democracy is tougher than you think, wealthy ones at least

We often hear that democracy is under threat. But is that true? In 2005, Adam Przeworski wrote an article in Public Choice arguing that *wealthy* democracies are stable but poor ones are not. He starts with the following observation:

No democracy ever fell in a country with a per capita income higher than that of Argentina in 1975, $6055.1 This is a startling fact, given that throughout history about 70 democracies collapsed in poorer countries. In contrast, 35 democracies spent about 1000 years under more developed conditions and not one died.

Developed democracies survived wars, riots, scandals, economic and governmental crises, hell or high water. The probability that democracy survives increases monotonically in per capita income. Between 1951 and 1990, the probability that a democracy would die during any particular year in countries with per capita income under $1000 was 0.1636, which implies that their expected life was about 6 years. Between $1001 and 3000, this probability was 0.0561, for an expected duration of about 18 years. Between $3001 and 6055, the probability was 0.0216, which translates into about 46 years of expected life. And what happens above $6055 we already know: democracy lasts forever.


How does one explain this pattern? Przeworski describes a model where elites offer income redistribution plans, people vote, and the elites decide to keep or ditch democracy. The model has a simple feature when you write it out: the wealthier the society, the more pro-democracy equilibria you get.

If true, this model has profound implications of political theory and public policy:

  1. Economic growth is the bulwark of democracy. Thus, if we really want democracy, we should encourage economic growth.
  2. Armed conflict probably does not help democracy. Why? Wars tend to destroy economic value and make your country poorer and that increase anti-democracy movements (e.g., Syria and Iraq).
  3. A lot of people tell you that we should be afraid of outsiders because they will threaten democracy. Not true, at least for wealthy democracies.

This article should be a classic!

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Written by fabiorojas

January 4, 2016 at 3:34 am

4 Responses

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  1. […] Source : democracy is tougher than you think, wealthy ones at least […]


  2. Haven’t read the whole article yet, but isn’t it plausible that the causality here is backward? That countries with stable democratic political institutions tend to become more developed.



    January 4, 2016 at 2:40 pm

  3. The link from democracy to development may go both ways. The paper only says that when you reach a threshold of wealth, democracy becomes very stable.


    Fabio Rojas

    January 4, 2016 at 7:36 pm

  4. Those three propositions are not new; they’ve been around for decades.

    The decisive variable may well not be economic growth, but rather the extent to which a society has established a functioning market system (which then propels economic growth).

    I offer what Charles Lindblom once wrote: “However poorly the market is harnessed to democratic purposes, only within market-oriented systems does political democracy arise. Not all market-oriented systems are democratic, but every democratic system is also a market-oriented system. Apparently, for reasons not wholly understood, political democracy has been unable to exist except when coupled with the market. An extraordinary proposition, it has so far held without exception.” (Lindblom 1977: 116)


    David Ronfeldt

    January 4, 2016 at 9:49 pm

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