For Strong Economic Growth?
March 13, 2007
Ed Glaeser writes: Rich countries are stable democracies. Poor countries tend to be political basket cases, careening between brutal dictatorships and unstable semi-republics. The relationship between democracy and wealth might suggest democracy naturally leads to prosperity. This view is comforting and also gives us another reason to enthusiastically try to export democracy globally.
While I yield to no one in my passion for liberty, the view that democracy is a critical ingredient for economic growth is untenable. There is no robust statistical relationship to back it up, and Robert Barro actually found2 democracy reduces growth, once he statistically controls for the rule of law.
It is, however, true that growth rates vary much more under dictatorships3 than under democracies. Anti-development autocrats, such as Mobutu Sese Seko4 or Kim Jong Il5, are about the worst thing for economic growth, other than civil war. But many of the best growth experiences have been in less-than-democratic regimes that invest in physical and human capital such as Lee Kwan Yew’s Singapore6 or post-Mao China. Some dictators are even better than democrats at restraining the growth-killing practice of expropriating private wealth. I think the relationship between democracy and wealth reflects the power of human capital — education — to make countries both rich and democratic. If you put enough smart people together, they’ll figure out how to govern themselves and gravitate towards democracy7.
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Daron Acemoglu writes: I agree with Ed on many points. In the postwar era, it’s true that democracies haven’t grown faster than autocratic regimes. Plus, there are clear examples of fast growth under dictatorships; see South Korea under Gen. Park Chung Hee8. So, why haven’t democracies been more successful? I believe the answer lies in recognizing two things. First, there are different kinds of democracies. And second, it’s important to consider that economic growth and democracy have a very different relationship over the long term — that is for periods as long as 100 years — than over the short or medium term.
Many societies counted as “democratic” using standard measures are really “dysfunctional democracies” where traditional elites dominate politics through control of the party system, political influence, vote buying, intimidation and even assassination. Colombia, which has had regular democratic elections for the past 50 years, is a typical example9. In others, democratic institutions survive, but there is significant in-fighting between ethnic groups, religious groups or social classes. The situation in Iraq would be the most extreme — but not a unique — example. Finally, many democracies suffer economically from populist and irresponsible macroeconomic policies, which are often adopted after transitions from repressive dictatorships and during periods when politics are turbulent and conflicts over wealth distribution are strong.
On the second point, it’s true that autocratic regimes can generate growth for certain periods of time by providing secure property rights and good business conditions to firms aligned with political powers. But modern capitalist growth requires not only secure property rights, but also creative destruction, that is, the entry of new firms with new ideas and technologies that replace the successful firms of the past. Creative destruction requires a level playing field, which democracies are better at providing because they have more equal distributions of political power than autocracies or monarchies.
So, if we look beyond the past 60 years, we see that it was the U.S., with its democratic institutions, that created the environment for new businesses to enter, flourish and spur the industrial growth of the 19th century. There were many rich autocracies and repressive regimes in the 18th century, including places like Cuba, Haiti and Jamaica. But it was the U.S. that grew rapidly over the next two centuries while these autocratic regimes stagnated10.The relationship between human capital and democracy that Ed raises is fascinating. But I will return to that in a little in the context of the causes of democracy.