in category Economics

Is democracy a prerequisite for development?

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In a Nutshell:
Democracy's role in developing an economy is really non-existent. At best, the relationship is tenuous. Nations that advocate democracy historically became democratic at the end of their rise, not at the beginning. The Chinese model shows democracy is not necessary for success.


When studying development, both from an economic and scientific advancement standpoint, democracy is typically considered a prerequisite for progress.

The renowned economist, Mancur Olsen from the University of Maryland, argued democracies develop and progress relative to other systems of government in his book 'Power and Prosperity' (2000).

Olsen argued a dictator has the incentive to encourage a degree of economic success because he expects to be in power long enough to partake in it, whilst anarchy provides only incentive to steal and destroy.

He suggests protection of one's citizens and property within a democracy lead to greater prosperity, incentivized by knowledge of possible removal from office at the ballot box.

Olsen sees democracy as providing the seeds of civilization, paving the way for prosperity by which the process improves incentives for good government by aligning it with the wishes of the population.

Conditions for Democracy

Alternative research has made democracy a precondition for economic success. Evan Rodrik, political science expert at the University of Illinois, argued

"democracy as the 'meta institution 'helps build other institutions and democracy is the only appropriate institutional conditionally for success."

There are two principles democracy is required to have, despite there being no universally accepted definition of democracy.

  • The first of these principles is all members of society have equal access to power, followed by,
  • The second principle all members enjoy universally recognized freedoms and liberties.

When looking at nations who continue to advocate this view and intervene around the world in the name of democracy, it becomes illustrated such an argument does not hold any weight.

A majority of the developed world developed through policies that were anti-democratic and some would argue absence of democracy aids development. Upon introduction of voting in the West, a very small minority of land and property-owning men held an uneven number of votes according to a scale based on prosperity, education, and age. Black males in the US were only given voting rights after a civil rights movement that led to the creation of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. These men were permitted to vote since 1870 by the fifteenth amendment to the constitution, but Southern states were disenfranchised by the use of poll taxes and specific property conditions.

France only allowed voting to those above the age of 30 and who paid 300 francs in direct taxes in 1830, amounting to only about 0.02% of the population of 32 million. In 1848 male suffrage became universal and France only allowed women to vote during World War 2 after industrialization. Japan also only achieved universal suffrage through US pressure to distribute power away from the original regime after reaching a military pinnacle. In 1952, the US demanded Japan gives full voting rights but only gave its own citizens the same right 13 years later.

During Britain's peak of colonial superiority in 1800, only 3% of the population had the right to vote. To elect members to the House of Commons, voters had to own sizeable area of land in a patchwork of districts created during medieval time. This made the vote denied to merchants, manufacturers, and skilled labourers who did not own land. Certain established and wealthy regions were overrepresented in Parliament while new urban centres had no representation at all. Individuals owned some seats in Parliament. Only 13% of the population was able to vote by 1867. Sixty-one years later, in 1928, men and women would be given equal voting rights. After development, is when Democracy saw its rise and played no role in the rise of Britain.

Current Democratic Politics

Today, the developing world has given its population more voting rights in comparison to developed nations that went through the same stages.

Therefore, it should be cautiously viewed democracy causes economic development as portrayed in economic orthodoxy. Countries like China, Russia and Germany prove democracy is not, by itself, a prerequisite for economic development and is proof much can be achieved while lacking democracy. Russia and China, in particular, appear to be doing very well without following the Western ideal of liberal democracy and challenge the Western model disdainfully.

Economic development is a set of policies that help to industrialize a population so it can feed its population and foster an environment where their interests can be achieved. To accomplish this, a set of policies need to be consistent and take the whole nation in one direction; otherwise, there will be contradictions.

  • Originally, Britain was stimulated by breaking from the church and adopting liberal values, which in turn unified the nation. The direction of colonialism drove forward the nation with the ability of the aristocracy to inherit property and land and influence colonial efforts.
  • Russia, on the other hand, received stimulus from the failings of the Tsar and then Communism propelled unity through successive leaders deriving economic policies from communist ideology.
  • Breaking free from Britain's stranglehold over life and liberty, the US found unification and Japan realized how far behind the developed world it was and pursued war and economy to help it develop.
  • China developed based upon the unification of a 'great nation' status despite its development not being entirely ideological. German also had a similar scenario, utilizing racism for its development.

Democracy's role in developing an economy is practically non-existent.

This is why the above mentioned nations did not bother with a mandate from their people. Democracy and its relation to economic development are at best, tenuous.


Nations that advocate democracy became democratic at the end of their rise. The Chinese model is a prime example that shows democracy is not necessary for success.


Olsen, M. (2000)Power and Prosperity

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