Does Economic Development Lead To Democracy? / 14ymedio, Jose Azel
14ymedio, Jose Azel, Miami, 27 October 2016 – For decades the statement
that “the more wealthy a nation is, the greater the chances that it
supports democracy” has been a conventional view and a centerpiece of
United States foreign policy. This quote is from a seminal work from
1959, “Some Social Requisites of Democracy: Economic Development and
Political Legitimacy” by the political sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset.
Lipset was the first to raise, on empirical grounds, a correlation
between development and democracy. His thesis continues to guide US
foreign policy and is often cited in discussions of how to promote
transitions to democracy.
In what is known as the Lipset hypothesis, the professor theorized that
economic development supports the consolidation of democracy, expanding
levels of literacy, information and access to the media, expanding the
middle class, activating independent civic organizations, emphasizing
legitimacy and other sociopolitical values. Sadly, he is one of the most
cited authors read.
Lipset noted that the correlation between politics and democracy is a
wide list of factors that change social conditions, enabling the
reception of a democratic culture. These elements, among them
industrialization, urbanization, wealth and education, are the
conditions, not the causes, of democracy. As suggested by the title of
the article, the relation between economic development and political
democracy is correlative, not causal.
US foreign policy errs when it ignores the contingent nature of history
and relegates the complex social and structural conditions that lead to
democracy to a simplistic economic variable. The error is multiplied
when correlation is confused with causality. As Lipset shows, economic
prosperity is often accompanied by personal freedoms, but that does not
mean that economic growth causes political reforms.
The fact that the two events are frequently observed together does not
meant that one causes the other: that the rooster crows every morning
does not mean that the rooster makes the sun rise. In logic, the
principle that correlation does not imply causality is known as the cum
ergo propter hoc fallacy, which in Latin means “with this, therefore
because of this.”
The most important political implications of the Lipset hypothesis have
become one of the most researched topics in the social sciences. Recent
studies don’t support the affirmation that economic development brings
democracy. The most that can be obtained from empirical evidence is that
development facilitates the permanence of this form of government, but
does not make it more likely.
However, the US foreign policy will continues to depend on the false
causality of the “development first, democracy later,” approach.
Atypical cases flow in both directions with wealthy autocracies like
Saudi Arabia and poor democracies like Costa Rica. In the case of
totalitarian regimes, it is clear that economic development does not
lead to political reforms, as is shown in China and Vietnam. In
totalitarian societies the elites have a lot to lose and choose oppression.
In the case of authoritarian regimes, the experience is mixed. The
divergent cases of South Korea and Singapore illustrate the limitations
of the claims that development furthers democracy. South Korea seems to
exemplify circumstances where the increase in wealth contributed to the
later democratic consolidation. Singapore, for its part, turns the
thesis on its head, because the country remains authoritarian and has
become more repressive with the increase in prosperity.
Our understanding of the relationship between the type of regime and
economic development remains, at best, probabilistic. But we have
learned that in previous communist societies it wasn’t the economy that
generated the pro-democracy movements. In those countries, the essential
struggle between the population and the elites was about human rights
and civil liberties.
Therefore, to promote democracy US foreign policy should be updated and
better informed, to understand how citizens adopt democratic values and
push for democratic reforms.
Editor’s Note: José Azel is a senior researcher at the Institute for
Cuban and Cuban American Studies at the University of Miami and author
of Mañana in Cuba.
Source: Does Economic Development Lead To Democracy? / 14ymedio, Jose
Azel – Translating Cuba –