Conventional wisdom has long assumed that economic liberalization undermines repressive regimes. Recent events, however, suggest that savvy autocrats have learned how to cut the cord between growth and freedom, enjoying the benefits of the former without the risks of the latter. Washington and international lenders should take note.
BRUCE BUENO DE MESQUITA is Chair of the Department of Politics at New York University and Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution. GEORGE W. DOWNS is Professor of Politics and Dean of Social Sciences at New York University.
RICHER BUT NOT FREER
Ever since Deng Xiaoping opened up China’s economy more than 25 years ago, inaugurating an era of blistering growth, many in the West have assumed that political reform would follow. Economic liberalization, it was predicted, would lead to political liberalization and, eventually, democracy.
This prediction was not specific to China. Until quite recently, conventional wisdom has held that economic development, wherever it occurs, will lead inevitably — and fairly quickly — to democracy. The argument, in its simplest form, runs like this: economic growth produces an educated and entrepreneurial middle class that, sooner or later, begins to demand control over its own fate. Eventually, even repressive governments are forced to give in.
The fact that almost all of the richest countries in the world are democratic was long taken as iron-clad evidence of this progression. Recent history, however, has complicated matters. As events now suggest, the link between economic development and what is generally called liberal democracy is actually quite weak and may even be getting weaker. Although it remains true that among already established democracies, a high per capita income contributes to stability, the growing number of affluent authoritarian states suggests that greater wealth alone does not automatically lead to greater political freedom. Authoritarian regimes around the world are showing that they can reap the benefits of economic development while evading any pressure to relax their political control. Nowhere is this phenomenon more evident than in China and Russia. Although China’s economy has grown explosively over the last 25 years, its politics have remained essentially stagnant. In Russia, meanwhile, the economy has recently improved even as the Kremlin has tightened the political reins.