Home » General Interest » Main Implications: What have we learnt about democracy? By Roger R. Betancourt

Main Implications: What have we learnt about democracy? By Roger R. Betancourt

One implication seems to have unusual importance because it has gone unnoticed: whether one favors the electoral democracy view or the liberal democracy view is irrelevant for policy purposes. If one favors the latter view , one would want to promote democracy by promoting civil liberties as well as political rights but even if one favors the former view one would want to promote civil liberties as the statistical evidence suggest that progress on civil liberties is required before there can be progress on political rights! Furthermore, even if one is skeptical of statistical evidence, the historical evidence also supports this view. For instance, in 43 of 48 contiguous US states women acquired the property rights to control and own their earnings as well as to control their separate estates prior to acquiring the right to vote.

Another implication that seems worth noting is that economic development by itself is unlikely to bring about democracy in terms of political rights. In addition to the statistical evidence which supports the claim rather strongly when properly applied, we have cases of countries that have grown rapidly for several decades, e. g., China and Vietnam, without a corresponding substantial improvement in democratic outcomes in terms of political rights. These examples counteract obvious examples of the opposite situation, e.g., South Korea and Taiwan, where countries grew rapidly for a few decades and achieved high levels of democracy afterwards in terms of political rights.

With respect to the question of whether democracy leads to economic development, however, the implications are more positive. In addition to the indirect effect of democracy on growth through its reduction of the volatility of growth, there is also the finding that over the long-run democratization in terms of political rights during transitions from authoritarian regimes to democratic ones improves economic outcomes. Finally, improvements in the civil liberties associated with personal autonomy and individual rights (category G) have a robust positive effect on the level of economic development. Incidentally, it is not surprising that increases in the mobility of persons and the security of property rights, including those that protect human beings from the biases of their fellow citizens, are the only ones that manifest themselves statistically with the aggregate data used in prior studies for two reasons.

First and foremost, this is the category most directly associated with facilitating the economic activities all human beings have to engage in to provide for themselves and their families at all levels of development. All six of the other categories identified as components of the indexes discussed earlier are related to these fundamental economic activities only indirectly. Second, while all seven categories that make-up the components of Freedom House’s political rights and civil liberties indexes evolve slowly, this category (G) was the one that exhibited the widest range of variation in terms of improvement, deterioration and consecutive improvements among the 8 countries considered. Not much should be made of this second reason given the limited sample, but both reasons together yield our final implication. Namely, the importance of one component of democracy, capturing mobility rights and the security of property rights, as a development mechanism is a topic worthy of future research. Further information on these seven categories for other years and countries is available at


[D. Acemoglu, democracy, economic development, political rights, civil liberties, institutions, J. Robinson, political economy, dictatorship]

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