Economic Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy
But most of Africa didn’t have a similar experience. Most of Africa can be characterized as having ethnic conflicts that discourage investment, causing a catch-22 of development: people fight because they are poor and they are poor because they fight.
Recently Delong posted a review of Daron Acemoglu’s new book Economic Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy, and after reading the book I believe my hypothesis concerning absolutism as a necessary stage in state formation is supported by his theories.
To summarize the book: Democracy happens when there is a credible threat of revolution while there is also a large part of the wealth tied up in easily destroyed items (like factories, railways, and equipment, which can be smashed, as opposed to a mine or fertile land, which are practically indestructible). The effect is that democracy will be granted by elites and anti-democratic coups will not be attempted after the establishment of democracy, both because elites are afraid their easily destroyed physical capital will in fact be destroyed in the possible turmoil.
That is all well and good, and indeed I can’t think of any successful democratizations (with the possible exception of Taiwan²) that do not fit into his model. However, Acemoglu and Robinson don’t really talk about transition: how do these countries caught in the development cathch-22 of belligerence due to poverty and poverty due to belligerence break that cycle and become stable successful democracies like most of the Western World? According to Acemoglu’s model, violent destructive governmental transitions happen when there is little cost to that violence; if there are no factories that could burn, then this “punishment” for the violence doesn’t exist, decreasing the disincentives for violence. This seems to mirror the development catch-22 within the Acemoglu and Robinson theoretical framework; countries that are prone to violence cannot develop physical capital, countries with little physical capital are prone to violence. How then can the fragile physical capital that will eventually be held hostage in order to stabilize democracy come into existence in this turbulent atmosphere?
It can’t. It seems that a necessary corollary from Acemoglu’s argument is that a strong and probably authoritarian leader must control and pacify all the various competing factions of the society, possibly through repression, long enough for physical capital to build up to a point where it can be ransomed for democracy.
The direct implication is that pluralistic idealism in the foreign policies of the developed world may impede the development of poor unstable countries if executed improperly. However, there are possible non-passive roles for benevolent foreign actors in this development process, chiefly, ensuring that the economy develops to a sufficient level under any extant authoritarian regime, as well as possibly assisting the destabilization of autocrats that have worn out their welcome (i.e. dictators who stay on past some point of physical capital accumulation), although this can be done non-militarily in some cases (e.g. Taiwan and South Korea, whose authoritarian governments both buckled in the eighties, partially due US policies developed by Carter that put diplomatic and public pressure on the regimes).
1: The exclusion of the neo-Europes can be explained by the fact that immigration tends to destroy existing tribal identity. Arguably, the only exceptions are immigrant criminal organizations, which still are significantly weakened by immigration and tend to disappear over time.
2: Taiwan is an interesting case in that it was in many respects similar to Singapore in anti-democratic nature. Singapore was held up as an example of a country which accumulated fragile physical capital but remained anti-democratic due to the supposed benign and egalitarian nature of this particular authoritarian regime. This egalitarianism, manifested in the wealth distribution most importantly for Acemoglu, caused a lack of demand for revolution. I would argue that a similar situation existed in Taiwan, except that political pressure from the US nudged the dominant elites towards democracy.