Income, Democracy, and the Cunning of Reason
NBER Working Paper No. 17132
A long-standing debate pits those who think economic development leads to democratization against those who argue that both result from distant historical causes. Using the most comprehensive estimates of national income available, I show that development is associated with more democratic government—but in the medium run (10 to 20 years). The reason is that, for the most part, higher income only prompts a breakthrough to more democratic politics after the incumbent leader falls from power. And in the short run, faster economic growth increases the leader’s odds of survival. This logic—for which I provide evidence at the levels of individual countries and the world—helps explain why democracy advances in waves followed by periods of stasis and why dictators, concerned only to entrench themselves in power, end up preparing their countries to leap to a higher level of democracy when they are eventually overthrown.
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