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Why Democracies Excel

Published: September 28, 2004

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From the September/October 2004 issue of Foreign Affairs.
Joseph T. Siegle is an Associate Director at the Center for Institutional Reform and the Informal Sector at the University of Maryland, College Park. Michael M. Weinstein is Director of Policy Planning and Research at the Robin Hood Foundation and Adjunct Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Morton H. Halperin is Director of the Open Society Policy Center and Senior Vice President at the Center for American Progress. They are authors of The Democracy Advantage: How Democracies Promote Prosperity and Peace.
"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, despite the abysmal economic records of Latin American military governments, the "strongman" rulers in Africa, and the communist states in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. This is largely because of the dazzling economic performance of certain eastern Asian autocracies: Singapore, Indonesia, South Korea, Taiwan, and, lately, China. Based on these countries' experiences, a variant of the development-first thesis has gained particularly wide appeal: strong, technocratic governance, insulated from the chaos of democratic politics, is the best way to pursue efficient and farsighted macroeconomic policies. According to this view, the experience of Russia in the 1990s and the faltering performance of young democracies in eastern Europe, Latin America, and Africa demonstrate the folly of attempting democracy too soon.
As compelling as the development-first thesis sounds, the empirical evidence is clear: democracies consistently outperform autocracies in the developing world. But before proceeding, it is important to establish what we mean by democracy. Democracies are political systems characterized by popular participation, genuine competition for executive office, and institutional checks on power. We put this definition into practice using the Polity IV democracy index, devised by Ted Robert Gurr of the University of Maryland in 1990. The annual index gives each country a score between 0 (least democratic) and 10 (most democratic) based on the extent to which it exhibits the democratic characteristics listed above. To compare distinctive governance types, we categorize countries that score between 8 and 10 on this scale as democracies and those that score between 0 and 2 as autocracies.

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