Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The democratic transition

by Fabrice Murtin and Romain Wacziarg


October 5, 2011

As witnessed during this year’s Arab Spring, democracy doesn’t always emerge smoothly. This column examines the long march toward political freedom since 1800. It argues that while both income and education affect democracy, the rise in primary education has been the main driver of democratisation over 1870-2000.

Throughout history the march toward political freedom has not been a smooth process. It has happened in fits and starts, in waves, and was often reversed or interrupted. The collapse of several Middle Eastern authoritarian regimes in the wake of this year’s Arab Spring illustrates the point clearly.

Political institutions have undeniably progressed from autocracy to democracy over the last 200 years. Figure 1 displays this democratic transition by plotting over time a commonly used index of democracy (the Polity IV democracy score, rescaled between 0 and 1), averaged for a balanced panel of 14 countries since 1800. The figure illustrates some fits and starts – for instance the interruption of the march to democracy during the interwar period – but also a generalised upward trend. Like the demographic transition, economic modernisation, and the globalisation of human activities, democracy seems to have pursued an inexorable march.

Figure 1. The democratic and economic transitions

Note: (Balanced sample composed of Austria, Belgium, Chile, Denmark, France, Japan, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Turkey, the UK, and the US over 1800-2000).

What factors determine the transition toward democracy and its durability? This is a classic question in political economy, but not one that has yet been resolved. On the eve of the 19th century, Thomas Jefferson was defending the view that mass education was the “the most effectual means of preventing tyranny” (Jefferson 1779). In line with the Founding Fathers’ vision, the US turned into a leading country in terms of educational attainment, leading Alexis de Tocqueville (1835) to note in Democracy in America that “the education of the people powerfully contributes to the maintenance of the democratic republic”. The idea that the accumulation of human capital and economic modernisation more broadly create the conditions for sustained democratisation found a more recent consecration in the writings of Seymour Martin Lipset, who in 1959 introduced the ‘modernisation hypothesis’, arguing that economic development is a precondition for democracy. While international comparisons initially supported this hypothesis (Barro 1999), scholars still debate the issue, as many argue that causality runs instead from institutions to development.