This question has contemporary relevance, but it came to mind as I was reading Mass Flourishing, by Edmund Phelps, who won the Nobel in economics in 2006. Mass Flourishing, published in 2013, is subtitled How grass roots innovation created jobs, challenge and change.
“Political institutions arguably played a significant role in the creation of the modern economy. One of these was representative democracy, which arose rather close to the emergence of economic modernity” (p 92).
That challenged my prior view that political change favouring economic freedom, innovation and productivity growth came first, and that voting rights came later to redistribute the fruits of economic progress.
Phelps recognizes that democracy involves downside risks (e.g. tyranny of the majority, interest group politics) but gives plausible reasons why democracy may have helped promote economic growth:
- A democracy would push the public sector to support the interests of lower and middle classes, thus encouraging business activity (including grassroots innovation) and public education. By contrast an autocracy would tend to be more interested in serving landed interests, national prestige etc.
- Rule of the people tends to lend credibility to rule of law, thus reducing sovereign risk.
- Elected politicians have an incentive to heed voters, whereas autocrats may not even be aware of their interests or concerns.
However, in my view Phelps' line of argument runs into problems when he considers whether the mechanics of democracy occurred at the right time and place to trigger an explosion of economic dynamism. He looks at the experience of five countries: Britain, America, France, Belgium and Germany.
In respect of Britain, he refers to the revolution of 1688 as having given representation to new wealth and new cities, and the Reform Act of 1832 as extending the franchise to men without property. The Glorious Revolution didn’t establish democracy and the Reform Act was too late to be a trigger.
Phelps refers to the U.S. Constitution of 1788 as having created a government that was radically more representative than Britain’s parliament at that time. However, my American friends keep telling me that their Founding Fathers established a republic rather than a democracy.
The experience of France seems to support the hypothesis. Both democracy and dynamism were slow to arrive in France. The experience of Belgium was ambiguous.
German experience didn’t support the hypothesis. There was strong innovation in Germany in the latter half of the 19th century, but little democracy except at local levels.
Phelps’ conclusion suggests a smaller role for democracy than his original hypothesis:
“In any case, the reasonable inference is not that modern democracy caused the modern economy or vice-versa, but that both sprang from the same matrix of values and beliefs—the same culture” (p 96).
Joel Mokyr has emphasized the role of institutional adaptability, rather than democracy, in facilitating growth. He responds as follows to the observation that commercial energy was combined with stable rule by an exclusive elite in 18th century Britain:
“Yet British institutions also had to possess a built-in capability to adapt to radically changing circumstances, and every such adaptation led to further changes in the economic structure of Britain. It is this kind of dynamic that created the success that allowed the growth of useful knowledge and technological ingenuity to become the foundation of sustained economic development” (The Enlightened Economy, 2009, p 427).
The adaptations that Mokyr refers to include the reform of many institutions that had supported rent-seeking and redistribution. He suggests that by 1850, “the elite that ran British government no longer saw political power as a means to acquire more privileges”, but instead “made sure that no other political group would be able to do the same so it could keep what it already had” (p 395).
As noted at the beginning of this post, the question of whether democracy supports economic growth has contemporary relevance. Bill Easterly’s examination of economic growth experience in his book, The Tyranny of Experts, (discussed here) suggests that political leaders matter very little for either good or ill in driving economic growth. He argues that freedom promotes individualistic values that favour economic development. By contrast, autocrats tend to promote the interests of the kingdom (or state) above those of the individual and foster collectivist values that are inimical to economic development.
China’s experience of autocrats promoting limited economic freedom, which has resulted in a major growth dividend in recent decades, is interesting in that context. As in Germany in the latter part of the 19th century, the leaders of China may see a degree of economic freedom as a way to promote the interests of the state.
Finally, as a matter of empirics, there is evidence that if you classify countries as either democratic or non-democratic and control for other factors, the democratic countries have better growth performance. In a recent study covering 175 countries, Daron Acemoglu et al have found that democratizations increase GDP per capita by about 20 percent in the long run [JPE, 2019, 127 (1)].
Unfortunately, those findings do little to allay my concerns about the impact of interest group politics on future productivity growth in the western democracies. I will write more about that, and about Edmund Phelps views of possible causes of declining dynamism, in a later post.
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