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In answering the question of how the western democracy arose out of aristocratic oligarchy, Roger Congleton has served an intellectual feast. He augments the standard spatial decision framework to present an innovative model of constitutional bargaining between the king and the parliament that is then used to explain how political authority shifts. He highlights the role of ideological objectives and the decreasing costs of organizing interest groups to explain franchise extension. He subsequently embarks on a commanding historical narrative of comparative constitutional developments. He finally contributes to the empirical literature on the nexus between economic development and democratization. To recap, his propositions are that democratic governance in the West came about gradually through a series of parliamentary and electoral reforms that were the result of negotiations, and that the economic and constitutional liberalization of the 19th century were interdependent, determined by the same variables, although through different processes. The shift to liberal democracy consisted of a long series of small, largely peaceful, steps that unfolded together with important economic and ideological changes, and took a long time to complete. The book challenges conventionally held views of the emergence of western democracy:
“Sudden radical breaks with the past are not necessary for democracy to emerge from medieval parliamentary regimes, nor are class consciousness or civil wars necessary preconditions for liberal reform. Institutional flexibility, bargaining, and liberal interests are sufficient. The models suggest that peaceful lawful constitutional reforms are possible, and parliamentary democracy can emerge gradually as a series of constitutional reforms are adopted.” (p. 182)
Amongst other issues, one expects that several more studies will be published in the years to come to analyze some of the traditional Western democracies left out of the book, with France being an obvious candidate. In the meantime, taking stock from Congleton’s analysis, I have gone back to the birth of democracy to relate Congleton’s analysis and intuition to aspects of the emergence of the Athenian democracy, the predecessor and intellectual ancestor of modern democracy, and highlighted some stark differences from the period and institutions that motivated Congleton’s ideas. Congleton’s framework also offers insightful pointers for reflection on the expansion of democracy beyond the West.
I wish to thank Arye Hillman for conversations that helped shape my thoughts on the issues discussed in this paper.
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1 This is typically associated with Lipset (1959); for recent discussion and empirical results see amongst others Barro (1999), Borooah and Paldam (2007), Paldam and Gundlach (2008) and (2009), Papaioannou and Siourounis (2008).
2 The origins of this view can be found in North (1981); for a full formal account and econometric investigation see Acemoglu et al (2001), Rodrik et al. (2004), Acemoglu et al. (2005), who also offer a comparative review, and Acemoglu et al. (2008).
3 Przeworski and Limongi (1997) find that the level of economic development does not affect the probability of transitions to democracy but high income makes democratic regimes more stable. However, the validity of that conclusion was challenged by Boix and Stokes (2003) who found that economic development increases the probability that a country will undergo a transition to democracy More generally, Przeworski (2005) doubts whether existing theoretical models can identify the mechanisms that give rise to democracy – instead he is concerned with the question of whether democracies can survive once they are established. See also Cheibub et al (2010) for an insightful discussion in favour of a minimalist classification of democracy – dictatorship and critique of measures of democracy used in empirical studies.
4 That enfranchisement of the poor diminishes the risk of insurrection is an argument also pursued by Justman and Gradstein (1999) and Conley and Temini (2001). Bourguigon and Verdier (2000) study the complex dynamics of growth, inequality, franchise extension and investment in human capital financed by taxation. In the vein of Acemoglu and Robinson (2000), Ellis and Fender (2009) explore a growth model where the capital owning elite introduce democracy to ensure the credibility of labour market reforms that aim to redistribute to the workers by paying them the marginal product of labour.
5 For further elaboration of intra-elite division as a cause of franchise extension see Llavador and Oxby (2005) and Jack and Lagunoff (2006). Munshi (forthcoming) explains franchise extension without revolutionary threats or redistribution motives but through the presence of elite-pressure, large rents from office and evenly-balanced partisan competition. Like Congleton, Hoperdahl (2011) too emphasizes political exchanges and voluntary suffrage expansion.
6 See Held (2006).
7 Historians have pieced together the fragmentary written and archeological evidence to provide a coherent and detailed account of the emergence of the Athenian democracy and its structures. For a recent account see amongst others Ober (2008) and Cartledge (2009); see also the volume edited by Raaflaub et al. (2007) for a debate about the start and completion of the Athenian democratic transformation.
8 By the mid-5th century, pay for those serving in public office had been introduced. In comparison, the British equivalent evolution was considerably slower as property qualifications for the British MPs were scrapped in 1858 and pay was introduced in 1912.
9 See Morris (2004) and Ober (2010).
10 However, in practice the interplay of the usual electoral laws based on plurality or proportional representation formulas applied to constituencies of different size, may invalidate the principle of vote equality.
11 Fleck and Hannsen (2004) offer a formal model of the extension of voting rights in ancient Athens. Bitros and Karayiannis (2010) show how institutions and the moral norms of Athens were instrumental in her economic success, while Pitsoulis (2011) discusses of the origin and adoption of the majority rule.
12 For a review of the literature on sortition and the question of why a self-interested citizen may appoint government officials by lot rather than elections, see Tridimas (2012).
13 See Tridimas (2010) for a political economy examination of the 1974 Greek referendum that abolished the monarchy.
14 Examples of varying success are amongst others Iraq, Kenya, Lebanon and Northern Ireland. Tridimas (2011b) offers a public choice analysis of power-sharing arrangements based on election outcome under proportional representation.
15 A large volume of work has developed debating the issue and often reporting conflicting estimates; see Olson (1993), Przeworski and Limongi (1993), Perotti (1996), Wintrobe (1998), Tavares and Wacziarg (2001), Rodrik and Wacziarg (2005) and Collier and Hoeffler (2009).
16 Furthermore, Bjørnskov et al. (2010) report that both economic and democratic political institutions have a positive effect on happiness, where the latter effect is more pronounced in richer countries.
17 Hillman (2007) argues that autocrats do not have an “encompassing interest” in economic growth because their priority is the survival of their rule and security of office rents. The emergence of a middle class associated with economic development will lead to demand for accountability and honesty in government and political competition that would end autocratic rule. For the same reason autocrats do not have the incentive to provide quality education or health care. On the contrary, they encourage corruption because it redistributes income to public officials that are then expected to support the regime.
18 See Zhang (2011) for a detailed discussion with an application to communist China.
19 The post WWII democratization of Japan was also imposed by the USA, but it differs from current attempts in that Japan is a homogeneous nation, had pre-war democratic experience and built on pre-existing structures.
20 See also Lipset (1994) for a detailed survey of this and related points.
21 See amongst others Borooah and Paldam (2007), Persson and Tabellini (2007), Papaioannou and Siourounis (2008) and Gundlach and Paldam (2009). The opposing effects of natural resource abundance on regime stability are studied by Bjorvatn and Naghavi (2011): A dictator in a country rich in natural resources may be challenged by rival rent-seekers destabilizing the regime, but may also have enough revenue to buy out opposition groups increasing stability.