NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

The Democratic Transition

October 31, 2011

Over the last two centuries, many countries underwent a democratic transition, moving from autocratic regimes with low popular participation in political decision-making and weak constraints on the exercise of executive power, to more democratic regimes with broader political participation and greater limits on the exercise of political power.  While democratization happened in fits and starts, and did not happen everywhere, there is a general upward trend: the democratic transition.  Recognizing that this transition took place in tandem with substantial socioeconomic changes, it becomes useful and enlightening to identify those factors that lay the foundation for democratic principles to take hold.  In a new study, researchers Fabrice Murtin and Romain Wacziarg examine the effect that increases in elementary education and gross domestic product (GDP) per capita in 74 countries between 1870 and 2000 have had in this regard.

The theory behind the ability of each of these two factors to encourage democratic transition seems well founded.

  • In education, intellectuals as far back as Aristotle recognized its powerful effect in reining in the excesses of tyranny.
  • They promulgated the idea that increases in education would allow citizens to become more self-aware and to question the status quo with greater frequency and vigor.
  • Arguments that economic development stimulates democratic growth have also been made frequently in history, with advocates suggesting that when people are more comfortable and spend less time scraping together a living, they are more capable of civic engagement.

While researchers have obtained mixed results in investigating each of these factors, this study finds that the proliferation of elementary education is a strong indicator of imminent democratic gains.  Using historical data collected by previous researchers regarding schooling rates and GDP per capita, and comparing these rates with figures from the Polity Index (a comprehensive indicator of overall degree of democracy), it establishes that despite disparities between continents in education levels, education tracks democratic change very well.  Surprisingly, economic development tracked on the Polity Index did not yield statistically significant results.

However, Murtin and Wacziarg find little evidence of causality running the other way, from democracy to income or education.

Source: Fabrice Murtin and Romain Wacziarg, "The Democratic Transition," National Bureau of Economic Research, September 2011.

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