rich will monopolize the democratic procedures not only because of the forced withdrawal of the poor, but also because of their privileged access to the media, education, representative institutions etc. Furthermore, large differences in wealth and bad economic performances are destabilizing for any form of government – democracy included – because they cause revolt.

A higher GDP/capita correlates with democracy and the wealthiest democracies have never been observed to fall into authoritarianism. There is also the general observation that democracy was very rare before the industrial revolution. Empirical research thus lead many to believe that economic development either increases chances for a transition to democracy (modernization theory), or helps newly established democracies consolidate. Some campaigners for democracy even believe that as economic development progresses, democratization will become inevitable. However, the debate about whether democracy is a consequence of wealth, a cause of it, or both processes are unrelated, is far from conclusion. (source)

The key findings are the positive and statistically significant effects on electoral rights from real per capita GDP and primary schooling. These results strongly confirm the idea that a higher standard of living goes along with more democracy. Moreover, the effects are predictive. Robert J. Barro

This post focuses on one side of the causation: growth in wealth and prosperity produces more and more stable democracy. In a future post, I will look at the other side, how democracy is good for wealth.

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