Why Do Countries Become/Remain Democracies? Or Don’t? (7): Education and Prosperity

There aren’t many questions in political science that are more important than this one: which are the factors that determine whether a country becomes or doesn’t become a democracy, and that determine the degree to which a country is democratic. There are two reasons why this question is important:

  • Democracy is an important good. Hence it’s important to know what facilitates or hinders the realization of this good.
  • Countries act on this statement in their foreign policy. For example, part of the rationale for invading Iraq was the conviction held by the U.S. administration of the time that promoting democracy in Iraq was both an intrinsic good and in the interest of the U.S.

I gave a short and non-exhaustive list of possible factors promoting/undermining the development/survival of democracy here. In the current post I want to focus on two of them: education levels and income or prosperity levels.

1. Education

This graph compares the Polity IV Democracy Index scores for the countries of the world (average scores during the 1960-2000 period), with the average years of schooling of the adult population in 1960. And there’s obviously a correlation, and the quote below gives an indication about the direction of correlation:

The chart above shows the 77 percent correlation between education levels in 1960 (measured by the average years of schooling in a country as estimated by Robert Barro and Jong-Wha Lee), and the subsequent 40-year average of the Polity IV democracy index. That democracy index runs from zero to 10, where countries with index values less than three don’t look remotely democratic and countries with index values of about seven are reasonably well-functioning democracies.

One way to read the graph is that there are basically no countries with very low levels of education that have managed to be democratic over the long term, and almost every country with a high level of education has remained a stable democracy.

Thomas Jefferson wrote that “if a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.” In 1960, 36 nations had less than 1.74 years of schooling (which happens to be the level that Afghanistan has today). Of those 36 countries, only two — India and Botswana — managed to have average democracy scores above 4.2.

Out of the 19 countries in this sample with more than 5.3 years of schooling (the current level in Iran) in 1960, 17 have average democracy scores above 7.9. Fifteen of these have been perfectly democratic, at least by the standards of Polity IV. Only Poland and Hungary were dictatorships, and one can certainly argue that those places would have been democracies in 1960s if it were not for Soviet troops.

But in the middle ranges of education, between two and five years on average, almost anything goes. Some places, like Costa Rica and Italy, have been extremely democratic, while others, like Kuwait and Paraguay, have not. Iraq falls into this category today, which suggests a fair amount of uncertainty about that country’s political future.

Why do I think that the chain of causality runs from education to democracy rather than the reverse? Democracy in 1960 is essentially uncorrelated with subsequent growth in the levels of education. Education in 1960, on the other hand, does an extremely good job of predicting increases in democracy.

Why is there a connection between human capital and freedom? Giacomo Ponzetto, Andrei Shleifer and I have argued that the connection reflects the ability of educated people to organize and fight collaboratively. Dictators provide strong incentives for the ruling clique; democracies provide more modest benefits for everyone else. For democracy to beat dictatorship, the dispersed population needs to have the skills and motivation to work collaboratively to defeat dictatorial coups and executive aggrandizement.

Education teaches skills, like reading and writing, that enable people to work collaboratively. At younger grades, teachers spend a lot of time teaching children how to get along. In the United States, education is strongly linked to civic engagement and membership in social groups. The ability to work together enables the defense of democracy. Edward L. Glaeser (source)

2. Income

There’s an interesting paper here examining the causal relation between democracy and income. The authors find that

the level of national income provides the most important factor explaining inter-country variations in the degree of democracy with the consequence that low income is the most important barrier to democracy.

They first present the correlation between income and democracy, using not the Polity IV index but the Gastil/Freedom House index.

The authors have two reasons to believe that the causal link goes from income to democracy rather than the other way around:

  • Initial income in 1971 correlates with average democracy scores during the 1972-2005 period. This approach is similar to the one above in the case of education and democracy.
  • And – simultaneously – there doesn’t seem to be a very strong causal link going from democracy to income. Barro has concluded that the degree of democracy is only a minor variable explaining income levels. So there is only a weak causal link going from democracy to income. This means that the strong correlation shown in the graph above must be explained by a causal link going from income to democracy.

Why do higher levels of income promote the development of democracy? I gave an overview of the reasons here but some of the more important ones are:

  • Higher education levels in a population means a higher probability of contestation. Following the Maslow hierarchy of needs it’s natural to expect the appearance of political needs once more basic needs have been secured.
  • More income means more complex production. This in turn means that governments find it harder to impose central control over their economies.

Obviously, income is just one of many factors determining the development of democracy. It’s an important one, but clearly not sufficient. The graph above shows the Muslim countries separately. As you can see, all non-Muslim countries with high income levels are in the “high level of democracy” range. Affluent Muslim countries, however, aren’t. This indicates that affluence in itself promotes but doesn’t determine the development of democracy. Other factors are also in play. Culture and religion are perhaps some of them. It’s often argued that Islam is incompatible with democracy, or at least slows down the development of or transition to democracy. I’ll come back to this controversial topic another time.

Why Do Countries Become/Remain Democracies? Or Don’t? (6)

Democracy is a human right. If we want to promote universal respect for this right, we have to know how societies have achieved the transition from authoritarian forms of government to more democratic ones, and how democracies have avoided the opposite transition. Once we know this, we can promote the future emergence of democracies, and we can counteract the breakdown of existing ones.

Unfortunately, this is a very murky area of political science. The only thing that’s clear is that there is no silver bullet. There isn’t one thing we can do to transform societies once and for all into democracies. Things aren’t easy or simple. A huge number of factors have been identified as causes of or obstacles to democratic transitions, and existing democracies need constant nurturing and protection. A few of the factors that have been named as either promoting or inhibiting democracy are:

  • economic growth or GDP per capita
  • protestant culture versus catholic culture (a catholic culture is believed to be more hierarchical)
  • levels of education and literacy
  • income or wealth inequality (in very unequal societies, the wealthy have a lot to lose with democracy)
  • levels of employment in agriculture versus industry (industrial societies are believed to more more urban and less attached to traditional and authoritarian social relationships)
  • the presence/absence of neighboring democracies
  • export diversity (countries with one major export product such as oil tend to be “resource cursed”)
  • is a country a former U.K. colony or not? (former U.K. colonies are believed to be more sympathetic to democracy given their British colonial heritage)
  • is there a large middle class or not?
  • etc.

Statistical analysis to pinpoint which ones of these many variables really determine democracy – and which ones are merely guesses – has yielded contradictory results, not surprisingly given the low numbers of observations (societies or countries don’t change their political systems very often) and the relative lack of long time series (most classifications of regime types haven’t started earlier than a couple of decades ago). One interesting analysis is here.

So don’t expect me to have an opinion here. What I wanted to focus on in this post is the first in the list. There are two radically opposing views on the effect of economic development on democracy. One view is called modernization theory. Basically, the idea is that as countries develop economically, people will switch to other, higher needs, such as self-government, self-control, and political activity in general. Poverty, on the contrary, forces people to focus on survival and makes democracy seem like a luxury.

However, the opposite view is also persuasive. Countries that do well economically are less likely to become democratic because the population is quite pleased with how things are going and will not revolt. The authoritarian rulers can claim that it’s thanks to them that things are going well. It’s not unlikely that economic collapse rather than success causes authoritarian regimes to break down.

So even if you isolate one of dozens of possible factors causing regime transition, things aren’t very clear. Should we starve dictatorships, or help them develop economically? As a result of this lack of clarity, it’s very difficult to frame foreign policy in such a way that it favors the development of democracies around the world. This may go some way to explain the traditional lack of ambition in diplomatic circles.

Terrorism and Human Rights (1): “The U.S. Coming Home!”

“The date is October the 1st, 2011, exactly 20 days after the worst terrorist attack in US history, an attack in which Muslim extremists used nuclear bombs to inflict heavy damage on 3 American cities, embarrassing the security forces who were on high alert on the 10th anniversary of 9-11.

Today, the whole world was listening to President Obama’s first policy speech after the events. The most shocking announcement was undoubtedly the decision to no longer deploy US troops abroad. The President defended this Coming Home decision by the failure of 10 years of military actions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Somalia, the Middle East, Nigeria and Indonesia to bring about more security for the American people. Evidence has shown that US involvement abroad, even peaceful and objectively beneficial involvement, rather than promoting US security, actually fosters hate, resentment and fanaticism. The objects of American involvement, even if this involvement means billions of dollars of aid, seem to think that it is fundamentally a ploy to imperialize them, a crusade to take away their identity, religion and wealth. Independence, national pride and Allah is what counts for them.

It has also become clear that the US was wrong to think in terms of frontlines in its war with Muslim terrorists. The strategy to try to attack the enemy in their homelands, the first frontline, rather than wait till they get on American soil, has proven to be ineffective militarily, and possibly even counter-effective psychologically: it has provided fuel for anti-crusader and anti-colonialist rhetoric, convincing ever more young Muslim martyrs and extremist Muslim regimes of the anti-Muslim and hence satanic nature of the Christian unbelievers.

Unlike an enemy army in a classical 20th century war, this enemy cannot be defeated by an overpowering military attack. The strongest military in the world cannot defeat a relatively small group of undoubting and unthinking amateurs ready to die with a makeshift bomb in their hands. With every amateur it kills it only produces more evidence of the presence of Satan on holy soil. Hence, the more it tries to root out the enemy, the more enemies it creates. The President therefore, wisely in our view, decided to shift focus from the attack to the defensive. Bringing our boys back home to defend the American border, effectively turning the army into a super coastguard and border patrol, should not be viewed as giving in to the enemy, a retreat or a Last Stand. That would only be a return to an inadequate and outdated military logic, useless given the kind of enemy we are dealing with.

Together with measures to prevent homegrown terrorism ’96 which, fortunately, has been a limited phenomenon until now ’96 a relentless border control should indeed be able to offer protection. The borders must, of course, include the entrances of airplanes and ships heading for the US. In order to be independent from foreign security services, the President has asked for legislation allowing only US aircraft and ship to enter the US. If economically necessary, the US will acquire a larger fleet. Anyway, unnecessary travel to the US will be discouraged.

The economic drawbacks of rigorous border controls will be countered by technological innovations funded by army budgets which become available when budgets for overseas operations start to diminish. The President also asked the citizens to prepare for the possibility of a certain number of years of economic depression. Energy supplies may also suffer as a consequence of the US drawback. Traditional allies will be disappointed by their abandonment. The loss of US military assistance will even endanger the existence of some regimes. Those which are also oil suppliers will resent the US and will disrupt the supply. The President is conscious of the economic impact this will have but asks the scientific community to tackle the problem of oil dependence. Existing alternatives, including nuclear energy, will be developed. Repatriated nuclear warheads, if not necessary for domestic security, will be recycled in the energy industry.

Some allies which are important for the US domestically, such as Israel, will not be abandoned without continued support. Military equipment not necessary for border control and security on US soil, will be handed over to them after they lose the protective umbrella of a US presence in their region. Financial assistance will continue to be possible.

Because US troops will no longer be stationed abroad, US expats can become easy targets for terrorists. The President therefore advises them to make plans to return home as soon as possible. The government will establish funds to incite people to come home and to compensate for damages they will incur. US multinationals will be legally forced to employ local people only for their foreign affiliates. The US government will immediately cease to employ its citizens in development projects in Africa and elsewhere. To alleviate the economic shock this will produce in developing countries, the US will double its funds for development aid for a period of 5 years. These funds, however, will be spend entirely by third parties. No US agencies will be active abroad. The US will also withdraw from NATO, the UN, and all other international institutions.”

More on terrorism.