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  • Freedom’s Edge
  • Joshua Muravchik (bio)

The Democracy Advantage: How Democracies Promote Prosperity and Peace. By Morton H. Halperin, Joseph T. Siegle, and Michael M. Weinstein. Routledge, 2004. 290 pp.

The global spread of democracy over the last three decades has led to an increasing appreciation of its strengths and benefits. Nonetheless, skeptical scholars have continued to pose some nagging questions about the benefits of democratic governance. Do democracies behave more peacefully than regimes of other kinds, or do they merely refrain from going to war against other democracies? Does democracy unleash ethnic strife? Are impoverished countries, apart from the occasional exception, able to construct and sustain democracy? And can democracy deliver the goods to poor societies—in other words, is democracy conducive to economic development?

This last challenge gains particular salience from the experience of East Asia, where a number of countries—China, Indonesia, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan—all achieved unparalleled rates of economic growth under the leadership of authoritarian governments. From the East Asian experience skeptics have concluded that it is more realistic, and in the end more beneficial, to promote economic development first, rather than democracy, in countries lacking both. In the skeptics' view, the fruits of economic development—such as higher rates of literacy and a burgeoning middle class—will in the fullness of time pave the way for democratic government. A precipitous leap to democracy is likely to yield populist policies that stall economic growth, leading to the collapse of the democratic system itself.

In The Democracy Advantage, Morton Halperin, Joseph Siegle, and Michael Weinstein set out to answer the skeptics, and for the most part, they build a formidable case. Along the way, they provide numerous interesting empirical observations, some of which are truly surprising.

The authors furnish a list of 24 low-income countries (those with a per-capita GDP of less than $2,000 in 1995 dollars) that are either ranked as Free by Freedom House or as democracies on the Polity IV Index. According to the latter, 70 poor countries have registered "marked advancements toward democracy over the past two decades"—and 43 of them began with fully authoritarian regimes. These data alone should put to rest the idea that it is far-fetched to aim for democracy in poor countries, or that democratization must wait until a country achieves a certain level of economic development.

The authors list another 17 countries that were both poor and democratic at some point since 1960 and today are still democratic but no [End Page 167] longer poor. Apparently democracy did not hold back these countries' emergence from poverty. This, in fact, is only a sampling of the book's central argument: Democracy, far from being an impediment to development, is actually a boon to it. Halperin, Siegle, and Weinstein write:

Low-income democracies and democratizing countries have outperformed their authoritarian counterparts on a full range of development indicators. Whether we consider life expectancy, literacy, access to clean drinking water, agricultural productivity, or infant mortality, democracies at all income levels have typically achieved results that are 20 percent to 40 percent superior to those of autocracies.

(p. 10)

This list of measurements omits economic growth; on that measure, the evidence presented is more equivocal. The authors report that, in toto, "democracies have realized consistently higher levels of economic growth than autocracies during the last four decades" (p. 30), but that generalization does not hold for low-income countries. Within this category, the democracies score slightly better, but the difference is marginal. Nevertheless, these facts dispel any claim that authoritarianism provides an economic advantage.

What about the fabulous economic success stories of some East Asian autocracies? They were, the authors argue, simply exceptions to the rule. From 1960 to 2001, these countries' growth rates "were on the average triple those of other authoritarian-run nations. Yet they made up less than 5 percent of such regimes during this time period" (p. 53). The reasons for their extraordinary progress include market-based economic systems and export-oriented growth strategies in combination with Japanese capital, Western markets, and a regional network of ethnic-Chinese businessmen. In the words of Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, the lesson to...


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pp. 167-170
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