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  • What Makes Democracies Endure?*
  • Adam Przeworski (bio), Michael Alvarez (bio), José Antonio Cheibub (bio), and Fernando Limongi (bio)

If a country, any randomly selected country, is to have a democratic regime next year, what conditions should be present in that country and around the world this year? The answer is: democracy, affluence, growth with moderate inflation, declining inequality, a favorable international climate, and parliamentary institutions.

This answer is based on counting instances of survival and death of political regimes in 135 countries observed annually between 1950 or the year of independence or the first year when economic data are available (“entry” year) and 1990 or the last year for which data are available (“exit” year), for a total of 4,318 country-years. 1 We found 224 regimes, of which 101 were democracies and 123 dictatorships, observing 40 transitions to dictatorship and 50 to democracy. Among democratic regimes, there were 50 parliamentary systems, 46 presidential systems, and 8 mixed systems. 2

Our definition of democracy is a minimalist one. We follow Robert A. Dahl’s 1971 classic Polyarchy in treating as democratic all regimes that hold elections in which the opposition has some chance of winning and taking office. When in doubt, we err in the direction of calling a regime dictatorial. Our classification is not idiosyncratic, but is closely related to several alternative scales of democracy. The rationale and the rules for classifying regimes are discussed in the Appendix below. [End Page 39]

Democracy. It may seem tautological to say that a country should have a democratic regime this year in order to have a democracy next year. We do so in order to dispel the myth, prevalent in certain intellectual and political circles (particularly in the United States) since the late 1950s, that the route to democracy is a circuitous one. The claim is that 1) dictatorships are better at generating economic development in poor countries, and that 2) once countries have developed, their dictatorial regimes will give way to democracy. To get to democracy, then, one had to support, or at least tolerate, dictatorships.

Both of the above propositions, however, are false:

  1. 1. While analyses of the impact of regimes on economic growth have generated divergent results, recent econometric evidence fails to uncover any clear regime effect. The average rate of investment is in fact slightly higher in poor democracies than in poor dictatorships; population growth is higher under dictatorships but labor productivity is lower; and investment is more efficiently allocated under democracies. Dictatorships are no more likely to generate economic growth than democracies. 3 Indeed, the 56 dictatorships with annual per-capita income of less than $1,000 when we first observed them simply failed to develop. 4 By the exit year, only 18 of them had made it (whether under democracy or continued dictatorship) to $1,000, only 6 to $2,000, and only 3 to more than $3,000. South Korea and Taiwan are exceptional: they are the only two dictatorships that started under $1,000 in 1950 and had annual per-capita income exceeding $5,000 by 1990. If we consider as “initially poor” those countries with less than $2,000, we find that among 98 dictatorships first observed below this level, by the exit year only 26 had made it to $2,000, 15 to $3,000, 7 to $4,000, and 4 to $5,000. These figures should be enough to dispel any notion that dictatorship somehow promotes economic growth in poor countries.

  2. 2. Democracies are not produced by the development of dictatorships. 5 If they were, the rate at which dictatorships make the transition to democracy would increase with the level of development: analyses of the survival prospects of dictatorships, however, indicate that this is not the case. Indeed, transitions to democracy are random with regard to the level of development: not a single transition to democracy can be predicted by the level of development alone. 6

Since poor dictatorships are no more likely to develop than poor democracies and since developed dictatorships are no more likely to become democracies than poor ones, dictatorships offer no advantage in attaining the dual goal of development and democracy. In order to strengthen...

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