Why Do Countries Become/Remain Democracies? Or Don’t? (11): The Relative Cost of Freedom and Dictatorship

When dictatorial governments come under international pressure to improve the human rights situation in their countries, they often react by stating that they govern developing countries and don’t have the resources that are necessary to make improvements. Such statements have some plausibility. A judiciary, a well-trained police force, a functioning system of political representation etc. all require funding.

However, to some extent this explanation is no more than an excuse: you don’t need money to stop persecution of dissidents, to lift restrictions on the media, to allow demonstrations etc. On the contrary, you save money by doing so. You don’t need a large police force or paramilitary force; you don’t need strong government controls of every aspect of society and the economy; you don’t need to bride your citizens into acceptance of the state etc. But obviously the goal of dictators isn’t to save money and make the country better off by investing that money in the economy.

On the other hand, it remains true that the adequate defense of freedom, rights and democracy requires money, which is probably why rich countries usually score higher in freedom indexes. And, consequently, governments can save money by limiting freedom and by oppressing people.

So, both oppression and freedom cost money, and both a reduction of oppression and a reduction freedom save money. The question is then: what is, overall, the cheapest? A dictatorship or a democracy? And how can we know? Well, one possible indicator could be government spending as a percentage of GDP. If democracies have a systematically higher percentage, one could say that freedom costs more than oppression (on the condition that there isn’t a third variable explaining why democracies spend more).

However, one look at the data tells you that there isn’t much of a correlation between freedom and government spending, or between oppression and government spending. There are some countries that oppress a lot with not a lot of money – “not a lot” in relative terms compared to GDP. China and Saudi Arabia for example. And there are others that do need a lot of money (a large share of the economy) to keep the bosses in place. Cuba and Zimbabwe for example. But perhaps that is because their GDP is so low, not because they need a lot of money to oppress. In other cases, such as Saudi Arabia we may think they don’t spend a lot on oppression but we are fooled because their GDP is relatively high. And anyway, even dictatorships use some part of their state budget for things that aren’t quite so bad.

Likewise for freedom: freedom comes “cheap” in the U.S., and is “expensive” in Sweden. Between quotation marks because government spending over GDP is a very imprecise measure of the cost of freedom or oppression, for the reasons just given. It’s not because a country’s GDP doubles thanks to higher oil prices that the cost of freedom also doubles. Freedom (like oppression) costs money but not money as a fixed percentage of GDP.

Alternatively, you can also look at the tax burden. Here, the data show that countries that impose the highest taxes are also the ones that are most free (Scandinavia obviously ranks high on both accounts). But is that because freedom costs so much more than oppression? Perhaps the answer is “yes” if you include in “freedom” the things that make freedom possible, such as good healthcare, education etc.

But perhaps a more interesting and useful question would be: what cost considerations or economic incentives would produce a move towards democracy or away from democracy? It’s clear that a crisis of some sort – 9/11, a war, or, more appropriately in the current context, an economic recession or depression (see the Roosevelt cartoon below) – encourages democratic leaders to abridge certain rights, freedoms and democratic procedures. In the case of an economic crisis, the claim is that freedom and proper democratic procedures are just too expensive economically. A swift resolution of the crisis requires strong centralized intervention.

It’s also widely accepted that one of the causes of the demise of the Soviet Union was the unbearable cost of oppression. I think it’s better foreign policy to try to make oppression as costly as possible, rather than trying to make freedom as cheap as possible. Freedom tends not to be very cheap, I guess. And when it is, it’s probably not really freedom.


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