Lipset’s Law, Egypt and Democratic Transition

Mar 28

One of the most basic reasons why my judgment on events in Egypt during its post-Mubarak transition differs from that of others is my relative pessimism on what can be achieved in the short-term, other than simply securing the foundations for formal democracy.  Based on that starting point, I have given President Morsi wide leeway, because it seems to me that what he has been attempting to do is no more than establish the foundations for a formal democratic regime, one that no doubt will be greatly troubled and flawed, and will certainly fall short of the aspirations of many “revolutionaries,” particularly the youthful vanguard.

This pessimism, moreover, is closely related to my perceptions of the pressing nature of the economic challenges facing Egypt as well as the Egyptian state’s general incapacity and dysfunctionality.  What I did not know is that there is a relatively robust data set that provides some empirical basis for a correlation between successful democratic transitions and income levels.  First postulated by a Seymour Lipset in the 1950’s, political scientists and economists have over the years spent some time trying to test what has come to be known as Lipset’s Law: that there is a positive correlation between income and democratization.

With the permission of Alan Godlas, a professor Islamic Studies at the University of Georgia specializing in Sufism, I quote his summation of some of this research below:

An axiom among political economists (called Lipset’s Law) is that there is a positive correlation between per capita income and democracy. An exception to this recently noted in political economics is that resource rich countries do not follow this law. (See Income and Democracy: Lipset’s Law Revisited, by Ghada Fayad, Robert H. Bates, and Anke Hoeffler , International Monetary Fund working paper, ). [At least where their wealth is derived from mineral wealth!]

Related to this is political economic research by Adam Przeworski of New York University. He confirmed the axiom that “Low Per Capita Income Countries Never Remain Democracies”…by studying every attempted transition to democracy around the globe. He and his colleagues found that once a country passes $6,000 in per capita income it is virtually guaranteed to succeed in its transition to democracy. States between $3,000 and $6,000 have less than a 50-50 chance of staying democracies. And countries below $3,000 are almost bound to fail” (From infamous conservative writer Jonah Goldberg , summarizing Przeworski’s findings reported in Przeworski’s book: Democracy and Development: Political Institutions and Well-Being in the World, 1950-1990). (I’ve looked through Przeworski’s book, but have not yet found anywhere in it where he pulls it all together, expressing it as well as Goldberg has done. But if anyone finds such a quote from Przeworski, please let me know. I’d prefer to cite him than Goldberg, at least to an audience that is not just conservatives!)

Note also the following: “Socioeconomic conditions for democracy:
1) relatively high levels of education
2) relatively high levels of per capita income,
3) low inequality,
4) a bourgeoisie and a working class independent of the state,
5) vigorous civil socieites,
6) limited ethic diversity or conflict,
7) a strong sense of nationhood.”

Nevertheless, any one of these factors should not be considered to be preconditions for democracy; rather they should be regarded as facilitating factors (to the degree that they are present) or obstructing factors (to the degree they are not present) (See the book by Stanford University’s political sociologist, Larry Diamond: Developing Democracy: Toward Consolidation, 1999, p. 57). Also, see this chart . Finally, see the conclusion of Ulfelder and Lustik, “Consistent with modernization theory (Lipset 1981, Diamond 1999) and other recent large-n statistical analyses (Przeworski et al. 2000), we find that wealthier democracies are far less likely to backslide to autocracy, other things being equal.” “Modeling Transitions to and from Democracy,” p. 13 .

As far as how emotional intelligence factors into it, emotional intelligence is now a widely proven factor in cognitive ability. (See hundreds of studies by Salovey and Mayer and their students.) Note as well, “Political theory has described a positive linkage between education, cognitive ability and democracy. This assumption is confirmed by positive correlations between education, cognitive ability, and positively valued political conditions (N = 183 – 130). Longitudinal studies at the country level (N = 94 – 16) allow the analysis of causal relationships. It is shown that in the second half of the 20th century, education and intelligence had a strong positive impact on democracy, rule of law and political liberty independent from wealth (GDP) and chosen country sample. One possible mediator of these relationships is the attainment of higher stages of moral judgment fostered by cognitive ability, which is necessary for the function of democratic rules in society. The other mediators for citizens as well as for leaders could be the increased competence and willingness to process and seek information necessary for political decisions due to greater cognitive ability Rindermann, Heiner, “Relevance of Education and Intelligence for the Political Development of Nations: Democracy, Rule of Law and Political Liberty”

Egyptian revolutionaries need to be aware of the empirical challenges facing Egypt and shape their expectations in light of Egypt’s reasonable capabilities in light of its current economic development. The odds of a successful transition are not high, statistically speaking, and it is important to question whether the kinds of criticisms of the transition are consistent with what can reasonably be expected in Egypt given its level of economic development.  I would add that even its reported per capita income of $3,000 per person exaggerates its economic prospects, since a substantial portion of this income consists of rents rather than production.

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  1. I think there is a good reason to believe that aggregate social wealth is inherently connected to successful democratization, defined as a relatively successful ability of the members of the body politic to hold its rulers accountable, namely, setting up and maintaining the the procedures by which public officials are held accountable is a relatively expensive exercise in institution building. It seems that that the up front costs might be quite expensive relative to what are rationally perceived to be only long-term and at best speculative gains. That is why I have said that it is important to bear in mind that returns to democratization are in the long-term, and will not immediately be felt, but like other exponential-curves, the gains accelerate rapidly the further out you go on the x-axis (time) of the curve. Conversely, the longer you delay this transition, on the grounds that the current institutions are not good enough, as is the excuse in Egypt, the more the benefits are delayed into the future, and the more unwilling people will be to make the large and uncertain initial investments in transitioning to representative regimes.

  2. Just listened to Immortal Technique’s The Fourth Branch on his amazing album Revolutionary, Volume II. He says, “Democracy’s just a word when the people are starving.”

    My historian’s suspicions of political science were raised reading about Lipset’s Law. I’m curious what the term “successful democratic transition” means.

    I also wondered if foreign intervention is a factor. World-systems theorists posit that underdevelopment is a result of the relations among the developed and underdeveloped nations, not factors inherent in the underdeveloped nations.

    In any event, I find the most persuasive argument against theories such as Lipset’s from the science fiction series Dune by Frank Herbert. Each successive galactic regime collapses against the new challenging forces because it prepares for the new threat based on the lessons of the past. The critical lesson here is that the correlation of (IMO arbitrarily limited) factors chosen to examine democratic transitions between 1970-2000 will very likely not be relevant for transitions 2010-2030. The particles of the universe which may have produced those causal relationships in the earlier period are in different states in the next period. But of course that’s just my theory, unpublished.

    So, IMO, morality is most important guide for people acting in our moment of history.

    It seems to me that democracy, defined as a combination of series of elections with smooth transitions of leadership to positions of authority sufficient to achieve some public good and at the same time limited to prevent abuse of power and human and civil rights, is not the top priority for large factions of the Egyptian public.

    For example, in a conversation I had with a supporter of the Syrian government, he asked me whether I thought democratic elections were more important than public welfare. I personally believe the most successful development story of the 20th century is the People’s Republic of China, but I know that it has serious problems and other authoritarian regimes which claimed to follow in its footsteps were as terrible and much less effective.

    I personally do support democracy, because it seems the best way at this point to check abuse of government at all levels.

    At the same time, factions which win elections must recognize restraint and focus on goals of the widest benefit to the people.

    More later, maybe….

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