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Journal of Democracy 11.2 (2000) 99-114

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Democracy, Dictatorship, and Infant Mortality

Thomas D. Zweifel and Patricio Navia



The effect of economic development in reducing hunger is widely known, but what is the effect of a country's political regime on the basic welfare of its inhabitants? Does it matter whether that country has an authoritarian or a democratic regime? The answer is yes. Any randomly selected country's regime, regardless of its level of development, matters for its social performance. Fewer children die in democracies than in dictatorships.

The infant mortality rate is the indicator of chronic hunger most commonly used by policy makers and international organizations. In 138 countries observed annually over the period 1950-90, democracies showed markedly lower infant mortality rates than dictatorships. More importantly, at the same levels of development, and everything else being equal, a country's political regime had an independent effect on infant mortality. Democracy outperformed dictatorship at every level of per-capita GNP.

It is well known that per-capita income is inversely correlated with hunger: the higher a country's per-capita GNP, the lower the number of hungry people in that country. But that is far from the whole story. Average per-capita income, for instance, can mask inequalities between rich and poor. Growth in per-capita income is a necessary but not a sufficient requirement for bringing about an end to chronic hunger. Additional factors are needed; one is a country's political regime.

A political regime is the institutional framework in which decisions [End Page 99] are made about the production and allocation of public resources, including the provision of public goods and services. The character of the regime may affect performance directly by fostering an environment of opportunity, or indirectly by influencing what rulers are willing and able to do.

Democracy has been defined in many ways. For convenience, we adopt the minimal definition first suggested by Adam Przeworski: "Democracy is a system in which parties lose elections," 1 which he and his collaborators later refined by drawing upon Robert Dahl's concept of "contestation." 2 They argue that alternation in power "constitutes prima facie evidence of contestation," which exists where three key requirements are met: 1) "ex ante uncertainty," meaning that "there is some positive probability that at least one member of the incumbent coalition can lose in a particular round of elections"; 2) "ex post irreversibility," meaning "the assurance that whoever wins elections would be allowed to assume office"; and 3) "repeatability," meaning that "elections must be expected to be repeated. Whoever wins the current round of elections cannot use office to make it impossible for the competing political forces to win next time." 3

Political Regimes and Social Performance

The study of political regimes and their performance has seen a renaissance with the third wave of democratization. The relative performance of democracy and dictatorship in enhancing a country's development has been hotly debated for years. Competing models about the social performance of political regimes have presented three broad possibilities: 1) that democracy facilitates economic and social development; 2) that democracy hinders development; and 3) that democracy bears no independent relationship to development. 4

The first school of thought argues that democratic government, with its emphasis on civil liberties and political rights, is far better suited than dictatorship to foster the economic pluralism required for sustained, balanced, and equitable economic development. According to this view, democracies address the needs of their populations better because they are more accountable to citizens than are dictatorships. In a democracy, citizens decide through a voting mechanism among policy mixes proposed by candidates competing for office. Since under democracy public decisions must take into account the preferences of the majority, policies are more likely to represent the needs of that majority than they would under dictatorship.

According to this school of thought, democracies provide superior welfare for two reasons. First, they perform better because of what they do directly. Democracies bring to power leaders who voice the concerns of the people, and their political institutions...


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