There used to be a conventional wisdom that economic development will lead to democracy, as economic growth produces an educated and entrepreneurial middle class that, per Maslow’s pyramid, would demand control over its own [political] fate, raising the likelihood that effective political competitors will emerge.
However, a Hoover Institution article has already argued back in 2005 why this is not happening in certain countries that apply the « China model » (or « Singapore model ») for their development.
A further breakdown of the conventional rationale helps explain the issue:
- Economic growth increases citizens’ individual capacity for playing the political game.
It leads to an increase in the number of individuals with sufficient time, education, and money to get involved in politics- to increased investment in education, which benefits the opposition by producing more learned and sophisticated individuals (per Seymour Martin Lipset, late American political sociologist and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University).
- Economic growth expands the public square for strategic coordination.
Strategic coordination is the set of activities that people must engage in to win political power, e.g., disseminate information, recruite and organize opposition members, choose leaders, and develop a viable strategy to increase the group’s power and to influence policy.
Economic growth leads to urbanization and improvements in technology and infrastructure, which dramatically facilitate communication and recruitment by new political groups.
- Economic growth raises the stakes of the political game by increasing the spoils available to the winner.
With these in mind, it is not hard to detect what tactics authoritarian regimes would use to reap the benefits of economic development while evading any pressure to relax their political control. They use their policymaking power to rather set the rules of the game to raise the costs of political coordination/participation among the opposition without also raising the costs of economic coordination.
Specifically, this is done by carefully rationing/restricting a “coordination goods”—goods that are critical to political coordination but less important for economic cooperation (political rights, more-general human rights, press freedom, and accessible higher education), while creating a contented constituency of power brokers and military leaders, rendering political oppositions weak and dispirited.
Quoted examples include how
Beijing has run the gamut from creating a special Internet police unit to blocking access to Google’s English-language news service (China).
Vladimir Putin has placed all national television networks under strict government control (Russia).
Hugo Chávez banned news reports of violent protests or of government crackdowns (Venezuela).
Vietnamese government has imposed strict controls on religious organizations and branded the leaders of unauthorized religious groups (including Roman Catholics, Mennonites, and some Buddhists) as subversives (Vietnam).
Most coordination goods are defined in terms of negative freedom (basically it means governmental noninterference), such as minority groups’ freedom of voicing opinions that go uneasy with the majority, freedom from arbitrary arrest and the related protection of habeas corpus; the right to nondiscrimination; and the right to travel, both domestically and abroad; a diverse and largely unregulated press that serve to bring diverse groups together around common interests (the affirmative governmental actions in this area may include releasing what’s been centrally controlled, such as granting licenses to radio and TV frequencies, guaranteeing public access to those and other media, and translating official documents into regional languages).
A study referred to in the article shows that allowing freedom of the press and ensuring civil liberties, in particular, reduce the chances that an autocratic government will survive for another year by about 15 to 20 percent. The stark statistic that helps explain media and political suppression throughout the developing world. In contrast, there is little for the incumbent regime to fear from providing other public goods, such as primary education, public transportation, and health care.
Moreover, the study found that except at the highest levels of per capita income, middle income can be attained and sustained without civic-wide availability of coordination goods.
Lesson for the West as conclusion:
International development agencies (e.g., The US and the World Bank) must broaden foreign aid conditions for developing countries to include requirements of coordination good supply on the part of their citizens, such as basic civil liberties, press freedoms, and greater access to higher education.
In a word, they should make sure that human rights (housing, food, clothing, health care, etc.) and civil rights (e.g., individual freedom and the protection of both minority and majority interests) go hand in hand in the third world’s developments, for their authoritarian rulers typically confuse the latter with the former.
Specifically, broad access to higher education and graduate training is vital if citizens are to develop the skills to communicate, organize, and develop a political presence. Advanced education also helps create a large pool of potential leaders that balance shake the status quo and re-balance domestic political powers.
On this issue, however, I might personally add that education should not merely emphasize civil and political empowerment, as it is typically the case; rather, it needs to be broadened to include traditional/communal/theological ethical formations conducive to moral and civil virtues in political leaderships.
The historical exemplar of how puritanism is conducive to robust early American republicanism remain under-appreciated among political observers and policymakers worldwide, and the fact that emerging political opposition forces usually betray signs of undemocratic charismatic power-centralization, corruption, and political intolerance before they are even in actual power, should be factored in as a stock of criticism used by champions of the « China model » against the very idea of political liberalization.
Namely, on a personal note, political development in relation to a community’s well-being pertains not only to political liberalization; it must include political post-liberalization. This is what distinguishes chaotic liberal democracies from liberal democracies that have social cohesion.