Why Democracies Excel

Courtesy Reuters


"Economic development makes democracy possible" asserts the U.S. State Department's Web site, subscribing to a highly influential argument: that poor countries must develop economically before they can democratize. But the historical data prove otherwise. Poor democracies have grown at least as fast as poor autocracies and have significantly outperformed the latter on most indicators of social well-being. They have also done much better at avoiding catastrophes. Dispelling the "development first, democracy later" argument is critical not only because it is wrong but also because it has led to atrocious policies-indeed, policies that have undermined international efforts to improve the lives of hundreds of millions of people in the developing world.

Those who believe that democracy can take hold only once a state has developed economically preach a go-slow approach to promoting democracy. But we and others who believe that countries often remain poor precisely because they retain autocratic political structures believe that a development-first strategy perpetuates a deadly cycle of poverty, conflict, and oppression.

Why has the development-first myth prevailed? First, it rests on a common-sense notion, put forward by political sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset and others some 45 years ago, that economic growth creates the necessary preconditions for democracy by expanding literacy, creating a secure middle class, and nurturing cosmopolitan attitudes. Second, it fits comfortably with the demands of the era of its origin, the Cold War, when about a third of countries qualified as democracies and very few of them were poor. Governance patterns appeared stuck, with countries trapped in opposing magnetic fields created by the Soviet bloc and the West. Pinning hopes for progress in the developing world on seemingly exceptional democratic examples such as India, Costa Rica, and Colombia appeared unrealistic under such conditions. Besides, the West was happy to bolster authoritarian governments that were not controlled by the Soviet Union to prevent them from turning communist.

The development-first thesis-which subscribes to the notion of an authoritarian advantage-has persisted in the post-Cold War world,

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