Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy

Acemoglu and Robinson are most well known for their book Why Nations Fail. This thought provoker post covers an earlier work, from 2006: Economic Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy. Parts of this book are heavy with the formulas; so those wary of economics and mathematics, and interested in more of the social sciences side of political science, the book is still recommended, but you may wish to selectively read what you find relevant.

The question:

  • "Why does a nondemocratic elite ever democratize? Since democracy will bring a shift of power in favor of the citizens, why would the elite ever create such a set of institutions? We argue that this is only because the disenfranchised citizens can threaten the elite and force it to make concessions. These threats can take the form of strikes, demonstrations, riots, and – in the limit – a revolution. Because these actions impose costs on the elite, it will try to prevent them. It can do so by making concessions, by using repression to stop social unrest and revolution, or by giving away its political power and democratizing." (p. xii)

On people power:

  • "The evidence is, therefore, consistent with the notion that most moves toward democracy happen in the face of significant social conflict and possible threat of revolution. Democracy is usually not given by the elite because its values have changed. It is demanded by the disenfranchised as a way to obtain political power and thus secure a larger share of the economic benefits of the system." (p. 29)

And, it limits:

  • "In our framework, democracy arises from conflict between elites and disenfranchised majorities who are prepared to accept democracy rather than something more radical because it gives them more political power than nondemocracy." (p. 35)

On policies and institutions:

  • "For us, the main difference between policies and institutions is their "durability" and the ability of institutions to influence the allocation of political power in the future. Policies are much easier to reverse, whereas institutions are more durable. Moreover, institutions determine how the political preferences of various groups are aggregated into social choices. Therefore, introducing a set of institutions today influences how powerful different social groups will be not only today but also tomorrow." (p. 177)

On the middle class:

  • "…the analysis in this chapter reveals that the middle class plays an important role in the emergence of democracy in a number of ways: (1) it can be the driving force for democracy, especially for the emergence of partial democracy; (2) it can be in favor of the poor being included in the political arena, facilitating a move from partial to full democracy; (3) perhaps most interesting, it can act as a buffer between the rich and the poor by ensuring that democracy will not be very antirich and, therefore, dissuading the rich from using repression or mounting coups; and (4) when it is in power together with the rich, it can play the role of softliners against repression and in favor of a transition to democracy, which is less costly for the middle class than for the rich." (p. 258)

The future of democracy:

  • "…the most important sources of extra power for the elites in democracy are their control of the party system and, thus, the political agenda and their ability to form an effective lobby against certain policies. Do we expect the elites to be able to do so more effectively in the future? There are two reasons for suspecting that the answer may be yes… If so, we might expect democracies to become less pro-majority in time… " (p. 359)
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