Is Economic Development a Prerequisite of a Functioning Democratic System?

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Is Economic Development a Prerequisite of a Functioning Democratic System?

In the world of political science, it is an inherent feature of the discipline that academics will seek a universally applicable theory to explain phenomena that occur within the political sphere. Seymour Martin Lipset did just that in his article Some Social Requisites of Democracy: Economic Development and Political Legitimacy, published in the American Political Science Review in 1959. In this, he made the claim that forms of behaviour in social groups have certain specific outcomes, which can be measured and tested by empirical means, and then generalised from to create a hypothesis. From this he derives that in a democratic state “one must be able to point to a set of conditions that have already existed” before the state became democratic that differentiated it from states that did not go down the path of democracy.1 According to Lipset, from this one can then deduce that those conditions led to the rise of democracy within those nations. Specifically, he applied this to examine the relationship between economic development and democratisation – as well as the long-term endurance of democratic regimes. By studying numerous occurrences of this instance, and the associated statistical data, he concluded that the former was necessary for the latter to occur. This essay seeks to challenge this theory and the assumptions and analyses on which it is based. It will firstly look at whether a correlation between economic development and democratic change or survival exists or whether or not real-world politics is simply too inconsistent and unpredictable to fit this kind of broad, homogeneity-seeking model, secondly at whether or not this correlation, if there is one, follows the cause-effect paradigm laid down by Lipset, thirdly, what the tools used for providing the empirical data used by this theory are and whether or not they impart problems within the process, and then finally whether or not this theory actually bears any specific relevance to democracy or is rather just a simple observation about changing political systems. Since this theory is supposedly a unifying one, a broad sample of countries that should be covered by the hypothesis will be looked at in this essay, mostly comprising the post-fascist and post-communist democracies in Europe, but also incorporating some African and Asian states. To examine the first area then – is there in actual fact a correlation between 1

Seymour Martin Lipset, ‘Some Social Requisites of Democracy: Economic Development and Political Legitimacy’, American Political Science Review, 53.1 (1959), 69-105 (p. 69)

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economic development and successful democracy? An initial examination of the evidence indicates that this seems to be the case. Generally speaking, regimes that are considered to be among the most democratic in the world2 and among the most free in the world, largely concentrated around areas in North America and Western Europe3 also tend to possess high levels of gross national product, either nominally or per capita.4 Democracy, for it to become stable and endure once it has become the sociopolitical system of a nation, seems to need the stability provided by a pre-existing, solid economic system. A common view among political scientists is that the modernisation of a nation takes on a linear, almost historically deterministic form – that is to say, economic development and democratisation are steps on the same path towards what political science theorists have defined as modernity, and one step, economic development, necessarily occurs before the second, the democratisation of the state.5 This in and of itself raises an immediate and problematic question – why are there certain states that possess an extremely high level of economic development yet have not made any manner of transition towards a free or democratic society, as is the case with the resource-rich states in the Arabian...
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