Show Summary Details
Democracies and Authoritarian Regimes

Democracies and Authoritarian Regimes (1st edn)

Andrea Kendall-Taylor, Natasha Lindstaedt, and Erica Frantz
Page of

Printed from Oxford Politics Trove. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a single article for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

Subscriber: null; date: 13 August 2022

p. 705. The Consequences of Democracy and Authoritarian Regimeslocked

p. 705. The Consequences of Democracy and Authoritarian Regimeslocked

  • Andrea Kendall-Taylor, Andrea Kendall-TaylorDirector of the Transatlantic Security Program, Center for a New American Security
  • Natasha LindstaedtNatasha LindstaedtProfessor of Government, University of Essex
  •  and Erica FrantzErica FrantzAssistant Professor, Michigan State University


This chapter reviews the latest research showing how regime type affects a host of outcomes of interest. It explains why democratic decline matters, examining the effects of democracy on a state's conflict propensity, levels of terrorism, economic growth, human development, corruption, and human rights. The chapter then highlights two key takeaways from the research on the consequences of regime type. First, hybrid regimes, or those countries that sit in the middle of the autocracy–democracy spectrum, perform less well than either their fully democratic or fully authoritarian counterparts in a number of areas. Second, research suggests that democracies outperform dictatorship on almost every indicator examined. Ultimately, the academic record demonstrates that even after one sets democracy's intrinsic value aside, government is better when it is more democratic. Although democratic decision-making can be slower, this process is more likely to weigh risks, thereby avoiding volatile and ruinous policies.

So far we have focused on defining different types of political systems. We discussed how to distinguish democracy from autocracy and the rising prevalence of hybrid regimes, or those governments that combine democratic practices with authoritarian tendencies. These definitions are important for theoretical and methodological reasons. And, as we discuss in this chapter, they also have practical importance. Democracy, autocracy, and hybrid systems constitute very different ways of organizing politics—of selecting leaders, processing conflict, and making and implementing decisions. As we will make clear, differences in a country’s institutional arrangements lead to vastly different political, economic, security, and social outcomes.

Understanding the differences that regime type fosters is important given current debates within Western governments and societies about the importance of supporting democracy, both at home and abroad. Since 9/11 (when the United States was hit by a massive terrorist attack by the terror network Al Qaeda in 2001), and particularly in the wake of the Arab Spring, enthusiasm for democracy support has waned among many established Western democracies. The spread of conflict, including in Syria, Libya, Yemen, and Ukraine; fragile governance in Afghanistan and Iraq; and sustained threats from terrorist groups, such as the so-called Islamic State, have shifted Western focus to security and stability. For example, U.S. concerns over counter-terrorism, intelligence sharing, basing, and overflight rights, along with the perception that autocracy equals stability, are currently topping democracy and human rights considerations. The election in 2016 of U.S. President Trump, who has lavished praise on authoritarian leaders and openly questioned the notion that the United States should stand up for democracy and human rights, has also raised questions about its commitment to supporting these values. p. 71In short, the last decade has seen Western policymakers regularly prioritize stability and security concerns over cultivating respect for democratic principles and practices.

Declining enthusiasm for democratic development has not been confined to the West. Many citizens in non-democracies have also tempered their interest in democratization. The rise of violent extremism and sectarian conflict in the Middle East has fed into a broader narrative, fuelled by authoritarian-directed propaganda, that democracy leads to chaos and the breakdown of security. In the Middle East, many citizens appear more willing to trade political and civil liberties for the promise of averting the turmoil that grew out of the Arab Spring. Moreover, autocratic leaders have stepped up their efforts to highlight the polarization of U.S. politics as evidence that democracy does not work. In China, for example, the main state-run news agency Xinhua argues that the Chinese system of governance leads to ‘social unity’ rather than the divisions that it claims are unavoidable consequences of Western democracy. Chinese state media hold up Trump’s America as an example of what Xinhua refers to as ‘the endless political backbiting, bickering and policy reversals, which are the hallmarks of liberal democracy’.1

The debate about the trade-offs between democracy and autocracy is not new. Since World War II, a number of prominent scholars and policymakers have argued that autocracy has a number of advantages over democracy, particularly in low-income countries. These voices posit that democracy in such contexts breeds economic stagnation and civil unrest. The impressive rise of China and the strong growth performance of many past autocracies, including the ‘Asian Tigers’ in South Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore, and Chile under Agosto Pinochet, further popularized the notion that autocracy is beneficial (and even desirable) in certain settings. Although the end of the Cold War and subsequent rise in the number of democracies worldwide temporarily softened deliberations about democracy’s merits, the debate is back. Growing global turmoil and resurgent authoritarian powers have sharpened the discourse and raised the salience of these discussions.

The debate about the importance and efficacy of democracy is not purely academic either. The momentum of any one side in this argument has implications for how the West approaches international affairs, including its support for political and economic development in the developing world. It is therefore important to understand and articulate what we know about the benefits and shortcomings of democracy relative to authoritarianism. Are there compelling reasons to prioritize the development of democracy? If so, what are they? The goal of this chapter is to present the research that should shape our thinking on these timely and important conversations.

Perhaps not surprisingly, there is a long tradition of scholarship examining the effects of democracy on a country’s economy, security, and society. Scholars from disciplines including international relations, comparative politics, political theory, economics, development, and sociology have studied the implications of regime type. Many have set forth arguments about the intrinsic value of democracy. Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen, for example, argues that democracy is a universal value. For Sen, not only should people be afforded freedom in human life, but the practice of democracy p. 72is critical because it ‘gives citizens an opportunity to learn from one another and helps society to form its values and priorities’ (Sen, 1999, p. 10).

Though the arguments about democracy’s intrinsic value are important and compelling, in this chapter we focus on the evidence that people marshal in making more instrumental claims about what democracy can (and cannot) deliver. In other words, our emphasis here is not on the value of democracy itself, but whether it is a means to other more measurable outcomes. To that end we specifically discuss the consequences of democracy for a government’s propensity to fight wars, likelihood of experiencing internal conflict (or civil war), levels of terrorism, economic growth and development, corruption, and human rights. In the next section we highlight two key themes that emerge from scholarship on the implications of regime type that you will see repeated through the chapter. We then turn to more in-depth discussions of democracy’s effect on key outcomes of interest.

Key themes

Much research examining the implications of regime type is contested. With the exception of the democratic peace theory—which posits that democracies do not go to war with other democracies (and that we discuss at greater length)—research on the consequences of regime type has yielded conflicting results. Some of the inconsistency in the empirical analysis stems from differences in research design and the measurement of key variables across studies. This variation makes it hard to evaluate competing claims and has contributed to a good deal of confusion with respect to how regime type affects a host of outcomes of interest. In the last ten years, however, research on the consequences of regime type has evolved and there are two key takeaways we wish to highlight.

First, studies that use a continuous approach to disaggregating political systems show that hybrid regimes, or those countries that sit in the middle of the autocracy–democracy spectrum, perform less well than either their fully democratic or fully authoritarian counterparts in a number of areas. The countries in the ‘messy middle’ are particularly vulnerable to insecurity, including from repression, terrorism, and prospects for internal conflict (Boswell and Dixon, 1990; Muller and Weede, 1990; Hegre, 2001; Fearon and Laitin, 2003). They are also the least durable (Gurr, 1974; Gates et al., 2006; Knutsen and Nygard, 2015) and accordingly most volatile regime type (Epstein et al., 2006). Full autocracies and consolidated democracies have internally consistent institutional arrangements, which create a self-enforcing equilibrium. The inconsistency and incoherence created by hybridism, in contrast, creates challenges in terms of security. Hybrid systems lack the benefits of democracy that encourage citizen satisfaction and therefore stability, such as avenues for citizens to participate and articulate their preferences. At the same time, they do not have the concentrated power and repressive capacity that facilitates control and stability in full autocracies.

Some scholars and policymakers have interpreted the ‘messy middle’ argument to mean that political liberalization—or movements from autocracy towards greater democracy—will unleash political violence and deteriorate government performance. p. 73Political liberalization, the argument goes, disrupts the institutional procedures of a transitioning state. Samuel Huntington (2006), for example, argued that the process of democratization is associated with mass mobilization, which can trigger violence if the political institutions are not prepared to accommodate this level of participation. The instability surrounding the Arab Spring has given this view greater credence in the minds of many. Protesters’’ efforts to topple long-standing dictators in Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and Syria unleashed instability and violence that continue to plague the Middle East and North Africa. Indeed, full autocracies rarely become mature consolidated democracies overnight. Transitioning countries typically pass through the messy middle where mass politics mixes with authoritarian elite politics—generating a view that democratization produces instability.

We offer a note of caution when drawing such sweeping conclusions. Making the argument that political liberalization triggers instability requires disentangling it from hybridism (Hegre, 2001). Our discussion in Chapter 4 underscored that not all countries that are categorized in the middle range of democracy indicators should be considered ‘in transition’, as many become entrenched in a more permanent state of hybridism. Likewise, some countries in the messy middle may be backsliding from democracy to autocracy. In other words, countries that lie in the mid-range of the democracy–autocracy spectrum include hybrid regimes, liberalizing states, and backsliding states. We can reasonably expect the behaviour of these types of states to differ. Recent studies seeking to disentangle these dynamics find little empirical support for the notion that democratization raises a country’s risk of civil war. Empirical studies show that democratizing countries have only a marginally higher share of conflict onset during the transition compared to years without transitions (Gleditsch and Ruggeri, 2010). Before making broad conclusions about the risks associated with political liberalization, more research is needed. For example, are some liberalization processes—perhaps those that occur ‘organically’ and without international intervention or that occur gradually—less likely to lead to instability?

Second, studies that use a categorical approach to disaggregate political systems (such that democracies lie in one category and dictatorships in the other) find that democracies outperform dictatorship on almost every indicator examined. Democracies are less likely to fight inter-state wars against other democracies (Levy, 1988). They are less likely to employ repression against their citizens than autocracies, and civil wars in democracies are comparatively less lethal (Davenport, 2007; Gleditsch, Hegre, and Strand, 2009). Most recent research indicates that democracies grow their economies at a rate that is at least on par with dictatorships and that the growth they produce is of higher quality—both less volatile and more likely to benefit the people they govern. This suggests that societies that feature free and fair elections are safer and more prosperous, and their citizens enjoy a higher quality of life.

The superior performance of democracy relative to dictatorship raises a number of critical questions and implications. How should policymakers approach full dictatorships, such as those in the Middle East or Central Asia? If, as some research suggests, movement towards hybridism ups the chance of internal conflict and insecurity, should political liberalization be avoided? Should we reinforce the dictators in office to lessen p. 74the chance of turmoil? Or is this view short-sighted? If democracy delivers better outcomes for the people living under these regimes and enhances a country’s prospects for prosperity over the long-term, should we work to encourage democratic development to avoid repeated cycles of instability?

These issues are neither easy to address nor straightforward in their response. A host of additional factors, including national security interests, culture, and past (in)experience with democracy often further complicate the picture. However, here we present the cutting-edge research that should shape our thinking on these important questions. We provide a more in-depth discussion of the research on the effects of regime type on a state’s conflict propensity, levels of terrorism, economic and human development, corruption, and human rights.

Regime type and conflict

Inter-state war

One of the most important and broadly agreed upon findings in political science is that democracies almost never go to war with other democracies (Doyle, 1986; Maoz and Russett, 1993; Russett, 1994). Known as the ‘democratic peace’, the idea originated in the work of the eighteenth-century philosopher Immanuel Kant. Since that time the empirical evidence in support of the democratic peace has been so consistent that the finding comes as close to the only ‘empirical law’ as anything we have in international relations (Levy 1988). Although there is disagreement about why it works, academics share the belief that the effect of system type is causally meaningful: there is something about the internal makeup of democratic states that keeps them from fighting one another.

The democratic peace is not only theoretically significant, but also has important practical applications. If the argument is correct, then the spread of democracy across the globe should dramatically reduce the incidence of inter-state conflict. Several U.S. presidents, from Woodrow Wilson to Bill Clinton, used the idea of the democratic peace to justify their efforts to enlarge the sphere of democratic rule. And indeed the rise in the number of democracies during the third wave of democratization has been accompanied by a decline of inter-state conflict, particularly after the end of the Cold War.

Scholars have proposed several explanations for why democracy reduces the chance of conflict between these like-minded states. The first group of explanations is normative, meaning they stem from the values and behavioural norms associated with democracy. Proponents of these explanations start from the premise that citizens in democracies are normatively opposed to violence. Writing in 1795, for example, Kant posited that citizens are more conflict averse than leaders, because it is the people who tolerate the direct costs of fighting. Because citizens have more influence over policy in democracies compared to autocracies, democratic states should be less inclined toward war. According to Kant, ‘If … the consent of the citizens is required to decide whether or not war is to be declared, it is very natural that they will have great hesitation in p. 75embarking on so dangerous an enterprise. For this would mean calling down on themselves all the miseries of war … But under a constitution where the subject is not a citizen, and which is therefore not republican, it is the simplest thing in the world to go to war’ (1991, 100).

In the past few decades, scholars refined the initial argument that democracies are inherently more peaceful than autocratic states. It turns out that democracies actually fight as many wars as non-democracies; it is only when they interact with one another that peace emerges. The underlying ideas are that people in democracies solve domestic disagreements without resorting to violence, and their leaders are accustomed to the negotiated trade-offs of shared power. Because democracies expect other democracies to externalize these same peaceful norms, they trust that they will not be attacked by other democracies and shape their behaviour accordingly (Doyle, 1986; Maoz and Russett, 1993; Risse-Kappen, 1995; Russett, 1994). When democracies engage with authoritarian states, in contrast, they are willing to set aside their aversion to violence or their respect for other points of view, because they lack faith that the other side will share these common values. As stated by Maoz and Russett (1993, p. 625), ‘when a democratic state confronts a nondemocratic one, it may be forced to adapt to the norms of international conflict of the latter lest it be exploited or eliminated by the nondemocratic state that takes advantage of the inherent moderation of democracies’.

Shared democracy might also reduce the risk of conflict because democratic citizens are morally averse to attacking fellow democracies (Doyle, 1983; Tomz and Weeks, 2013). According to this view, people in democracies are morally reluctant to overturn policies that citizens of other democracies have chosen freely. Coercively interfering with another democracy would, by this argument, count as an illegitimate assault on the freedom and self-determination of individuals. In contrast, democratic publics might have fewer moral qualms about using force to reverse the will of a dictator who has imposed foreign and domestic policies without popular consent.

There are several criticisms of normative explanations for the democratic peace. One of the most common critiques is the observation that history is replete with examples of democratic states following policies at odds with the normative argument. Several democracies have, for example, pursued imperialistic policies or initiated wars against weak non-democracies. These actions are hard to reconcile with the normative perspective that posits that democracies only resort to realist strategies when confronted by a non-democratic opponent who threatens their existence (Bueno de Mesquita et al., 1999).

Other scholars, therefore, have advanced structural theories of the democratic peace. Proponents of this perspective hold that democracies are more deliberate in their decision making than autocracies because democratic institutions slow the mobilization process for war. Democratic leaders have to secure the support of a variety of stakeholders such as the legislature, political bureaucracies, and key interest groups. Democratic constraints, therefore, preclude unilateral action by leaders, reduce the likelihood of a surprise attack (Russett, 1994), and prolong the mobilization process, providing diplomats with time to pursue non-military solutions to disputes.

Structural theories also posit that democratic institutions reduce the risk of war between democracies because they provide transparency and allow leaders to credibly p. 76signal their intentions, which lower the chance of escalation and avoidable military conflict (Fearon, 1994; Schultz, 2001). Democratic leaders can more credibly signal their preferences than autocrats because they face greater audience costs, or the risk that citizens can and will punish leaders—ultimately by removing them from office—for backing down from public threats. When a leader’s threats are credible, it facilitates diplomats’ ability to negotiate a settlement. Such credibility also reduces the prospects that an adversary will miscalculate, including by taking additional escalatory steps that can spiral unnecessarily into military conflict.

A final category of explanations of the democratic peace centre on deterrence (Bueno de Mesquita et al., 1999; Reiter and Stam, 1998). Proponents of this perspective contend that democracies are unattractive targets because they are more effective at fighting wars than autocracies. Democratic leaders may be more likely to be ousted from office in the event of an unsuccessful war than autocrats, who can rely more heavily on the provision of patronage to their key backers to make up for any discontent over a failed foreign adventure (Bueno de Mesquita, 1999). Democratic leaders therefore expend more effort in war fighting than their authoritarian counterparts. For this reason, democracies are simultaneously unlikely to be chosen as targets by other democrats—who recognize other democracies as more formidable adversaries than autocracies—and unlikely to wage wars against democracies because they are less certain of winning.

While the democratic-peace hypothesis is widely accepted, there is still controversy concerning the possibility that the process of democratization may trigger war. In 2005, Mansfield and Snyder argued that democratizing countries are more war prone than full democracies. They contend that leaders in democratizing states unleash nationalist forces to smooth the transition away from autocracy and reassure elites that their interests will be protected. According to Mansfield and Snyder, ‘nationalism is an ideology with tremendous appeal for elites whose privileges are threatened. It can be used to convince newly empowered constituencies that the cleavage between the privileged and the masses is unimportant compared to the cleavages that divide nations, ethnic groups, or races’ (p. 2). The uptick in nationalism, in turn, triggers aggressive international behaviour. Numerous scholars, however, have questioned the validity of their results (McFaul, 2007; Narang and Nelson, 2009). Michael McFaul (2007), in particular, underscores that it is not democratization per se, but instead, ‘failed democratic transitions under very special circumstances [that] lead to war some of the time’ (p. 161).

Beyond examining differences in conflict propensity across the binary democracy–autocracy divide, scholars studying authoritarianism have argued that certain categories of autocracies are more belligerent than others. In particular, research shows that personalist dictatorships are the most conflict prone of any other regime type (Kendall-Taylor, Frantz, and Wright, 2017). As the adventurism of Saddam Hussein, Idi Amin, and Kim Jong-un suggests, the lack of accountability that personalist leaders face translates into an ability to take risks that dictators in other systems simply cannot afford. For this reason, personalist dictatorships are more likely than other regime types to be involved in inter-state conflict and initiate conflicts with democracies (Reiter and Stam, 1998).

Part of the reason for these dynamics is that personalist dictatorships generate the fewest audience costs of any political system (Weeks, 2008). Democratic leaders are p. 77accountable to the majority of the voting age public. And within other authoritarian settings, single party leaders are accountable to the ruling party, military rulers the military, and monarchs the extended royal family. Personalist leaders, in contrast, rely on a very small clique of family or loyal friends to maintain control. With such minimal restraint from elites and the public, they have substantial latitude to initiate provocations without the risk of being punished for their words or actions. Moreover, personalist leaders are also prone to receive incomplete or inaccurate information because their ‘yes men’ fear reprisal for passing less than optimal news. Equipped with skewed perceptions of reality, personalist dictators are the most prone to miscalculation and other policy mistakes that raise the risk of war (Frantz and Ezrow, 2011).

The experience of Russia demonstrates the connection between personalism and aggressive foreign policy (Kendall-Taylor et al., 2016). Though Putin’s involvement in Crimea in 2014 and Syria in 2015 may have been based on strategic concerns, because Putin faces few constraints on his power, he is able to take on much more risk to achieve strategic goals. Along with greater control over political elites in Russia, Putin also has almost total control over the media. This ensures that the public only hears a specific narrative of foreign affairs. The public’s lack of access to alternative information and Putin’s eliminatation of any voices that might oppose him have facilitated his ability to pursue the foreign policy of his choosing.

The personalization of politics in China under Xi Jinping also underscores a similar cause for concern. During his time in power as President and General Secretary of the Communist Party, Xi has sidelined his political opponents by using an aggressive anti-corruption campaign targeting potential political rivals. This campaign and a number of other recent actions have enabled Xi to amass a great deal of power, comparable to Mao Zedong. As a result of Xi’s growing power, China has pursued an increasingly aggressive posture in the South China Sea. Research on the perils of personalism suggest that if Xi continues to personalize the Chinese political system, he will likely engage in more aggressive action and rhetoric in the South China Sea (Kendall-Taylor et al., 2016).

Intra-state war

While the frequency of inter-states wars has declined during the last several decades, the number of internal armed conflicts has risen, with a particular uptick since 2010. In 2015, for example, there were fifty armed-conflicts between governments and rebel groups—the second highest number of conflicts in a given year since data are available.2 The highest number of internal conflicts (fifty-two) occurred in 1991, during the upheaval that accompanied the end of the Cold War and communism’s collapse. Intra-state wars clearly entail significant violence and devastation for the countries and citizens experiencing them. The particularly brutal civil war in Syria, for example, has killed upwards of 400,000 people since the war started in 2011. Even beyond human life, internal conflict and its aftermath corrode virtually every aspect of society: law and order, human rights, socio-economic development, education, basic health services, and the environment.p. 78

Not only are internal conflicts devastating for the countries they take place in, they also pose a significant challenge for the international community. The United Nations and other multilateral institutions tasked with addressing violence, such as the African Union (AU) and the Organization of American States (OAS), are struggling to fulfil their mandates. More specifically, the growing number of internal conflicts, combined with a multitude of competing priorities and agendas, has meant that global demand for peacekeeping is exceeding global willingness and capacity to provide monetary or operational support for peace operations. Moreover, the rise in intra-state conflict is producing an unprecedented surge of refugees. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported that at the end of 2015 the number of displaced people reached 65.3 million, or 1 out of every 113 people on earth.3 Today, the number of refugees has reached the highest level in history, even surpassing post-World War II numbers, when the world was struggling to come to terms with one of the most devastating events in history.

Given the upward trend in the number of intra-state wars and their very significant implications, what do we know about how regime type affects the prevalence of these events? There is broad consensus that hybrid regimes, or those countries that mix democratic institutions with authoritarian tendencies, are most susceptible to internal war (see e.g. Hegre 2001; Muller and Weede, 1990). The relationship between regime type and internal conflict, therefore, resembles an inverted ‘U-shape’ in which a state’s likelihood of internal war is highest at middling levels of democracy. Full democracies afford opportunities for groups to pursue their aims by nonviolent political means, and hence provide plausible substitutes for violence. Full autocracies also experience relatively few intra-state wars because they respond to dissent with harsh repression, making it difficult for insurgents to organize and mobilize. Hybrid regimes, in contrast, feature enough repression to create grievances that induce groups to take action and enough openness that such groups can organize and engage in activities against the government. Some studies have questioned this finding on methodological grounds (Vreeland, 2008), but subsequent research addressing this concern still finds an inverted U-shaped relationship between levels of democracy and internal war onset (Gleditsch and Ruggeri, 2010). In other words, due to the simultaneous weakness of both democratic and repressive institutions, hybrid systems are more prone to internal conflict than full democracies or full autocracies.

Regime type and terrorism

Since 9/11 one of the primary arguments of Western democracy advocates has been that democratization will stem a country’s production of terrorists and terrorist groups. As democracy spreads, the thinking goes, discontented citizens will have more constructive outlets for political grievances and opportunities to express their views through the p. 79political process, alleviating their need to use violence to achieve their goals (Crenshaw, 1981; Eubank and Weinberg, 1994; 1998; 2001; Eyerman, 1998; Li, 2005). U.S. President George W. Bush made this logic explicit in a speech in 2005. ‘When a dictatorship controls the political life of a country, responsible opposition cannot develop, and dissent is driven underground and toward the extreme. And to draw attention away from their social and economic failures, dictators place blame on other countries and other races, and stir the hatred that leads to violence.’ U.S. President Barak Obama shared these views. His administration’s National Strategy for Counterterrorism stated in 2011 that ‘promoting representative and accountable governance is a core tenet of U.S. foreign policy and directly contributes to our counterterrorism goals’ (White House 2011, pp. 4–5).

Does greater democraticness make a country less likely to produce or experience terrorism? The prevailing wisdom from academic literature indicates no. In fact, a majority of empirical studies published in the last fifteen years generally shows that democracies experience more terrorism than autocracies (Eubank and Weinberg, 1994, 2001; Weinberg and Eubank, 1998; Pape, 2003; Chenoweth, 2010). However, a number of recent studies suggest that the relationship between regime type and terrorism is somewhat more nuanced. In keeping with one of the key themes in this chapter, there is some evidence that the relationship between regime type and terrorism is non-linear, with hybrid regimes and new democracies experiencing more terrorism than full autocracies or full democracies. We discuss these findings in greater detail.

According to most scholars, terrorism is ‘the threatened or actual use of illegal force and violence by a non-state actor to attain a political, economic, religious, or social goal through fear, coercion, or intimidation’ (Global Terrorism Database).4 Potential terrorists hold policy preferences that differ from the state and are commonly more extreme than those of the general population (Lake, 2002). Because they cannot mobilize broad support for their positions and are weak relative to states they oppose, terrorists seek political change by targeting the civilian population with violence. In many ways, terrorism may be viewed as one part of a larger repertoire of political contention (Chenoweth, 2013; Ash, 2016).

There are a number of explanations for why democracies are more prone to terrorist activity than autocracies. The first argument suggests that democratic norms and institutions create a more permissive environment for terrorism than closed authoritarian systems. Democracies are likely to experience more frequent terrorist attacks because greater executive constraints and preservation of individual rights provide a more hospitable environment for terrorism than is found in more repressive environments (Li, 2005; Pape, 2003). Democratic freedoms, such as freedoms of movement, association, and expression, provide opportunities for groups to form, operate, recruit, and coordinate terrorist activities without fear of intrusion from the governments they oppose. Moreover, expansive and secure civil liberties hinder democratic governments’ ability to suppress discontented groups. The political and civil liberties that democracies extend to their citizens mean that there are greater restrictions on policing, as well as legal frameworks that make it more difficult to convict terrorists, lowering the costs p. 80of conducting terrorist activities. Autocrats, in contrast, have nearly unlimited discretion to target and repress potential terrorists.

Likewise, freedom of the press—a core feature of democracies—creates incentives for terrorists to target such states. This is because market-driven media companies are the most enthusiastic in reporting about violent events, providing free publicity to terrorist groups and exacerbating the fear these groups intend to create (Crenshaw, 1981; Hoffman, 2006; Gadarian, 2010). Democracies place fewer restrictions on the media and often produce more sensationalist news coverage, which might provide more extensive attention to terrorist events than would occur in closed authoritarian settings.

Not only do the institutional features of democracies make them more vulnerable to terrorist activity, but terrorists may also be more likely to target them because democracies are more likely to make concessions. Democracies are more accountable and responsive to domestic pressures for policy change, making them more likely to modify policy as a result of violence (Ezrow, 2017). Moreover, democratic publics are unlikely to tolerate the costs imposed by suicide terrorist attacks and more likely to push for changes in state policy that will lessen the likelihood of future attacks (Pape, 2003). Although voters may not share the policy preferences of terrorist groups, terrorist attacks can lead to changes in government policy consistent with terrorist goals. For example, one of the stated intentions of Al Qaeda prior to the 2001 attacks was removal of U.S. troops from Saudi Arabia. Nearly all U.S. troops were removed by 2003.

Research on regime type and terrorism has recently moved beyond the dichotomous classification of regime type. A number of studies now suggest that the relationship between democracy and terrorism is nonlinear (Kurrild-Klitgaard et al., 2006; Abadie, 2006; Chenoweth, 2010). Consistent with the ‘messy middle’ argument we discussed, these studies show that it is neither the freest nor the most repressive states that experience the most terrorism, but rather those in the middle of this spectrum. This implies that countries experiencing political transitions from autocracy to democracy are particularly prone to terrorism (Chenoweth, 2010). Political transitions may heighten opportunity, unleash long-standing grievances, and trigger competing terrorist organizations to compete with one another for influence in a newly democratic environment (Chenoweth, 2010). Similarly, there is evidence that new democracies are especially vulnerable to terrorism (Eyerman, 1998; Piazza, 2013). Terrorist organizations view new democracies as fragile and less capable of countering their actions (Eyerman, 1998). Also, in the earliest days of democracy, groups with grievances may maintain their previous approach of using violence to achieve their objectives. It takes time for such groups to recognize the utility of eschewing armed struggle in favour of nonviolent political engagement through democratic institutions. Advanced democracies, in contrast, generally do not suffer from high levels of terrorism unless they interfered in other countries’ affairs through military intervention or occupations, in which case such countries often become targets of transnational terrorism (Chenoweth, 2013; Pape, 2003; Savun and Phillips, 2009).

It is important to note in closing this section that the types of countries most likely to experience terrorism may be changing (Chenoweth, 2013). Although consolidated democracies still experience several hundred attacks per year, this figure is lower than p. 81in past decades, indicating that robust democracies are indeed becoming more immune to terrorism over time. Only a very few advanced democracies (such as Israel) continue to experience high numbers of terrorist acts. Instead, factionalized democracies (such as India), partial autocracies (such as Algeria and Pakistan), and occupied countries (such as Iraq and Afghanistan) have become the most frequent targets. This change is an interesting and important puzzle for scholars to explore. Future research will need to examine what explains the shift from terrorism in democracies to terrorism in semi-democratic and non-democratic contexts, especially after 9/11.

Regime type and economic performance

Since the 1950s, a number of prominent scholars have maintained that authoritarian regimes are better equipped than democracies to promote growth and development. The logic is that authoritarian regimes are free from constraints from both the legislature and their citizens, allowing them to pursue unpopular but growth-inducing economic policies. China’s impressive growth record since the late 1970s has fanned support for the merits of authoritarian-led economic development. Likewise, the rapid economic growth of several East Asia autocracies (e.g. South Korea, Singapore, and Taiwan), Chile under Augusto Pinochet, and Rwanda under Paul Kagame have further popularized the argument that strong, technocratic governance, insulated from the chaos of democratic politics is the best way to pursue growth. Many politicians, therefore, have come to view the ‘authoritarian advantage’ as an unfortunate fact of life and often use this premise as part of the justification for supporting dictatorship in the developing world. The implication is that democracy is a luxury that countries can afford only after the difficult task of development is complete.

Despite these popularly held views, the overall body of theoretical and empirical research examining the effect of regime type on growth is actually quite contested. Starting in the 1950s, the message was that autocracies outperform democracies (Huntington, 2006). Subsequent research, however, found that autocracies have no economic advantage (Diamond, 2008; Tsebelis, 2002; Przeworski et al., 2000; La Porta et al., 1999; Barro, 1996). Still others studies have concluded that democracy has a positive effect on economic outcomes, particularly when its indirect effects on growth—through democracy’s positive effect on education, health, and life expectancy, for example—are taken into account (Knutsen, 2012; Baum and Lake, 2003). Here we present the arguments made for and against democracy as a growth stimulus and evaluate the competing claims.

The authoritarian advantage

A large body of research posits that authoritarian regimes are better equipped to drive economic growth and development. These arguments generally stem from the notion that is easier for autocrats to pursue growth-maximizing policies because they do not face the same pressure for re-election as their democratic counterparts. Instead, p. 82authoritarian leaders are insulated from inefficient public demands, are able to impose publicly unpopular programmes, and can avoid the policy paralysis that often plagues democratic decision-making.

Broadly speaking, economic growth requires capital accumulation. In a poor economy, growth cannot occur unless factories are built, infrastructure developed, education improved, and innovation spurred. These advancements require high levels of investment, which in turn require that resources be diverted from current consumption to saving and investment. One of the most common arguments that proponents of this view make is that authoritarian regimes can resist popular demands for redistribution and consumption that slow down growth (Huntington, 2006; Haggard and Kaufman, 1997). According to the theory, autocrats have the latitude to pursue policies that advantage the wealthiest segments of societies. Democracies, in contrast, redistribute income to provide consumption resources to the majority of citizens, who have elected the government to serve their interests. Because the rich have a higher propensity to save than poorer citizens, dictators’ ability to shift resources to the wealthy stimulates capital accumulation, and thus investment and growth.

Not only are autocracies better able to avoid redistribution to their poorer citizens, they can also deflect pressure from particularistic interests, such as labour unions and large firms (Alesina and Rodrik, 1994; Persson and Tabellini, 1994). In contrast, democracies—especially those that recently transitioned—have weak institutions that are unable to resist demands from special interest groups, leading to policies that are inconsistent with the broader public interest (Huntington, 2006). Democratic leaders may be willing to sacrifice growth, for example, in order to satisfy specific business sectors or pivotal voting blocs. Similarly, groups like labour unions are expected to have a higher demand for immediate consumption and will use their political power to raise wages, tax capital, and engage in other redistributive policies that inhibit profits and therefore investment. Rodrik (1999) provides empirical evidence that democracies pay higher wages, which in turn is assumed to decrease the return to capital and thus lower the incentives for private investment. In other words, because authoritarian leaders are unconcerned with winning elections, they are immune to the short-sightedness of the electorate and free to resort to the politically unpopular measures—such as suppressing labour and paying lower wages—that are required to marshal the resources needed to spur growth-enhancing investment (Przeworski and Limongi, 1997).

Finally, dictatorships may have more capacity than democracies to drive growth. Proponents of this view argue that autocrats can implement policies more efficiently because they are free from the political gridlock that slows democratic decision-making (March and Olsen, 1995). Because a smaller number of people in power reach decisions more quickly and more certainly, outside investors may also view these countries as attractive investment destinations. Moreover, autocracies’ repressive capacity allows their governments to assert greater control over labour and labour markets, use coercion to break traditional economic patterns, and direct economic policies.

Researchers have noted that some forms of authoritarianism are better suited for growth than others. In particular, single party dictatorships such as China, Taiwan, and Singapore tend to produce more solid economic outcomes. Personalist dictatorships p. 83such as Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe or Mobutu’s Congo, in contrast, are the most erratic and feature prominently at the bottom of the growth charts (Frantz and Ezrow, 2011). Thanks to limited constraints on decision-making, personalist leaders generally have the latitude to change their minds on a whim, producing volatile economic policies. Moreover, personalist regimes are the most corrupt. Strongman dictatorships, more so than any other type of government, depend on the distribution of financial incentives to maintain power (Bueno de Mesquita et al., 2005). These governments, therefore, tend to pursue more self-enriching and predatory policies that weaken growth outcomes in these countries.

It is important to note that the scholars and experts who assert an authoritarian advantage over democracies in promoting growth do not necessarily deny the inherent values of democracy (Halperin et al., 2009). Rather, the key is timing. These scholars argue that authoritarian governments are better suited to drive growth and that once a country achieves a basic level of development, a transition to democracy becomes more viable. This process is known as modernization theory, which we discuss in greater depth in Chapter 10. Modernization theory posits that the urbanization, expanded literacy, and broadened middle class that growth brings enables democracy to develop (Lipset, 1959). Proponents of this view, therefore, view dictatorship as generating development, and development as leading to democracy.

Democracy promotes growth

A similarly substantial body of literature argues that democracy produces better development outcomes than autocracy. Proponents of this view argue that political and economic freedoms are mutually reinforcing. Democracy safeguards the private sphere, maximizes economic freedom, stimulates investment, and its free flow of ideas allows for the most efficient allocation of resources. In other words, these studies suggest that democratic processes and free and open political environments create conditions necessary to motivate citizens to work, save, and invest (Sirowy and Inkeles, 1990).

Underlying this perspective is the idea that democratic institutions provide checks and balances that curtail the abuse of power that can derail growth (North, 1990; Halperin et al., 2009). This runs counter to arguments that dictators are insulated from special interests and therefore are more capable of making long-term decisions that benefit the whole of society. The behaviour of numerous autocrats such as the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Joseph Mobutu, Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, or Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe underscores that unaccountable leaders frequently do not have the public interest at heart. Instead, rulers with discretionary power tend to set up distortionary policies that benefit a small set of insiders at the expense of the general population (e.g. Acemoglu and Robinson, 2006; Bratton and van de Walle, 1994). These leaders are also are more reliant on patronage to sustain their rule than democratic leaders are. Aside from directly draining state resources, the prevalence of patronage networks in dictatorships stunts the independence and productivity of the private sector, reducing their growth potential.p. 84

Not only do democratic institutions check abuses and control the quality of policymaking, they also create stability and certainty that is advantageous to growth. Although we know from the previous section that fully authoritarian regimes experience civil wars at similar rates as their fully democratic counterparts, democracies are likely to provide other sources of certainty that encourage investment. In particular, the institutionalized nature of politics in democracies relative to autocracies increases predictability in the former. According to Douglas North (1990), ‘The major role of institutions in a society is to reduce uncertainty by establishing a stable … structure to human interaction’ (p. 6). By better securing property rights and facilitating contract enforcement, democracies may raise the returns to investment. Although authoritarian regimes are also fully capable of protecting property rights and upholding the rule of law, history shows that they are less inclined to do so. Rather than serve as sources of stability, many autocrats wield institutions like legislatures, judiciaries, and the rule of law as tools for retaining their own hold on power.

Democracy’s clear mechanisms for succession also foster continuity. Even if an authoritarian regime adheres to consistent policy objectives during its tenure, there may be little continuity between that regime and its successor. As Mancur Olson (1993) noted, the stability of even durable autocrats is limited to a single lifetime. When an authoritarian regime collapses, it is often followed by an entirely different one, characterized by a new set of rules and procedures. In democracies, in contrast, although political parties may change, the overall political framework remains intact.

Democracies’ dispersion of authority also enables them to learn and adapt more readily than autocracies. Those political systems in which power is more widely dispersed have higher probabilities of accepting good, novel projects under uncertainty than hierarchical organizations, stimulating innovation and growth (Sah and Stiglitz, 1986). Democracies protect civil liberties, allowing for the free and open debate necessary for debunking bad ideas and spurring new ones (Halperin et al., 2009). In autocracies, leaders restrict civil liberties and the more general diffusion of information, both from abroad and within the country, to lower threats to their own political survival. This stymies the spread of economically productive ideas and technologies, even if the regime wants technological change and economic growth to take place. Several studies have found empirical support for the positive effect of democracy on technological change and productivity growth (Przeworski et al., 2000; North et al., 2009). In sum, political pluralism acts to release energies and foster conditions conducive to change, entrepreneurial risk, and economic development (Sirowy and Inkeles, 1990).

Finally, many studies have shown that democracy has positive, indirect effects on economic growth. The extra public expenditure brought about by popular and electoral pressures promotes the delivery of public goods that enhance human capital, such as education, health, and life expectancy. These factors have a positive effect on growth (Tavares and Wacziarg, 2001; Baum and Lake, 2003; Barro and Sala-i-Martin, 2004). Thus, while dictatorship may increase investment in physical capital (although there is large variation among different dictatorial regimes in this area), democracy increases the accumulation of human capital indirectly encouraging growth.p. 85

Evaluating the arguments

As we have shown, there are a plethora of arguments and empirical studies that produce conflicting conclusions about the effect of regime type on growth.5 Many of the discrepancies result from differences in the statistical methods, control variables, countries included in the samples, and time periods under consideration. Given the disagreement in the research, how should we interpret the results?

First and foremost, we feel it is safe to say that there is not sufficient evidence to claim that democracy is detrimental to development. The most systemic empirical studies give no real support to the claim that political rights undermine economic performance. In their study based on a sample of more than 4000 country-years from 1950 to 1990, for example, Przeworski et al. (2000) concluded, ‘[i]n the end total output grows at the same rate under the two regimes’ (p. 179). This conclusion is supported by Doucouliagos and Ulubasoglu’s (2008) meta-analysis, which finds that, ‘there is indeed a zero direct effect of democracy on growth’ (p. 63). In other words, there is no economic basis for supporting authoritarianism, even in low-income countries.

Even if we remain agnostic about democracy’s effect on growth, there is broad consensus that democracies produce higher quality growth. More specifically, growth in democracies is less volatile, both between countries (Rodrik, 2008; Besley and Kudamatsu, 2008) and within countries over time (Rodrik, 2008). For instance, it is clear that several autocracies such as China, Taiwan, and Chile have produced high levels of economic growth. However, there have been an equal (if not greater) number of autocracies that have been associated with economic devastation. According to Przeworski et al. (2000), ‘For every developmental miracle, there have been several dictatorships that have engaged in grandiose projects that have ended in ruin, or else dictatorships that have simply stolen and squandered’ (p. 4). Simply put, democracies are better equipped than autocracies to avoid disastrous economic outcomes. The probability of any country experiencing a 10 per cent decline in annual per capita GDP from 1960 to 2005 was 3.4 per cent; for democracies, specifically, it was less than one per cent (Halperin et al., 2009). Democracies avoid the alternating patterns of booms and busts often found in autocracies. Dictatorships that experience high growth for some period tend to eventually revert to the mean or even experience disastrous economic crises, as the records of countries such as Nigeria, Iraq, Romania, and Ecuador highlight. Democracies, in contrast, are more likely to undergo a stable pattern of moderate gains and small declines.

In sum, it is clear that both democratic and authoritarian regimes have the capacity to implement pro-growth policies. The economic growth records of countries such as China, Singapore, and Rwanda underscore the potential for autocracies to produce quite spectacular economic success, but it is important to avoid drawing generalizations p. 86from a handful of cases. At a minimum, it appears that democracy is not detrimental to growth. And, as we discuss in the following section, democracy produces a number of other benefits for the citizens living in them too.

Regime type and quality of life

Economic growth is not the only way to evaluate development and is in many ways an inadequate indicator of socio-economic progress. How does regime type affect a government’s capacity to satisfy people’s basic needs, such as access to food and clean water, the way economic benefits are distributed throughout society, and the quality of government services like health care and education? While conclusions about regime type’s effect on economic growth are contentious, the research on democracy and development is more conclusive: most studies find that democracies provide a better quality of life for their citizens than autocracies.

First, democracies spend more on public goods such as education, health care, and social security than non-democracies. One study, for example, finds that democratically-elected politicians in Africa are more responsive than their authoritarian counterparts to the demands of rural groups that form the majority of citizens in most African countries (Stasavage, 2005). More specifically, contested elections led leaders to spend more on education and prioritize primary schools over universities. The focus on primary relative to university spending benefits the rural majority as this tends to be the only formal schooling they receive. Additional research has found similar patterns in Latin America where democracies have also spent more on education and health than autocracies (Segura-Ubiergo, 2007). Likewise using an innovative data set of night lights visible from satellites, scholars have even found that democratization is associated with a substantial increase in electrification (Min, 2008).

Democracies’ focus on the needs of the majority translates into substantive differences in the welfare of the people living under them. Citizens in democracies live longer, healthier, and more productive lives, on average, than those in autocracies (Przeworski et al., 2000; Halperin et al., 2009). Consider, for example, differences in infant mortality rates across regime type. Social scientists consider the infant mortality rate to be a useful indicator of societal welfare because it serves as a window into how governments provide for the economic and social well-being of their citizens. Democracies significantly outperform autocracies on this metric at every level of income (Navia and Zweifel, 2003). One innovative study, for example, examined the survival probabilities of infants born to the same mothers before and after their country underwent a democratic transition (Kudamatsu, 2012). It found that infant mortality fell by 1.2 percentage points, or 12 per cent of the sample mean, after democratization. The study concluded that infant mortality rates declined after democratization because of improvements in public health service delivery, not an increase in affluence.

It is important to note that some scholars question democracy’s positive effect on infant mortality rates. Ross (2006), for example, contends that previous studies produced overly optimistic conclusions about the effects of democracy on infant mortality p. 87rates as a result of selection bias arising due to missing data from high-performing autocracies. Once missing data problems are accounted for, he argues, there is no significant relationship between democracy and infant mortality rates. Democracies do maintain the edge over autocracies in education and health spending, but some studies suggest that the benefits of these policies do not seem to translate into lower infant mortality rates.

In a variety of ways, democracy appears particularly beneficial for the poor and women. Democracies pay higher manufacturing wages than autocracies; growth in democracies, therefore, allows workers—who tend to be poor—to capture a larger percentage of economic expansion (Rodrik, 1999). This is especially advantageous for women, who are disproportionately employed in manufacturing sectors. According to Przeworski et al. (2000), women living under autocracy, ‘participate in gainful activities at the same rate as they do in democracies, and as workers, get lower wages … they also have more children, see more of them die, and are themselves more likely to die in childbirth’ (p. 271). The higher wages and services that democracies deliver even translate into greater calorie consumption among the poorest segments of society (Blaydes and Kayser, 2011).

Why might democracies perform better on these dimensions? First, in democracies voters can hold their governments accountable for their choices and actions. In his influential work on the relationship between governance and famine, Amartya Sen (1999) finds that famine has never occurred in any independent and democratic country with a relatively free press. This is, in part, because the democratic electoral process allows citizens to penalize governments that allow famines to occur; political leaders, in turn, are strategic and seek to avert famines. According to Sen:

Famines kill millions of people in different countries in the world, but they don’t kill the rulers … if there are no elections, no opposition parties, no scope for uncensored public criticism, then those in authority don’t have to suffer the political consequences of their failure to prevent famines. Democracy, on the other hand, spreads the penalty of famines to the ruling groups and political leaders. (p. 180)

The political and civil liberties that democracy affords largely determine the extent of accountability in a political system and greater respect for these principles benefits development (Sen, 1999). Freedom of the press, for example, enables the media to report on policy disasters, like famines, drawing these issues into the public discourse. Where citizens lack information about government performance, in contrast, they are unable to hold politicians to account (Keefer and Khemani, 2004).

Overall, democracy entails greater levels of accountability than dictatorship, leading them to produce superior outcomes. Even in authoritarian settings, however, more accountability can enhance policy outcomes. In China, for example, informal accountability structures increased public goods provision (and thus human development), even in the absence of democracy (Tsai, 2007). In those villages where solidarity groups existed—groups based on shared moral obligations or shared interest—the provision of public goods improved. These groups served to enhance public goods provision by spreading information about the performance of local officials. Because local officials p. 88are sensitive to this information given that it affects their moral standing in the community, this form of accountability creates incentives similar to elections. Likewise, there is also evidence that local elections in China benefit local citizens. Local elections may shift the tax burden from households to enterprises (Zhang et al., 2004), and direct elections of a village’s leader may increase public goods investment in the village (Luo et al., 2007).

The last explanation for the observed variation in developmental outcomes across democracies and dictatorships focuses on the incentive structures created by each type of system (Bueno de Mesquita et al., 2005). According to this line of thinking, all leaders seek to maintain power and will pursue a set of policies designed to sustain support among the group of backers whose support they need to retain office (their ‘winning coalition’). Leaders can use private goods, such as cash payoffs, or public goods, such as access to health and education, to satisfy their key constituents. Those who depend on a relatively narrow set of backers to keep them in office, as in autocracies, engender loyalty through patronage and other private payoffs. Democratic leaders, in contrast, (in theory) require the support of 51 per cent of the public, making private payoffs a prohibitively expensive strategy to pursue. Democratic leaders, therefore, shift their strategy to the provision of public goods, which benefit everyone in society. In other words, as the number of supporters a leader must satisfy to remain in power grows, the more likely it is that he or she will use public versus private payoffs.

Despite the large number of studies suggesting that democracies enhance education, public goods, health care, and other development outcomes of interest, research is ambiguous about democracy’s effect on inequality. Although the theoretical motivations we outlined in this section suggest that democracy should improve inequality, the empirical evidence is mixed. While there are a number of studies that show that democracy reduces inequality (Acemoglu and Robinson, 2000; Muller, 1988; Moon, 1991; Rodrik, 1998), there are also several compelling studies that find no statistically significant effect (Sirowy and Inkeles, 1990; Bollen and Jackman, 1985; Deininger and Squire, 1998; Gasiorowski, 1997).

Why might democracy fail to mitigate inequality?

Democracy may not enhance the distribution of wealth in those countries if the middle class is able to disproportionately capture the benefits of the democracy relative to the poor. Ross (2006), for example, shows that although democracies spend more money on education and health than non-democracies, these perks seem to accrue to middle- and upper-income groups. Ross argues that in some settings, political competition binds rulers to constituencies that are relatively well-off, subsidizing access to health and education services for those who could otherwise use their own resources. Likewise Nelson (2007) explains, ‘in democracies, pro-poor reallocation of resources across levels of service and among regions may be particularly difficult politically … middle class demand for more and better education and health services is virtually unlimited’ (p. 27). In sum, although democracies re-allocate income and invest in their citizens, the more politically active middle class tend to benefit more than the poor, which can reinforce inequality in these countries.p. 89

Regime type and corruption

Corruption is the misuse of office for private gain. The ‘gains’ may accrue to the individual official or to the groups or parties he or she belongs to. Corruption can take the form of bribery, embezzlement, the intentional misappropriation of assets, or nepotism. Corruption can be further disaggregated into grand corruption and petty corruption. Grand corruption refers to major abuses of power that take place at the national level of government, such as an official who rigs the bidding process for state contracts in order to gain kickbacks for personal gain. Petty corruption is the abuse of power at the local level, such as an official requiring a relatively small bribe or favour in return for some good, a basic service that the official should provide for free, or other opportunity.

The scale and cost of corruption is difficult to assess, but the World Economic Forum in 2016 estimated that each year the cost of corruption amounts to roughly 5 per cent of the world’s GDP, including about $1 trillion in bribes. Moreover, empirical studies have consistently demonstrated that the poor are disproportionately burdened by corruption, because they pay the highest percentage of their income in bribes. For example, in Paraguay, the poor pay 12.6 per cent of their income to bribes while high-income households pay 6.4 per cent (The World Bank, 2018). Corruption also discourages these citizens from accessing health services and education if they cannot afford to pay bribes that are requested. And embezzlement and the diversion of public funds for personal gain reduce the government’s resources available for development and poverty reduction spending.

In addition to economic and quality of life considerations, corruption has important security ramifications. Corruption is a tool that countries such as Russia and China use to gain international influence. Russia, for example, leverages corrupt relationships with politicians and prominent economic actors in the Balkans and parts of Eastern Europe to acquire political influence in those countries. These relationships also harm Western businesses, which are unable to compete in some environments because of their inability to pay bribes and engage in corrupt practices. Finally, corruption can facilitate crime and terrorism. Corruption among security forces and border guards can help the movement of drugs and illicit weapons across borders. Likewise, security sector corruption can compromise the capacity of these services to manage threats posed by insurgents and terrorist organizations.

Given the significant costs of corruption, what can we say about its relationship to regime type? Corruption directly benefits those groups or individuals participating in it, including through personal enrichment and the ability to gain political support. These potential benefits are attractive to many politicians and people, regardless of whether they live in a democracy or autocracy (Drury et al., 2006). Is there anything systematic we can say about the prevalence of corruption?

Before delving into this, it is important to briefly discuss how scholars measure corruption. The broad scope of corruption makes it difficult to quantify. Researchers struggle with what to include in such a measure and face challenges gathering objective data. Corruption is carried out, in most cases, away from the public eye and cannot be observed in public records. Two of the most widely used measures of corruption, p. 90Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index and the World Bank’s corruption index, therefore, rely instead on perceptions of corruption. Both of these indices aggregate information from a number of sources that include country risk ratings produced by business consultancies, surveys of international or domestic business people, and polls of country inhabitants. Both groups aim to reduce measurement error by averaging different sources and use similar (and overlapping) sets of inputs. In sum, the data do not measure corruption itself but rather opinions about its prevalence. Because measures of corruption are imperfect and indirect, we must therefore use caution when we draw inferences from most research on the subject (Treisman, 2007).

So how does regime type affect corruption? The current consensus indicates that democracy has a non-linear effect on corruption—democratization may increase corruption in the short run, but corruption declines over time as democracy deepens (Montinola and Jackman, 2002; Treisman, 2000, 2007). This is particularly true for countries with a free press (Adsera et al., 2003; Brunetti and Weder, 2003; Chowdhury, 2004). Press freedom exposes corruption to voters, who, equipped with this information, can punish corrupt politicians in the polls. The consolidation of democratic institutions—including independent judiciaries and social attitudes and norms—enable citizens to expose corruption, make it an issue of political importance, and facilitate recourse ranging from public hearings to voting corrupt officials out of office.

Box 5.1: Shining light on kleptocracy

A kleptocracy is a government that uses its power to exploit its people and resources for the personal gain of officials. The primary objective of kleptocratic leaders is to maximize their own personal enrichment and structure the political and economic system to serve these ends (Lundahl, 1997). Foreign aid is often embezzled. Extracted resources go directly into the leaders’ pockets. There are unfortunately numerous examples of kleptocratic regimes. In Indonesia, the Suharto family was so parasitic that researchers estimate that they amassed a fortune worth more than $15 billion (Robertson-Snape, 1999). After a decade in power, Liberia’s president Samuel Doe accumulated a fortune equivalent to half of the country’s annual domestic income (Reno, 2000). Sani Abacha (1993–98) of Nigeria stole $4 billion in less than five years by awarding contracts to front companies, accepting huge bribes and stealing money directly from the treasury. Family members and friends then transferred the money abroad (Goldsmith, 2004).

Few leaders embody kleptocratic rule more than Joseph Mobutu of Zaire (today’s Democratic Republic of Congo). Robert Rotberg writes, ‘What set Mobutu apart from other neo-patrimonial rulers was his unparalleled capacity to institutionalize kleptocracy at every level of the social pyramid and his unrivalled talent for transforming personal rule into a cult and political clientelism into cronyism. Stealing was not so much a perversion of the ethos of public service as it was its raison d’etre’ (Rotberg, 2003, 31). Mobutu acquired over $8 billion by siphoning off Zaire’s various resources—a figure that exceeded the recorded annual economic output of the country (Reno, 2000). In the 1970s, 15–20 per cent of the operating budget of the state went directly to Mobutu. In 1977 alone, Mobutu’s family took $71 million from the National Bank for personal use (Leslie, 1987, p. 72).

p. 92Kleptocracies only exist in authoritarian regimes. Although corruption is certainly present in democracies, as we note elsewhere in this book, democratic institutions make corruption on such a grand scale unlikely. Press freedom, the presence of a political opposition, and a relatively free legislature and judiciary can call public attention to transgressions and prosecute officials who abuse public office. Moreover, an informed public has the opportunity to use relatively free and fair elections to vote out potentially kleptocratic leaders before they have the chance to undermine the system.

In addition to a country’s time under democracy, levels of economic development also influence democracy’s ability to mitigate corruption. Democracy may reduce corruption but only in economies that have already crossed a GDP per capita level of approximately U.S.$2,000 (Jetter et al., 2015). For poorer nations, democratization may actually increase corruption. Consistent with this, democratic India has done no better than China at checking corruption and may have fared worse given its modest level of economic development (Sun and Johnston, 2009). Underdevelopment, the argument goes, reflects a scarcity of legitimate alternatives for gain, and pervasive vulnerability to exploitation. Just establishing elections and other institutional hardware is not enough to create the accountability required to curb corruption.

A body of case study evidence lends credence to the notion that democracy has a non-linear effect on corruption. In Latin America, for example, the wave of democratization that swept across the continent starting in the late 1970s initially led perceptions of corruption to rise (Weyland, 1998). Democratization dispersed political power and incorporated more institutions into decision-making processes, effectively increasing the number of actors demanding bribes. Under authoritarian rule citizens could get by bribing officials in the federal government; under democracy, however, state and municipal governments and legislators in Congress also demanded their share. A study notes, for example, that in Brazil the ‘commissions’ that public officials extorted rose from about 8 to 12 per cent of a contract’s value under the military regime to between 15 and 20 per cent under democracy (Weyland, 1998). A number of other scholars have noted similar dynamics in countries ranging from Russia (Mohtadi and Roe, 2003), Turkey (Mohtadi and Roe, 2003), Indonesia (McLeod, 2005; Robison and Hadiz, 2004) and Thailand (Ammar, 1997; Case, 2002; Hicken, 2001; Pasuk and Baker, 1998; Rock 2000).

Relative to established democracies, however, authoritarian regimes tend to be more corrupt. Autocrats are far more reliant than their democratically-elected counterparts on the distribution of patronage in order to secure loyalty (Bueno de Mesquita et al., 2005). This is particularly true for personalist dictatorships (Chang and Golden, 2010). In a study of highly personalized dictatorships in Africa, ‘neo-patrimonial regimes’ differ fundamentally from other types of autocracies in their extraordinary reliance on the exchange of material rewards for political support (Bratton and van de Walle, 1997). Likewise, corruption in those autocracies with leaders who are uncertain about their longevity in office is likely to be especially severe. Autocrats with short time horizons will be the most predatory and seek to maximize the personal benefits of holding power p. 91while their access to such opportunities last (Wright, 2008). To summarize, while transitions to democracy can lead corruption to proliferate, fully consolidated democracies are less corrupt than autocracies.

Regime type and repression

Repression is defined as a form of socio-political control used by authorities against those within their territorial jurisdiction to deter specific activities and beliefs perceived as threatening to political order (Goldstein, 1978). The particular magnitude or combination of repressive activities that governments use varies across time, space, and context, but all governments use some form of repression (Davenport, 2007). Although all governments use it, a robust body of research shows that repression is far more prevalent—in both severity and incidence—in dictatorships than in democracies (Poe and Tate, 1994; Poe, Tate, and Keith, 1999; Davenport and Armstrong, 2004; Vreeland, 2008). Scholars have referred to the robust body of empirical evidence showing democracy’s pacifying effect as the ‘domestic democratic peace’, mirroring the international relations research on interstate war. In autocracies, repressive leaders cannot be voted out of office, meaning that repressive leaders in these systems often go unpunished. Moreover, because they are not popularly elected and exclude large swaths of the population from decision-making, dictators must substitute force for legitimacy as a means of obtaining public acquiescence to regime decisions.

Repression comes in many forms, each of which serves a distinct purpose for the regime (Frantz and Kendall-Taylor, 2014; Fein, 1995; Davenport, 2007a). Broadly speaking there are two categories of repression: civil liberty or empowerment rights repression (i.e. censorship, restrictions on assembly) and personal integrity rights repression (i.e. torture, disappearances, political imprisonment). Dictators use civil liberties restrictions to make it harder for the political opposition and public to mobilize anti-regime activity. Physical integrity rights violations, in contrast, are more focused and tend to target specific individuals or groups that threaten the regime. Most dictators use a mixture of both. Moreover, in addition to state-sponsored repression, some authoritarian regimes permit (or even direct) non-state actors, including thugs, vigilantes, mercenaries, and secret death squads to perpetrate violence against regime dissidents. These irregular actors enable regimes to further stifle dissent while giving the regime plausible deniability about their involvement (Rudbeck et al., 2016).

In addition to the fact that democracies repress less because repressive leaders can be voted out of office, there are additional reasons that democratic leaders rely less on repression than their authoritarian counterparts. First, democratic institutions—including elections, a free and open media, and checks and balances—raise the cost of using repression to stifle dissent (Davenport, 2007; Linz, 2000). Of all aspects of democracy, scholars have argued that executive constraints have the greatest pacifying influence on democratic leaders (Bueno de Mesquita et al., 2005). Autonomous courts, for example, can constrain state behaviour by resisting the state’s attempts to p. 93suppress dissent, including by raising the likelihood of litigation against abusive leaders (Mitchell et al., 2013; Powell and Stanton, 2009). Independent media, for its part, raises the likelihood that human rights violations will be exposed.

Second, democracies are likely to have less need to use repression because they possess alternative pathways of control, such as participation in the political system, that are absent or constrained in autocracies. Finally, some scholars have emphasized how democratic norms of compromise and negotiation reduce repression because they provide a ‘realistic way to accommodate demands with a minimum of conflict’ (Henderson, 1991, pp. 123–4). Democratic processes and decision-making, in other words, provide a non-coercive way to manage conflict before grievances mount and invite repression.

While full democracies clearly repress less than autocracies, some research argues that the relationship between regime type and repression is non-linear (Fein, 1995; Gartner and Regan, 1996). Some scholars have argued that there is ‘more murder in the middle’, positing that hybrid and transitioning systems are more repressive than either full autocracies or consolidated democracies (Fein, 1995; Regan and Henderson, 2002). This argument is based on a widely held view that repression is largely a response to dissent. The more dissent a government faces, including protests, riots, terrorism, and other challenges to state authority, the higher state repression is likely to be (Davenport, 1995; 2000; Gartner and Regan, 1996; Poe and Tate, 1994). Hybrid regimes, the argument goes, face more regime-threatening dissent than either full democracies (which channel dissent in less threatening ways) or full autocracies (which have effectively quashed mobilization). A recent study, however, disputes this argument. This study argues that dissent is endogenous to repression; the state acts to prevent dissent from ever occurring, and groups often self-censor in the very anticipation of repression. Once this strategic interaction is accounted for, the study finds that dissent has no effect on levels of repression (Ritter and Conrad, 2016).

Rather than an inverted U-shape between regime type and repression, a growing body of research suggests instead that there is a threshold effect (Bueno de Mesquita et al., 2005; Davenport and Armstrong, 2004). At low levels of democracy, including in new or weakly institutionalized democracies, democratic institutions are unlikely to have much effect on repression. Above a certain level of democratic development, however, democracy reduces repression. In other words, movement along the autocracy–democracy spectrum does not lower levels of repression until a certain level of democracy has been reached.

Although it is difficult to pinpoint the democratic threshold above which human rights improve, it is clear that full democracies do a better job of protecting the rights of their citizens than autocracies. Moreover, research shows that regime type is among the most important determinants of repression levels (Hill and Jones, 2014; Davenport and Appel, 2014). Among all the variables scholars have examined—including economic development, population size, and international constraints arising from human rights treaties and NGO activity—democracy has one of the substantively largest effects on repression (Hill and Jones, 2014). This relationship is significant because it underscores the importance of democracy for protecting human rights.p. 94


In the seventy years since the end of World War II, the United States and the West have fostered a global order dominated by states that are liberal, capitalist, and democratic. They have promoted the spread of democracy to strengthen global norms and rules that constitute the foundation of our current international system. However, despite the steady rise of democracy since the end of the Cold War, over the last decade or so we have seen dramatic reversals in respect for democratic principles across the globe. A 2015 Freedom House report stated that the ‘acceptance of democracy as the world’s dominant form of government—and of an international system built on democratic ideals—is under greater threat than at any point in the last 25 years’.

In this chapter, we examined why democratic decline matters. We examined the effects of democracy on a range of outcomes, including the propensity for countries to fight wars, internal conflict, terrorism, economic growth, quality of life, corruption, and repression. Two key themes were woven throughout this chapter. First, hybrid regimes, or those countries that sit in the middle of the autocracy-democracy spectrum, perform less well than either their fully democratic or fully authoritarian counterparts in a number of areas. The countries in the ‘messy middle’ are particularly vulnerable to insecurity, including from repression, terrorism, and prospects for internal conflict. Second, research suggests that democracies outperform dictatorship on almost every indicator we examined. Democracies are less likely to employ repression against their citizens than autocracies and experience less terrorism. Most recent research indicates that democracies grow their economies at a rate that is at least on par with dictatorships and that the growth they produce is of higher quality—both less volatile and more likely to benefit the people they govern.

In conclusion, we believe that the academic record demonstrates that even after we set democracy’s intrinsic value aside, government is better when it is more democratic. Although democratic decision-making can be slower, this process is more likely to weigh risks, thereby avoiding volatile and ruinous policies. When something is going wrong, democratic leaders hear about it and have incentives to take action. If democracy recedes in the face of growing pressure from authoritarian powers like China and Russia, it would have important effects on the outcomes we discussed in this chapter.

Key Questions


What is meant by the ‘messy middle’? Why are systems found in the middle of the democracy–autocracy spectrum more susceptible to conflict?


What factors might make democracies more vulnerable to terrorist activity than autocracies? What factors might increase their resilience to such attacks?


Does autocracy promote economic growth in the developing world? How should we interpret the tremendous authoritarian-led growth in China and the Asian Tigers?p. 95


Is there a democratic advantage when it comes to dealing with poverty and inequality?


Should policymakers give greater emphasis to developing democracy in the Middle East? Lay out your best arguments for and against encouraging democracy in this region.


How would widespread democratic decline—in either the number of democratic states or their influence in the international system—affect the current international order? What would change?

Further Reading

  • Davenport, C., 2007. State Repression and the Domestic Democratic Peace. Cambridge University Press.
  • State Repression and the Domestic Democratic Peace argues that in most cases, democracies are less repressive. The book does caution that not all types of repression are reduced. While human rights violations tend to decrease with the onset of democracy, restrictions on civil liberties are not uniformly alleviated by democracy.

  • Przeworski, A., Alvarez, M.E., Cheibub, J.A., and Limongi, F., 2000. Democracy and Development: Political Institutions and Well-being in the World, 1950–1990 (Vol. 3). Cambridge University Press.
  • Democracy and Development tests some of the critical questions of the chapter: are democracies better at encouraging growth and how does economic growth affect regime type. The book argues that economic development does not always lead to democracy, but democratic governance is more likely to stick in wealthy countries. Surprisingly the book also claims that democracies are no better than autocracies at fostering economic growth, but democracies are better at encouraging GDP/capita growth.

  • Tsebelis, G., 2002. Veto Players: How Political Institutions Work. Princeton University Press.
  • Veto Players advances a new understanding of how governments are structured by focusing not on whether the governments are democratic or not, but on the number of veto players. The book argues that the number of veto players impacts politics and has important consequences for stability.p. 96


    • 1 The Economist, ‘America and China: Barbarian Outreach’, 11–17 November 2017.

    • 2 Uppsala Conflict Data Program (UCDP).

    • 3 Accessed 22 February 2019.

    • 4 (accessed 22 February 2019).

    • 5 Doucouliagos and Ulubasoglu (2008) conducted a comprehensive meta-analysis of 84 studies published prior to 2006 on democracy and growth. Based on the 483 regressions included in these studies, the authors found that 15 per cent of the estimates were negative and statistically significant, 21 per cent were negative and statistically insignificant, 37 per cent of the estimates were positive and statistically insignificant, and 27 per cent were positive and statistically significant (Doucouliagos and Ulubasoglu, 2008, p. 63).