Sorry, Tom Friedman, higher oil prices don't always mean lower levels of democracy.
- By Joshua E. KeatingJoshua E. Keating is an associate editor at Foreign Policy.
In a 2006 cover story for this magazine, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman proposed what he called the First Law of Petropolitics. "The price of oil and the pace of freedom always move in opposite directions in oil-rich petrolist states," he wrote, noting that "the higher the price goes, the less petrolist leaders are sensitive to what the world thinks or says about them."
The law makes a lot of intuitive sense. If you look around the world at countries that are highly dependent on oil profits — Saudi Arabia, Russia, Nigeria, Iran, Venezuela — many have high levels of authoritarianism and corruption. Dig into the numbers, as University of California/Los Angeles economist Romain Wacziarg did for a recent study, however, and the picture gets murkier. "If you look at countries that have a lot of resources, compared to countries that don’t, they do tend to have a more autocratic regime," he says. "But if you look within a country, and if they discover a natural resource, do they then become more autocratic? There’s no evidence for that."
Wacziarg looked at petroleum-producing countries between 1961 and 2007, comparing their Polity scores — a commonly used quantitative measure of democratic conditions — with the price of crude oil. He found no correlation. In fact, in some countries, such as Egypt, Indonesia, and Mexico, the level of democracy markedly improved between 2000 and 2007, when oil prices were skyrocketing.
He also found no evidence to suggest that low oil prices make regime change more likely. "In fact, the Arab Spring happened just at a time when oil prices were pretty high," he notes, pointing out that under Friedman’s First Law of Petropolitics, the autocratic regime of Muammar al-Qaddafi in oil-rich Libya would have been the least likely Arab government to fall. Meanwhile, the tiny Persian Gulf kingdom of Bahrain — which Friedman cited as a country forced to liberalize by its dwindling oil reserves — has only become more repressive.
Asked to comment, Friedman argues that Wacziarg’s study focuses too closely on the effects of oil prices and "overlooks something that was implied in my article (and is explicit in most academic studies) — that it also matters how much oil and gas a country produces."
"While Wacziarg is correct in showing that higher oil prices have not made oil-rich countries less democratic," Friedman adds, "it has allowed them to remain steadily undemocratic at a time when the rest of the world has become vastly more democratic."
Stay tuned: As oil prices climb once again amid increased uncertainty across the Middle East, both sides of the debate should soon have plenty more data.
Blake Hounshell is managing editor at Foreign Policy, having formerly been Web editor. Hounshell oversees ForeignPolicy.com and has commissioned and edited numerous cover stories for the print magazine, including National Magazine Award finalist "Why Do They Hate Us?" by Mona Eltahawy. He also edits The Cable, FP's first foray into daily original reporting, and was editor of Colum Lynch's Turtle Bay, which in 2011 won a National Magazine award for best reporting in a digital format.
Blake joined Foreign Policy in 2006 after living in Cairo, where he studied Arabic, missed his Steelers finally win one for the thumb, and worked for the Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies. Blake was a 2011 finalist for the Livingston Awards prize for young journalists for his reporting on the Arab uprisings, and his Twitter feed was named one of Time magazine's "140 Best Twitter Feeds of 2011." Under his leadership, in 2008, Passport, FP's flagship blog, won Media Industry Newsletter's "Best of the Web" award in the blog category. Along with Elizabeth Dickinson, he edited Southern Tiger: Chile's Fight for a Democratic and Prosperous Future, the memoirs of former Chilean president Ricardo Lagos, published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2012.
A graduate of Yale University, Blake speaks mangled Arabic and French, is an avid runner, and lives in Washington with his wife, musician Sandy Choi, and their toddler, David. Follow him on Twitter @blakehounshell.| Passport |