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Democracy Comes Second

Democracy is slowly spreading around the world. From the Middle East to Latin America and Asia, many autocracies are taking gradual steps towards more democratic and accountable forms of government, or have become fully-fledged and well functioning democracies. The US administration is determined to consolidate political freedoms in many developing countries under its sphere of influence; indeed, expansion of democracy has become a cornerstone of American foreign policy.

There are many reasons to celebrate the current democratic wave. Democracy is associated with less injustice and abuse, with basic civic and political freedoms, and with greater sensitivity by governments for the true priorities of its citizens. But how important is democracy for economic success?

Not much, the empirical evidence suggests. This might appear surprising. After all, is it not true that virtually all rich countries have democratic forms of government, while the poorest countries (mainly in Africa) are non-democracies? Indeed, throughout the world, democracy is strongly correlated with higher per capita income.

But this correlation goes missing when one looks at the dimension of time rather than space. Countries that become democracies do not, on average, achieve faster economic growth after their political transition; and, vice versa, democracies that fail and relapse into autocracy do not, on average, do worse than before.