Article Review: Why Democracies Excel (2004)

Authors: Josepf T. Siegle, Michael M. Weinstein, and Morton H. Halperin

This article is very important because it contributes to the discussion about the relationship between democracy and development. The article’s main thesis is simply stated: "democracy first, development later." The authors argue that democracies consistently outperform non-democracies on most indicators of economic and social well-being, so that promoting democracy should be prior to expanding economic development in developing nations.

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There are two important points in this article. First is the debate about the relationship between democracy and development, discussion of authoritarianism and state theory, and economic development. Second is foreign policy and the role of the United States as the donor that provides assistance to developing countries. In this review, I will only focus on the first aspect. There are several things that can be discussed about this article.

First, this article presents a couple of competing theories that try to explain the relationship between democracy and development. Among the theories is the theory of modernization as proposed by Seymour Martin Lipset who argues that economic growth leads to democracy, so that "development first, democracy later" (Lipset, 1959)[1]. According to Lipset, economic development would have implications on the social processes such as urbanization that increase the level of education in the community, as well as generate the values ​​and norms of social and political life that are conducive to democracy.

However, Samuel Huntington proposes an alternative explanation of the development of democracy from the perspective of “process” arguing that the outcome of economic development would lead to political decay; then the political system once instable would move toward democracy through and later institutionalization (Huntington, 1968). [2]

In contrast to modernization theory, Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and George Downs studied that in the case of China, and found the result of economic development would not lead to democracy because authoritarian regimes and autocracies around the world show people that they can enjoy the benefits of economic development on the one hand and avoid political liberalization on the other (Mesquita & Downs, 2005). Their findings are counter to the argument of modernizationists that democracy is the necessary result of economic development.

Secondly, compared to other theories, the authors of this article provide empirical evidence about the relationship between democracy and development. Basically, the “democracy first, development later” thesis strongly rejects the modernization school and Lipset’s development-first thesis; they argue that the democracy should be the precondition for development and promoting democracy is the strategic approach to reach prosperity, development, security, and peace. 

In fact, the democracy-first thesis originates from the theoretical approach of institution type compared to economic performance. Democracy-first theorists not only argue institution matters, but they also further assert democracy matters. The authors in this article argue that not only do institutions influence states’ economic and societal performances, but also, from the perspective of regime type, democracies indeed outperform non-democracies in economic development. Due to regular elections, democratic regimes need to respond to the demands of their citizens and societal groups; the institutional arrangement of election is the key for democracies to better perform economically.

In this article, the author shows the analysis of the data compiled from indicators of World Bank's World Development from 1960 to current situation to demonstrate that "low-income democracies have, on average, grown just as rapidly as low-income autocracies over the past 40 years." (p. 59). The use of empirical data is a strength in this article, which also answers Lipset argument that was written in 1959.  Although, there are many epistemological critics to the empirical and positivistic aspects in this article, the data may provide new insight to enrich the discussions of the relationship of democracy and development.

Third is the matter of authoritarianism and development. If we look at the statistics in this article, an authoritarian state that has high economic growth is an outlier, which means that the authoritarian case is rare. Perhaps, there is no correlation between economic growth and authoritarianism.

This is an interesting debate. Instead of the regime being the sole factor, economic growth is only possible if the state has a state capacity and autonomy to address a wide range of vested interests of various groups, including business associations, military, populist impulses of middle class and lower class, politicians, and others. Then, the State will develop economic policies that support development. Instead of authoritarianism, the capacity and autonomy of the state is augmentative.

Related to this article, we may also assume that under some circumstances, democratization, democracy and democratic institutions can gradually increase the capacity of the state (state capacity) in developing countries which then will lead to economic development.

Fourth is the fall of authoritarianism and democratic transitions. In this article, the authors have a view relating to rational choice paradigm positing that the agencies and individuals will calculate the pay-off, profit and loss, and safeguard their interests in the political process. This opinion is half true because in some cases, such as Southeast Asia, the emergence of authoritarian elites is precisely the collective response of fear of the contentious politics of the state. Thus, there is a need for a strong state in order to bring stability.

Fifth, this article raised the debate about the relationship between economic development and democracy. Many questions arise in the discussion. Is democracy easier to grow in countries with a low level of development? Is democracy better able to survive in countries with advanced industrialized level? This point was also discussed by Lipset.

One of Lipset’s responders, Przeworski, found that the growth of democracy or transition to democracy is not affected by economic development. According to Przeworski, economic development will only help a democracy that's been established. But in developing countries, democracy can be developed, despite the low level of economic growth.

However, if democracy-first thesis is true, how can it explain some cases exceptional to its argument? In the cases of Taiwan and South Korea, both of these two countries experienced dramatic economic development without democratic institutions during the 1980s and 1990s. Moreover, the case of China from the 1990s on also demonstrates that a non-democracy still can achieve economic development.

Overall, this article is very important to enrich the study about relationship between democracy and economic development. Furthermore, the article informs the discussion about the democracy-first paradigm and gives some examples about that.

[1] See Lipset, S.M (1959). Some Social Requisites of Democracy: Economic Development and Political Legitimacy. In The American Political Science Review, 53 (1), 69-105.
[2] Huntington, S. M. (1968). Political Order in Changing Societies. Yale University Press.

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