Does Economic Development Lead To Democracy? / 14ymedio, Jose Azel

The political sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset. (Wikicommons)
The political sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset. (Wikicommons)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Jose Azel, Miami, 27 October 2016 – For decades the statement that “the more wealthy a nation is, the greater the chances that it supports democracy” has been a conventional view and a centerpiece of United States foreign policy. This quote is from a seminal work from 1959, “Some Social Requisites of Democracy: Economic Development and Political Legitimacy” by the political sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset.

Lipset was the first to raise, on empirical grounds, a correlation between development and democracy. His thesis continues to guide US foreign policy and is often cited in discussions of how to promote transitions to democracy.

In what is known as the Lipset hypothesis, the professor theorized that economic development supports the consolidation of democracy, expanding levels of literacy, information and access to the media, expanding the middle class, activating independent civic organizations, emphasizing legitimacy and other sociopolitical values. Sadly, he is one of the most cited authors read.

Lipset noted that the correlation between politics and democracy is a wide list of factors that change social conditions, enabling the reception of a democratic culture. These elements, among them industrialization, urbanization, wealth and education, are the conditions, not the causes, of democracy. As suggested by the title of the article, the relation between economic development and political democracy is correlative, not causal.

US foreign policy errs when it ignores the contingent nature of history and relegates the complex social and structural conditions that lead to democracy to a simplistic economic variable. The error is multiplied when correlation is confused with causality. As Lipset shows, economic prosperity is often accompanied by personal freedoms, but that does not mean that economic growth causes political reforms.

The fact that the two events are frequently observed together does not meant that one causes the other: that the rooster crows every morning does not mean that the rooster makes the sun rise. In logic, the principle that correlation does not imply causality is known as the cum ergo propter hoc fallacy, which in Latin means “with this, therefore because of this.”

The most important political implications of the Lipset hypothesis have become one of the most researched topics in the social sciences. Recent studies don’t support the affirmation that economic development brings democracy. The most that can be obtained from empirical evidence is that development facilitates the permanence of this form of government, but does not make it more likely.

However, the US foreign policy will continues to depend on the false causality of the “development first, democracy later,” approach.

Atypical cases flow in both directions with wealthy autocracies like Saudi Arabia and poor democracies like Costa Rica. In the case of totalitarian regimes, it is clear that economic development does not lead to political reforms, as is shown in China and Vietnam. In totalitarian societies the elites have a lot to lose and choose oppression.

In the case of authoritarian regimes, the experience is mixed. The divergent cases of South Korea and Singapore illustrate the limitations of the claims that development furthers democracy. South Korea seems to exemplify circumstances where the increase in wealth contributed to the later democratic consolidation. Singapore, for its part, turns the thesis on its head, because the country remains authoritarian and has become more repressive with the increase in prosperity.

Our understanding of the relationship between the type of regime and economic development remains, at best, probabilistic. But we have learned that in previous communist societies it wasn’t the economy that generated the pro-democracy movements. In those countries, the essential struggle between the population and the elites was about human rights and civil liberties.

Therefore, to promote democracy US foreign policy should be updated and better informed, to understand how citizens adopt democratic values and push for democratic reforms.


Editor’s Note: José Azel is a senior researcher at the Institute for Cuban and Cuban American Studies at the University of Miami and author of Mañana in Cuba.