February 9, 2006

ONE END, MANY MEANS (via Mike Daley):

The Roots of Democracy (Carles Boix, February & March 2006, Policy Review)

Given that democracy flourishes only once certain social conditions are in place, what can be done? Can we actively shape them to foster democratization? In other words, can we reshape social conditions in a country to satisfy the underlying economic requirements for a successful political transition to democracy?

The answer cannot be and is not a simple one. The door to liberal democracies undoubtedly exists. But it is narrower and its opening harder than is often granted. Or, to put it differently, policymakers need to understand that they are confronted with sharp trade-offs: between short-run versus long-run solutions, between violent and not-so-violent strategies of intervention, between betting on economic development to change political institutions over the course of one or more generations and toppling the elite rule of the ancien régime through war and occupation. In a way, the very acrimony of the current debate about the democratization of the Middle East is the best demonstration of how hard it may be to adopt clear-cut policies and follow them through.

Historically, democracies have replaced authoritarian regimes through two paths. On the one hand, democratic institutions have emerged after a long process of economic development spreads material wealth across society, equalizes economic conditions, and erodes the strength of the old authoritarian elites. On the other hand, absent economic modernization, social and political change has happened only after enormous violence — generally through military intervention of a foreign power.

Before the irruption of commercial and industrial capitalism in modern Europe, most wealth was fixed in the form of farmland and mines. A few agrarian communities (mountainous Switzerland, Norway, or Iceland) were equal and democratic. But most pre-industrial societies were (and are) characterized by the combination of inequality, authoritarianism and underdevelopment.

Authoritarianism is pervasive in an agrarian economy for a simple reason. In a Hobbesian world infested by bandits and generalized war, autocrats are a standard, reasonable mechanism to enforce peace and to protect the peasant population against plunder and death. Still, the price of authoritarianism is inequality. In exchange for protection against bandits like themselves, rulers such as the Bourbons, the Tudors, or the Sauds seize an important part of their subjects’ assets. For example, at the death of Augustus (14 A.D.), the top 1/10,000 of the Roman Empire’s households received 1 percent of all income. In Mughal India around 1600 A.D., the top 1/10,000th received 5 percent of all income. In fact, the annual income of the Indian emperor was the equivalent of the wage of about 650,000 unskilled workers.

The formation of the state and the pacification of its territory made possible agriculture and the extension of some mild forms of commerce and industry. But, overall, growth occurred at a snail’s pace. Worried about the emergence of economically independent strata that may eventually challenge their political preeminence, authoritarian rulers favored the maintenance of those noncommercial, pro-land policies that were the basis of their wealth and power. Moreover, the king’s vassals had no legal mechanism to resist any of his potentially arbitrary actions. With property rights insecure, very few individuals had any incentive to invest in new businesses and create new forms of wealth.

Although coming in sundry forms and with different degrees of intensity, this political and economic landscape of stagnation dominated the whole world until the modern period. Its transformation and the progressive democratization of previously illiberal societies took place through two different paths. The first one developed in the long haul, caused by economic modernization. The second path was short and abrupt, triggered by war and occupation.

Democratization resulted, on the one hand, from modern development. Commercial capitalism, then followed by an industrial take-off, led to the spread of wealth, the erosion of the relative value of immobile assets and natural resources, and more economic equality. These new conditions then made the transition to liberal democracy possible. This economic and political transformation proceeded in waves. It first happened in an almost self-generating fashion in a few places located in the North Atlantic area — Britain, Belgium and the Netherlands, the Rhine area of Germany, Switzerland, and the Northern states of the United States — where no monarch was able to suffocate pre-existing medieval and pluralistic institutions in the name of modern absolutism. The parliamentary institutions of those nonabsolutist states protected the interests of merchants and investors and hence allowed the latter to take advantage of the scientific revolution of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. As capital accumulated in the already developed core, it gradually spilled over to the near periphery — particularly when the latter had either stable political institutions or foreign military pacts (generally with the United States) that credibly protected capital against the threat of expropriation. This is the story behind the boom of Southern Europe and, to some extent, of East Asia in the postwar period. Once those countries grew in the 1960s and 1970s, they went through very peaceful transitions to democracy in the last quarter of the twentieth century.

In those countries that had neither an equal agrarian economy, like Norway or some Swiss cantons, nor equalization through economic development, democratization rarely came peacefully from within. Even enlightened tyrants do not pass economic and institutional reforms to equalize conditions, since doing so would jeopardize their grip on power. It is true that authoritarian states sometimes push for economic reforms to industrialize their countries, as Meiji Japan did in the late nineteenth century. But their reforms, mostly implemented in response to foreign military competition, rely on the heavy intervention of the state and the creation of big industrial conglomerates tightly linked to the governing elite, hence avoiding a distribution of assets conducive to democracy.

Without society-centered economic development, the destruction of the old authoritarian elite (and of the institutions that blocked growth) comes about only as a result of war, defeat, and foreign occupation. This is the case of Central and Eastern Europe and of East Asia. It took World War ii and the Allies’ victory to destroy the ancien régime’s social coalitions and political institutions hindering democracy and economic development. The story of political instability and authoritarian governments that burdened Germany and Italy in the first half of the twentieth century ended only with American occupation. Similarly, the United States democratized Japan and imposed key agrarian reforms in Korea and Taiwan that would then sow the seeds for growth and liberal institutions. Although its consequences were otherwise catastrophic, the Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe made tabula rasa of the past quasi-feudal structures of that area. Once the ussr collapsed, Eastern Europeans could easily transit to democracy in a way they were unable to before World War ii.

Except that a third path is specifically via authoritarian regime that have as their intent the eventual handover to democracy: Turkey, Spain, Chile, the Domican Republic, South Africa, South Korea, the Phillipines, Taiwan, etc.. So it occurs in at least three ways: naturally; or by application of internal force; or by application of external force.

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 9, 2006 5:48 PM

The analysis is flawed. It is not agragrian societies per se that were despotic. It was the landlord system which disenfranchised the peasants from their land. When the land was owned by the peasants themselves, they retained the economic independence necessary for democracy.

If however, war or other crisis forced them off the land or made them sell it cheap due to hardship (because Hannibal burned down all their farms for 12 years), then the economic elites subsequently disenfranchised the people.

This is one reason why Jefferson desired an agrarian republic and feared Hamilton's friends in high finance. Shay's Rebellion had related reasons when economic speculators took advantage of those patriotic souls who neglected their farms in order to win the War for Independence.

Those lands mentioned in the article - Switzerland, Norway, Iceland - were somewhat impervious for people losing their livelihood because their geography made it hard for invaders to destroy them, or made it unprofitable to collect the land in huge estates.

It is not true that agrarian communities required authoritarians to defend their land. Greek hoplites and Roman legionnaires could do it through citizen armies. It required prolong wars fought on home soil like the Peloponnesian or 2nd Punic Wars to destroy the economic basis for citizen armies.

Posted by: Chris Durnell at February 9, 2006 6:59 PM

Where do you get the notion that all those authoritarian regimes had as "their intent the eventual handover to democracy?" It's more likely that, being our allies, they were more susceptible to pressure from the US to democratize.

Posted by: Brandon at February 9, 2006 8:25 PM

Which is why they chose us as their allies.

Posted by: oj at February 9, 2006 8:51 PM

j ceaser was the first socialist, with his bread and games. funny how he has the same initials, never thought of that before.

Posted by: toe at February 9, 2006 9:35 PM

They chose us as their allies in order to be more susceptible to pressure to democratize? I think you've got the cart and the horse in the wrong places.

Posted by: Brandon at February 9, 2006 10:16 PM

No, they chose us as allies because they were democrats.

Posted by: oj at February 9, 2006 10:22 PM

keep in mind that pinochet et als *did* in fact voluntarily leave power, in order for a functioning democracy to take over. so argue from that point, not from the hypothetical of their being pressured by us.

Posted by: toe at February 10, 2006 12:06 PM