Why Do Countries Become/Remain Democracies? Or Don’t? (16): Climate and Geography

There are some contingent reasons why countries’ governments develop or fail to develop a strong system of centralized control over resources. And those that fail to do so tend to be more democratic. The detailed argument is here, but I’ll give you a short summary.

Montesquieu already related differences in human political conditions to climatic differences. And indeed, it’s not uncommon to see the argument that water for instance plays a crucial role. Water makes land valuable, but only in countries where there’s continuous rainfall over the seasons will water be available in sufficient quantities. In other countries, a centrally coordinated irrigation system will be necessary, and this requirement favors a strong central government. In countries where citizens don’t depend on the government for water for their agriculture for instance, those citizens have more bargaining power.

Also, continuous rainfall results in agrarian surpluses, which in turn favor urbanization and taxation. Taxation is a well-known cause of democratization (“no taxation without representation“), and popular mobilization against authoritarian rule is easier in large cities. Urbanization also leads to commerce, specialization and industrialization, phenomena which result in a large and powerful middle class, able to bargain the taxes it pays against more rights and freedoms.

In light of this, it’s not surprising that democracy developed first in North-West Europe and North America, regions with plenty of rainfall. And neither is it surprising that so many non-democracies suffer from the so-called resource curse: countries that are endowed with natural resources that – unlike rainfall – can easily be brought under central control tend to develop governance structures that favor such control. Government will be centralized and authoritarian because the resource rents for the leaders are very high. And when there’s central control over resources, there’s also central control over all the rest: leaders have a strong financial incentive to stay in power and to oppress opposition movements.

But it’s not just climate that favors democracy or autocracy. There’s also geography. A country that is shielded from external military threats as a result of its geography or topography – for example because it’s an island, has a long coastal line, or is situated in a mountainous area – doesn’t need to sustain a standing army at the exclusive disposal of its leader. Without such an army, the leader’s control over coercion is limited and it’s much more difficult to develop a centralized governance system. Perhaps the success of democracy in countries such as Iceland, the UK, Scandinavia and Switzerland can be explained in this way. The army in Switzerland is really a volunteer militia, whereas the army in the UK has long been the hobby of the nobility.

So these are two examples of climate and geography deciding the balance of power in favor of citizens. A government that isn’t favored by climate or geography in its attempts to centralize power faces a stronger citizenry. Likewise, if a government depends on its citizens’ agreement for the use of an important resource such as the military – for geographic reasons – then those citizens have bargaining power. They will only participate in war or conquest if they get something in return, e.g. more rights and freedoms.

Of course, it would be silly to claim that climate factors or geography determine political outcomes, or even that they are the main causes. Democracy depends on a lot of things, especially beliefs and intentional collective action , much more than objective and contingent circumstances. But those circumstances do play a role, as they always do. Other causes are discussed in other posts in this blog series.

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