"Civic Renewal in America" | Main | the power of community organizing

May 22, 2006

political participation and economic success

It probably won't surprise you that there's a positive relationship between political participation and social/economic development. In countries where people are doing better (living longer, attending more years of school, spending more money), they also vote, protest, and petition more.

I've illustrated that relationship with this graph. The United Nations Development Programme's Index of Human Development is on the y-axis, and the percentage of the population that votes and says they join petitions, boycotts, or protests (averaged together) is on the x-axis. The graph only includes countries with a history of real elections, and it misses most poor countries, because they don't participate in the World Values Survey. There were 62 countries in my sample, but I deleted some of their names to make the graph legible:

The correlation is compatible with several rival theories. Maybe participation helps with development, or maybe affluence gives people the luxury to participate. Or maybe there's another underlying cause, such as trust, sociability, the quality of the media, or the size of the middle class. I'd like to believe that political participation is good for development (as Amartya Sen and others have argued), but I don't have the data to prove that.

I can, however, note some interesting patterns.

1. There's a cluster of former British colonies that chose to participate in the World Values Survey and that show similar results. These countries (near the bottom-left of the graph) under-perform economically considering the robustness of their civic participation. (Or they over-achieve as democracies, considering their poverty.) Within that group, however, there's a correlation between democratic participation and social development. In the cases of Tanzania and India, I think we're still seeing the legacy of centralized democratic socialism--which tolerated and even encouraged participation but monopolized economic power.

2. Singapore has achieved high social development with low civic engagement. It's a rare enough case that no one should argue for the Singapore model. Several of the major new democracies in Eastern Europe and Latin American also have relatively low civic engagement, considering their level of social development, but they are not far from the norm.

3. The World Values survey asks people whether they take "local community action on issues like poverty, employment, housing, racial equality." Answers to that question did not correlate at all with socio-economic development. Therefore, I dropped that indicator from the graph. However, it's important to note that "local community action" is most common in the poorest countries (Bangladesh, Tanzania, and China). It is more common in the USA than in other developed democracies.

Posted by peterlevine at May 22, 2006 07:18 AM


From David Airth via email:

It is interesting you have United States at the top because some would argue that Americans don't participate in politics enough. By participation some would presume you mean voting. Americans are low on that score. But there are other ways to politically participate other than voting. Americans are very civically active and there is a lot of politics involved in that. There is a lot of politics in America's consumerism and business activities, hence the expression of voting with one's wallet. America has a lot of choices and mobility and in that there is more politics. Every aspect of American life is politicized and it's fairly intense. I believe it occurs in this intensity as an alternative,in the event that people might not participate in the traditional democratic sense, through voting and parliamentary activity. Amartya San has rightly argue that it is good for democracy and economic development ifone is just simply vocal and listened to.

Posted by: Peter Levine [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 22, 2006 11:21 AM

That's right: The US (and Canada, whose dot is right nearby on my graph) have relatively low average turnout in national elections but lots of petitioning, boycotting, and attending demonstrations.

Posted by: Peter Levine [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 22, 2006 11:23 AM

I too would like to think that political participation and democracy are good for development however I'm honestly not sure what to think! The democracy and development literature is vast and disputed.

Przeworski et al (2000) argued that democratization occurs for various reasons, so many that it's not worth investigating, but once it does occur, democracy is remarkably robust. Furthermore, although the regime type (he uses a dichotomous variable for democracy if i remember correctly) doesn't affect economic growth, it does affect population growth and therefore, 'there is not a single reason to sacrifice democracy at the altar of develoment'.

If Przeworski et al (2000) was the baseline and quelled debate for a while, it's certainly incited a recent pushback. Epstein et al (2005) use a trichotomous variable for democracy (using the Polity dataset at UMD i think) and find support for the modernization thesis: that as countries become richer they tend to democratize. Then again Robinson (2005) has an alternative explaination. While he agrees that Przeworski et al (2000) are off the mark (they got their econometrics wrong..), he feels the same about Epstein et al (2005). In contrast, Robinson claims that there is an alternative underlying cause that is driving both the changes in income per capita and political regime. The complication is that this underlying cause, Robinson terms it 'historical junctures' is really a collection or 'contellation of conditions that lead countries on different development paths'. Some conditions could be the feudal legacy, class relations, the relative power of unions, the nature of integration into world markets, etc.........Social capital could fit in here too.

Robinson's had the last word so far and he seems to discredit both modernization theory and the idea that democracy leads to development. We're still searching for the generalizable theory..

To complicate things further, it should be noted that the aformentioned scholars focus on long-term growth. There are those who argue that as opposed to long-run growth, rapid 'catch-up' development requires an overwhelming and authoritarian state. They claim that this particular kind of growth at the beginning of a development path necessitates a strong state because some of the steps involved (e.g. land reform) are fundamentally unpopular with those who have political power.

Now that's a long comment, not saying very much but it's a topic that I very much care about and am interested in! :)


ps. The papers I have referred to can be found here:
- http://www.nyu.edu/gsas/dept/politics/faculty/przeworski/papers/sisson.pdf
- (the epstein was presented at the 2005 APSA meeting)
- http://www.people.fas.harvard.edu/~jrobins/researchpapers/unpublishedpapers/jr_annualreviews.pdf

Posted by: Joseph Sinatra [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 22, 2006 10:39 PM

From David Airth:

Thank you for your article. It helped draw out and articulate an idea I have had about democracy's workings. The kind of political activity and churning we speak of here can also explain why some democracies (and economic development) never get of the ground, like those of Haiti and many African countries. And some democracies that have initially flourished have collapse because the general political activity that exists in mature democracies is absent, a political activity that is essential for constantly reforming and renewing democracy, to keep it alive and awake.

More often than not it is economic development that leads to democracy. America was first emancipated economically and then political emancipation followed. One big problem Haiti has is the inability to economically reform, which includes land reform. Such reform would put 'property' in the hands of its people, from which comes a recognition and voice that politicians listen to.

Posted by: Peter Levine [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 23, 2006 01:10 PM

More from David Airth:

In regard to Joe Sinatra's article I think democracy is essential to economic development and that you cannot maintain a robust democracy without it. Democracy's vitality and economic vitality are inseparable, for the long run.

Democracy is government for the people, of the people and by the people. If we use that benchmark perhaps one may better understand why economic development is essential (that idea needs further development because it sounds good). However, some people don't believe that economic development is essential to democracy. Moreover, why do we need economic development? Some believe economic development ruins democracies chances.

Democracy is a logical conclusion. The trouble is democracy has never been derived logically, through logic or reason. It would be wonderful if a society that has never done it could say, We know it is the most logical form of governance, let's do it. Any attempts to establish and sustain democracy with pure, classical democratic means have never gotten anywhere or have failed. On paper democracy is this wonderful thing like a cute kitten who looks and will be lovable and loyal. But in reality it may despise you, scratch you, ignore you and be untrustworthy. For that, we ignore it and not even bother to to befriend it or cultivate it, the kitten - democracy. We then loose interest in it because it was initially nasty and required to much work.

Economics is essential to the maintenance of our civilization. It is the husbandry of humankind. But let's forget its essentialness. I see economic activity as a means of forcing ourselves to behave democratically. Since most people are lazy and wouldn't bother or get involved with what is require to be democratic, a contingency has developed, economic activity. Economic activity in the modern world has made itself known, ruff and tumble. This is the ruff and tumble that was lacking in our initial approach to democracy, a ruff and tumble that is essential to keep it alive and awake. Economic activity has filled in by making extreme demands on society and individuals, demands that require thinking, solutions and compromise. This is how we should have initially approached democracy but we didn't have a clue at the outset. Economics has given us the mechanism that we initially lacked to do democracy. Economics introduces and forced litigation on us which the first attempts at democracy lacked.

Litigation creates civilization, as it does democracy. But democracy on its own doesn't have the stomach for it or a clue . That is why economic development it essential to democracy because it pushes the envelope and keeps the churning going that democracy normally lacks or is afraid to do. Democracy is more polite than economics about what needs doing.

This is only a thumb nail and a cursory view of why democracy needs economic development. There are many gaps that need filling. Moreover, this doesn't even address why economic development needs democracy. What I will say to that, quickly, is that democracy saves economic development (capitalism) from itself through legislation.

Posted by: Peter Levine [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 23, 2006 08:42 PM

The idea that economic development leads to democracy, or the modernization thesis, is well-represented in the literature. Without doubt there is a correlation. Some question however whether this means causation. I think this is still very much an open question...

Re: Haiti and many African countries, while I can't say much about any case in particular, I think that some scholars with a 'developmental state' bent would argue that some of these countries have difficulty developing economically because they are TOO democratic. Adrian Leftwich argues along these lines in the December 2005 edition of 'Democratization' in his article 'Democracy and Development: Is there and institutional incompatibility'. Again, I'd like to believe that they are always compatible and there certainly is a correlation for long-term growth. I'm just nowhere near certain about the relationship between democracy and short-term, catch-up growth.

An interesting case is India when thinking about the co-evolution of democracy and the economy system. As Peter notes in the beginning of his 'the power of community organizing' post, India has more participation than one would expect given its level of development. Despite its recent growth success, I think some forget just how poor India is. It's a remarkable case. Since economics (in the sense of getting richer) did not lead India towards democracy, much can be explained with leaders like Gandhi and the movement they represented. A possible alternative is that democracy grew and and survived because it was the only system that could keep this incredible diverse society fuctioning. Bardhan (1987) argues that democracy survived in India not because the polity was so rooted in liberal values, but rather because it served the function of easing transactions (he's an economist) among "contending groups in an extremely heterogeneous society".

There's much yet to learn about the complex interaction between democracy and development, the multiple factors that spring democratization and the various functions of democracy!

Posted by: Joseph Sinatra [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 23, 2006 09:35 PM

David Airth replies:

I am the first to agree that democracy is contingent on many things. In saying that I think of the human body and how it functions and remains healthy. There are organs in the body that are primal but no matter how primal they are they rely on lesser organs to function. In the end it is difficult to separate what is primal. It becomes one body, like we in the west tend to see democracy.

India is an extraordinary case of democracy's evolution. But I would say that much of its democracy development is coming through economic forces. India needs economic development and the power that be recognizes this. In order to get it they are liberalizing and opening up their institutions. A lot of ex-patriots are returning to India because of the economic growth. With them they are bringing liberalizing tendencies they learned in the West. They also bring with them techniques of how to organize and govern communities more fairly and for the mutual benefit of all. It is a kind of trickle down democracy that is occurring in India due to economic gains. However, if there is one thing one could point to as the beginnings of democracy in India it might be the extraordinary level of education in certain areas of India. Ironically, the bureaucratic techniques they acquired from their British master and developed into their own special labyrinthine also has helped them on their way to democracy.

In China there is also a trickle down effect occurring in democracy from economic activity. The constitution had been change to recognize some property ownership. Without that provision businessmen were not willing to invest in China because their investments might be at some point taken over by the state. Chinese are now free to travel and this was spurred by the new wealth. Negative economic factors have also brought about some democratization. The health problems of Aids and Sars, a by-product of economic development, have forced health authorities to be more open in order to remain in business and attract investments. The pollution that has resulted from economic development has inciting individual concerns and protests, and changes. All this is slowly empowering individuals and bringing about democratization.

Posted by: Peter Levine [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 24, 2006 03:47 PM

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