NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Democracy and Rainfall

April 13, 2011

When it comes to the distribution of democracy across the globe, it's mostly about the rainfall, a new study suggests.  The researchers revealed a robust relationship between rainfall levels and regime type for countries that existed from 1965 to 2009, says the Wall Street Journal.

To measure democracy, the researchers used average ratings from an oft-cited political science database called Polity 2.  For rainfall, the metric was the annual average within 100 miles of the largest city.

  • Below 21.5 inches annually, the authors found, there were just two democracies, Cyprus and Israel, and 14 "persistent" autocracies.
  • Between 21.5 inches and 51 inches, there were 18 stable democracies (out of a grand total of 26 in the whole dataset) and 7 persistent autocracies.
  • Above 51 inches, the balance tipped back to closed societies.

That relationship persisted even when colonial history, the presence of oil, religion (chiefly the presence or absence of Islam) and ethnic division were controlled for.

  • The authors' theory is that moderate rainfall plus arable land creates economies in which small farms produce grain and legumes above the subsistence level.
  • In turn, the trade of crops helps a large swathe of the population build up financial and educational capital -- and a broadly educated, reasonably well-off citizenry is the foundation of democracy.

In contrast, growing and storing food in arid and tropical lands present challenges that favor plantations and large landholders, creating an economic environment (inequality, an entrenched elite) that's more likely to spawn autocracy.

Source: Christopher Shea, "Where Does Democracy Grow Best?" Wall Street Journal, April 8, 2011.

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