Political Reform

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It was predicted that economic liberalization is the first step towards political reform and hence to democratization. The fact that all the rich countries in the world are somehow democratic is to be taken as evidence to the validity of this predicament. The process works as follows: economic growth leads to urbanization and improvements in technology and infrastructure. These improvements facilitate communication and recruitment by new political groups. Growth also tends to lead to increased investment in education, which benefits the opposition by producing intellectual and sophisticated individuals from which it can recruit supporters. To remain secure, autocrats must raise the costs of political coordination among the opposition without also raising the costs of economic coordination too dramatically; since this could hinder economic growth and threaten the stability of the regime itself. The question is how autocrats managed to weaken the link between economic development and the path to political reform.

Oppressive regimes have discovered that they can suppress opposition activity without totally undermining economic growth by carefully rationing a particular subset to public goods, goods that are critical to political coordination but less important to economic cooperation. By restricting these goods, autocrats have insulated themselves from the political liberalization that economic growth promotes. Some of these restrictions could be internet-related activities, banning books on certain issues, altering facts in history curriculum books in schools and controlling the media coverage.

Historically, oppressive governments, seeking to banish those pushing for democratic change, have suppressed the provision of public goods, undermining their economies in the process. This was the dominant pattern in Asia and Africa until the 1980s, and it remains the case in many of the developing states in these two continents. Recently however, governments have discovered that by focusing their restrictions on coordination goods only, they can continue to provide those other services necessary for economic progress while minimizing the pressure for political change that such progress typically promotes.

Without a doubt, the availability of most public goods has at least some impact on the ability of opposition groups to organize and coordinate. But four types of goods play a fundamental role in such activities. These include political rights, more general human rights, press freedom, and accessible higher education.

Political rights include the right to vote and the rights to organize and demonstrate peacefully. And although political rights limit the state intervention rather than require state action, they do need the government to initiate some vital steps to enforce them, especially when they involve minority groups voicing opinions that are unpopular with the majority. As for more general human rights, these include freedom from arbitrary arrest and the related protection of the nondiscrimination based on religion, race, ethnicity and sex. A diverse and largely unregulated press and other forms of media is also vital to effective political opposition, since it enables the dissemination of information that can bring diverse groups together among common interests. Like political rights, the right to a free press is a largely negative one, since it generally requires the government not to interfere. It also requires affirmative steps however, such as granting licenses to radio and television frequencies, guaranteeing public access their id those and other media, and translating official documents into regional languages. Finally, access to higher education and training is essential if people hope to develop the skills to associate and develop a political presence. Advanced education also helps the creation of a large number of potential opposition leaders, thereby increasing the supply of rivals to the incumbent...
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