2004 April 03 Saturday
Low Per Capita Income Countries Never Remain Democracies

Jonah Goldberg reports on yet another reason why the prospects for democracy in Iraq are bleak.

More recently Adam Przeworski of New York University confirmed this truism by studying every attempted transition to democracy around the globe. He and his colleagues found that once a country passes $6,000 in per capita income it is virtually guaranteed to succeed in its transition to democracy. States between $3,000 and $6,000 have less than a 50-50 chance of staying democracies. And countries below $3,000 are almost bound to fail.

Jonah points out that Iraq's GDP is between $1,500 and $2,400 and that this does not bode well for the prospects of democracy in Iraq.

To build the kinds of institutions that Iraq would need to be able to succeed as a democracy would take decades. I see little sign of sufficient patience on the part of the America's politicians or people for that sort of thing. For this and other reasons I continue to be the camp of Pessimists on Muslim Democracy.

Update: Writing for Reason Michael Young, who also is opinion editor of Lebanon's Daily Star, argues that the main objective of the Bush Administration's invasion of Iraq is democratization of the Middle East.

The last pillar, however, was the most interesting, and went to the heart of the strategy adopted by Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld, Cheney, and, ultimately, Bush. By intervening in the relationship between the brutish Iraqi regime and its long-suffering subjects, the US adopted a policy of enforced democratization. As far as the Bush administration was concerned, a democratic Iraq at the heart of the Arab world could become a liberal beacon in the region, prompting demands for openness and real reform inside neighboring states. Ridiculous you say? The Syrian regime, faced in the past two weeks with protests by individuals seeking greater freedom and a revolt by disgruntled Kurds, would surely disagree.

This is where Clarke's allegations, and those of critics who see a disconnect between Al Qaeda and Iraq, are misleading. Iraq always was essential to the anti-terrorism battle precisely because victory there was regarded as necessary to transform societies from where terrorists, spawned by suffocating regimes, had emerged. One can disagree with the practicability of such a strategy, but it is difficult to fault its logic.

The biggest problem with Bush Administratration strategy against terrorism is that their course of action is very unlikely to result in a self-sustaining democracy in Iraq. It would take decades to bring about the depth of transformation in Iraqi society and in the Iraqi economy needed to make Iraq's democracy self-sustaining, let alone liberal. Iraq can not be used as a means to transform the other societies in the Middle East because a liberal Iraq as a beacon of transformation of the rest of the Middle East is not in the cards for a long time to come. The transformation of the Middle East into liberal democracies that will be less fertile ground for the recruitment of terrorists is therefore also not in the cards for a long time to come.

Another problem with this strategy is that relatively few Iraqis became terrorists even though they lived under a suffocating regime. By contrast, Saudi Arabia, while more suffocating to women, is less suffocating to men and yet lots of Saudi men have become terrorists. So the Bush Administration strategy doesn't seem like it is going to work - at least not by the mechanism of eliminating suffocating regimes.

However, having said all this there still might be a mechanism by which the Bush Administration strategy could work: the invasion and overthrow of multiple governments of overwhelmingly Muslim populations combined with the killing of many Muslim fighters who rush into the countries occupied by American troops might demoralize muslims and rob Islam of its appeal by making Islam seem like a loser religion. So US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan could conceivably demonstrate to Muslims that the US has both the ability and the will to defeat and kill any Muslim group that would attempt to stand up to the US and to the West. But that will only work if overwhelming force is used and sustained.

Mind you, I'd hate to rest all of a strategy against terrorism on such a hypothesized psychological mechanism which might not work for a number of reasons. A comprehensive strategy against terrorism ought to include a much better intelligence and covert operations capability, better border control, better immigration policy, an energy policy aimed at defunding the Wahhabis, and numerous other policy improvements. But military battlefields where Islamic Jihadis can test their mettle against US forces and lose decisively and repeatedly might have a longer term demoralizing effect that will decrease the appeal of Jihad. Then again, it might not. Anyone have an opinion to offer on this?

Update II: Steve Sailer provides yet another reason why it is unreasonable to expect democracy and freedom to take hold in Iraq.

Freedom or Dominance: I fear that one of the Administration's fundamental misconceptions about Iraq was the assumption that Arabs value freedom most of all. In reality, I suspect they prize dominance most highly We assumed we could hand them their freedom and they'd be grateful to us for our selfless sacrifice, or, at worst, appreciate our enlightened self-interest. But Arabs have no history of the powerful giving anyone their freedom, so they assume it is a trick and a trap. In Arab thought, the only way to prevent the dominant from exploiting you is to be the dominant one yourself.

It is a Western conceit that everyone shares the same values with the same relative ranking of values. It is foolish to think that everyone has the same values and that they are just being oppressed and prevented from expressing those values.

Update III: Here is an excerpt from Adam Przeworski's research on which the report above is probably based: A Flawed Blueprint: The Covert Politicization of Development Economics.

No democracy ever fell in a country with a per capita income higher than that of Argentina in 1975—US$6055. This is a startling fact given that throughout history about 70 democracies have collapsed in poorer countries. In contrast, 35 democracies spent a total of 1,000 years under more affluent conditions, and not one collapsed. Affluent democracies survived wars, riots, scandals, and economic and governmental crises.

The probability that democracy survives increases monotonically with per capita income. Between 1951 and 1999, the probability that a democracy would fall during any particular year in countries with per capita income under US$1,000 was 0.089, implying that their expected life was about 11 years. With incomes in the range of US$1001 to US$3000, this probability was 0.037, for an expected duration of about 27 years. Between US$3001 and US$6055, the probability was 0.013, which translates into about 78 years of expected life. And above US$6055, democracies last forever.

You might be wondering then: How did democracy survive in the United States in the 18th and 19th century when US per capita GDP was well below $3000? I think we have to do an adjustment for capital productivity. Basically, the living standards of even a messed up society can be higher than what Americans experienced in the 19th century because there are lots of cheap productivity-enhancing devices available today that will still enhance production in societies with a fair amount of corruption, less protection of property, and other shortcomings. Perhaps it is not the low per capita GDP itself that causes a democracy to fail but rather the same factors that cause the low per capita GDP also cause democracy to fail. A democratic society in the 19th century that didn't have those problematic factors present still would have had - at least by late 20th century standards - low per capita GDP. But it would have had the right cultural elements and other elements to maintain a democracy and to utilize scientific and technological advances.

Update IV: Writing June 2005 I now dismiss the idea that by use of overwhelming military force the United States is going to convince Muslims they have a loser religion. The Bush Administration's strategy is not going to work in Iraq either intentionally or by accident. The vast majority of the countries that have low per capita GDPs are not going to become successful democracies. Their populations lack the values and abilities and customs needed to make liberal democracy or even semi-liberal democracy work. We should reduce the risk of terrorism via a combination of layered defenses through better intelligence and covert operations, real border control. careful visa screening, information systems, and other means to make it harder for terrorists to reach and stay in the West. We should also accelerate technological developments that promise to obsolesce oil as a way to defund the Wahhabis.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2004 April 03 12:17 AM  Reconstruction and Reformation

Ray said at April 5, 2004 1:18 AM:

Well, Islamists will always have some appeal. But a lot of their (pre-war) appeal to the broader Arab world was based upon perceptions (fed by Saudi money) of a great victory in Afghanistan. We can at least quash that. For a good part of the 1980s, there was a "downmarket" option to college for young Saudis, Jordanians, and the like who couldn't get into university: they could go to Pakistan, parade around a bit, network, get paid to do it, and call it Jihad. Being perceived as losers on the battlefield won't destroy a movement with other bases for appeal (social services, being a viable alternative to throughly corrupt and oppressive governments, etc), but it would weaken it. If we do this simultaneously with pressuring governments like Mubarak's to loosen up on advocates of liberalization (generally a weaker, but still existing political force in those countries), we might change the political situation abroad -- maybe not to democracies, but at least to something sufficiently functional that their most promising and initiative-taking young people don't come here seeking to kill Americans. We could hardly have done worse than to maintain the status quo of around 2000.

Iraq: I get the feeling that we knew we had to deal with Saddam sooner or later, and given that we had to do so, trying to install a democracy would be a good idea. That said, I am quite worried about the way things are going over there. If Iraq lapses into theocracy (or Chechnya style anarchy), that would be quite a step in the wrong direction, and the precise reason we didn't overthrow Saddam back in 1991.

razib said at April 5, 2004 7:37 PM:

i don't buy the "loser religion" hypothesis because in the tradition of the abrahamic faiths-in the blood of the martyrs.... the destruction of the kingdom of judah strengthened judaism, the last attack by diocletion on christianity ended up securing for it its place in the subsequent regime of constantine. temporal defeats are just usually rationalized in the abrahamic religions as lack of personal devotion & fidelity-not the problem with god himself (this is contrast with pagan groups).

Randall Parker said at April 5, 2004 10:09 PM:

Razib if the "loser religion" hypothesis isn't going to work then the US involvement in Iraq may not provide any net long term benefit. The only reason I can then see a benefit is if it scares some other leaders in the region to be more cooperative with the US. I find it hard to tell how that is playing out because we can't know what would have happened in some parallel universe where we didn't invade Iraq.

Anothergenius said at May 4, 2004 6:41 PM:

Amy Chua' book WORLD ON FIRE express similar dismay about democracy.

TTT said at February 8, 2007 2:57 PM:

How do you account for India being a Democracy for 50+ years, despite a very low per-capita income, while Russia and China, both with incomes much higher than $6000, are nowhere close to democracy?

These are not anecdotal examples - these are 3 of the very biggest countries.

gentso said at July 3, 2015 1:17 PM:

Iraq has bigger problems than GDP. Iraqis have no shared sense of nationhood. And haven't since the nation was first formed.

Iraq was fashioned from three pre-existing Ottoman provinces after World War One when Britain exercised a League of Nations mandate in the region. The borders it drew around the state of Iraq did not correspond with the loyalties of the people within them. To the south, a native Shia population was split between Iraq and Kuwait. To the north, Kurdish lands were similarly splintered by arbitrary division. Kurds were unwilling to submit to Arab dominance, and Shiites were unwilling to be ruled by a Sunni minority. The British administrator of Iraq at the time observed, “What we are up against is anarchy plus fanaticism. There is little or no Nationalism.”

And nothing has changed. They've only remained a workable force at all through oppression. It doesn't change the fact that the Iraqi people are like a bunch of cats that someone managed to herd into a barn. They seemed orderly enough til someone (Bush) opened the barn door.

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