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The Myth of Authoritarian Growth

CAMBRIDGE – On a recent Saturday morning, several hundred pro-democracy activists congregated in a Moscow square to protest government restrictions on freedom of assembly. They held up signs reading “31,” in reference to Article 31 of the Russian constitution, which guarantees freedom of assembly. They were promptly surrounded by policemen, who tried to break up the demonstration. A leading critic of the Kremlin and several others were hastily dragged into a police car and driven away.

Events like this are an almost daily occurrence in Russia, where Prime Minister Vladimir Putin rules the country with a strong hand, and persecution of the government’s opponents, human-rights violations, and judicial abuses have become routine. At a time when democracy and human rights have become global norms, such transgressions do little to enhance Russia’s global reputation. Authoritarian leaders like Putin understand this, but apparently they see it as price worth paying in order to exercise unbridled power at home.

What leaders like Putin understand less well is that their politics also compromise their countries’ economic future and global economic standing.

The relationship between a nation’s politics and its economic prospects is one of the most fundamental – and most studied – subjects in all of social science. Which is better for economic growth – a strong guiding hand that is free from the pressure of political competition, or a plurality of competing interests that fosters openness to new ideas and new political players?