NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Does Disease Cause Autocracy?

October 11, 2011

In attempting to explain those factors which lead to the rise or fall of liberalism, democracy and wealth, several scientists believe they have identified a new culprit: disease.  The eradication of proliferating diseases correlates strongly with the rise of democratic institutions and liberal social norms such as individualism, gender egalitarianism and property rights.  Such a relationship may seem distant, but new research offer several explanations, says Ronald Bailey, Reason Magazine's science correspondent.

Firstly, disease keeps the poor, poor.

  • Heavy disease burdens create persistent poverty traps from which poor people cannot extricate themselves.
  • High disease rates lower their economic productivity so they can't afford to improve sanitation and medical care, which in turn leaves them vulnerable to more disease and further reduces their ability to prosper economically.

Secondly, a high prevalence of disease encourages intolerance and localism.

  • In the same way that the human immune system adapts to fight pathogens, groups of people evolve customs that reduce the transmission of diseases.
  • This usually includes a degree of xenophobia, whereby members of isolated groups avoid contacts with "out-group" members who may have parasites to which the group is neither accustomed nor resistant.
  • This limits the flow of people and ideas, diminishing social tolerance and eating away at the foundation of liberal thinking.

This natural defensiveness toward out-groups, developed by survival instincts, also explains the lack of power sharing in these nations.  Elites, who because of their wealth have not been so heavily exposed to disease and parasites, limit interaction with the poor for this very reason, decreasing the potential for top-down reform.  Simultaneously, bottom-up reform is undercut by the inability of the poor to organize because of the aforementioned xenophobia.  Thus, the lack of unity amongst the lower class opens these societies to autocratic rule.

Should these hypotheses prove true, the implications for foreign aid to poor nations are that efforts should prioritize disease eradication over the myriad of other issues.  It remains to be seen, however, if the very ethnocentrism and xenophobia predicted by these studies will also hinder efforts by outsiders to break the vicious cycle.

Source: Ronald Bailey, "Does Disease Cause Autocracy?" Reason Magazine, October 2011.

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