Despite the preponderance of authoritarian regimes in the contemporary world, democracy remains a political model with broad appeal and an aspiration for many. Recent decades have seen a myriad of dictatorships from Spain to South Korea overthrown and replaced by democratic regimes. However, not all of these countries have found equal success in democratic transition. More recently, the Arab Spring has produced mixed results for countries across the Arab World, from fragile democracy in Tunisia to ruinous civil war in Syria. Evidently, the path of democratisation is a rocky one, and theories abound regarding the factors determining the success or failure of democratic transitions. Indeed, empirical observations suggest that countries that have successfully transitioned to and maintained a ‘full democracy’ have important characteristics in common.
Perhaps most controversial and intriguing to economists is the relationship between democracy and wealth. While it is doubtless that democracies tend to also be among the wealthiest countries in per capita terms, opinions diverge on the details of the relationship. Is democracy a cause or an effect of wealth? Seminal to modern discussions of democratisation is economist Seymour Lipset’s thesis that “the more well-to-do a country is, the greater the chances that it will sustain democracy” and that development is a requisite of democratic politics. Though formed over half a century ago, the hypothesis continues to fuel the debate on the effect of economic development on democratisation. Behind Lipset’s simple thesis is the observation that economic development brings about a range of social effects that together bring about and sustain democracy. Amongst these were a more educated and urbanised population, economic and social mobility and modern tools of communication. The seemingly simple model inevitably drew detractors, and Lipset himself recognised the glaring contradictions of poor democratic countries such as India and Papua New Guinea.
On the other hand, economist Adam Prezworski argued that while education, political institutions and income distribution all influence the survival of a democracy, income plays the most significant role. His principal explanation for this was that individuals in affluent societies are much less likely to turn against an established democracy because they have more to lose in the event of systemic collapse. Likewise, the less well-off, particularly those in poorer countries, having little to begin with, are more likely to agitate for regime change, democratic or otherwise. Perhaps most controversially, Prezworski observed a ‘threshold minimum’ of per-capita income, above which a country’s democracy was much likelier to survive economic crisis. This threshold was $6055 per capita in 1975 terms. He concluded that the reason why most democratic countries are economically developed is not that the latter leads to the former but rather that democracy is much likelier to survive in a more developed country. The establishment of democracy itself, however, does not ‘seem to follow any predictable pattern’.
Of course, democracies are rooted in democratic institutions, and to this end, the economist Daron Acemoglu pointed to colonialism as the root of countries’ modern governmental and civil institutions. In regions rich with natural resources, notably Africa, Europeans set up ‘extractive states’. As the main purpose of these colonies was to maximise the wealth transferred from the colony to the metropole, little effort was taken to set up systems to benefit the local people. Institutions such as protection of private property and checks and balances on elite power were hindrances to colonialist extraction, and were therefore neglected. After de-colonisation, colonial institutions persisted and asphyxiated democratic development, with income from natural resources allowing elites to maintain their wealth and position without having to depend on public support.
Contrastingly, on the other side of the spectrum were ‘Neo-Europes’, where, attracted by low settler mortality rates and abundant expropriated land, European immigrants came to form the majority of the populace. In these colonies, settlers would replicate European institutions such as private property protection and checks on government power. Examples include Australia, New Zealand and the United States, where democratic and economic developments mirrored those in Europe. Of course, as Acemoglu himself noted, institutions are not set in stone by colonial legacy and can be changed. Indeed, Japan, though under strong US influence, democratised successfully despite never being a European colony.
Other social scientists criticise the emphasis on wealth and economic development and instead look to countries’ cultural and external factors. Some analysts point to the necessity of a functional civil society with independent workers’ unions, academia and non-governmental organisations. These organisations unite individuals in organising and advocating for common causes, often in opposition to the state, and foster a civic culture of participation in democratic politics. At the same time, external influence and support are an important aspect of democratic regimes in an interconnected world. The democratisation in post-WWII Japan was directly imposed by the US military occupation, and American influence no doubt played a role in the democratisations of other US allies such as South Korea and Taiwan. Interestingly, all these countries followed a similar developmental pathway of rapid, export-oriented economic advancement followed by a transition to democratic politics.
The utter disarray resultant of more recent U.S. attempts to install democratic regimes in Iraq and Afghanistan, however, show us the perils of misunderstanding how democratic mechanisms take root and flourish. Indeed, if anything, they show us that there is no foolproof formula for success in democratic transitions, nor that debates on how to sustain democratic regimes are anywhere close to conclusion. With the rise of authoritarian China on the world stage, previous theories that economic development would inevitably lead to democratisation have by now long been dismissed. Nonetheless, in spite of what many see as threats to the democratic order, the freedoms and prosperity afforded by this system continue to inspire agitation for democratisation everywhere, as we can see transpiring in Hong Kong right now. Churchill once quoted that democracy as “the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried”. What is in store for this terrible form of government, however, remains to be seen.