Why Recessions Are Good for Freedom

Democracy is best served with a side of economic stagnation.

By , the director of technology and development and a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development.
Chris Hondros/Getty Images
Chris Hondros/Getty Images
Chris Hondros/Getty Images

"The more well-to-do a nation, the greater the chances that it will sustain democracy," wrote American political sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset in 1959, crystallizing the idea, now a received wisdom, that wealth is the inevitable handmaiden of political freedom.

But recent events may be starting to topple this notion. In the Middle East and North Africa, it certainly isn't miracle growth rates that lie behind the stunning recent outburst of fervor for political rights. Average per capita GDP growth across the Middle East has limped along at a little higher than 1 percent a year over the past 30 years. And far from the development of a large, independent middle class of entrepreneurs, the region has seen sclerotic private-sector growth, with business opportunities limited to a privileged, increasingly elderly elite. All this should have kept conditions ripe for authoritarians, oligarchs -- anyone but democrats. And then along came Mohamed Bouazizi, a downtrodden fruit vendor in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia, whose self-immolation set the Arab world on fire.

So is the inverse true? Does lack of economic opportunity set the conditions for democratic upheaval? Economic growth is, of course, a source of popular contentment and stability in countries democratic and autocratic alike. But if you really want to spark a transition from autocracy to democracy, your best bet may be economic stagnation mixed with the flow of ideas. A much more plausible story linking economic performance to political change in the Middle East and beyond is that governments tend to fall after creating expectations in a bulging youth population that they then singularly fail to meet.

"The more well-to-do a nation, the greater the chances that it will sustain democracy," wrote American political sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset in 1959, crystallizing the idea, now a received wisdom, that wealth is the inevitable handmaiden of political freedom.

But recent events may be starting to topple this notion. In the Middle East and North Africa, it certainly isn’t miracle growth rates that lie behind the stunning recent outburst of fervor for political rights. Average per capita GDP growth across the Middle East has limped along at a little higher than 1 percent a year over the past 30 years. And far from the development of a large, independent middle class of entrepreneurs, the region has seen sclerotic private-sector growth, with business opportunities limited to a privileged, increasingly elderly elite. All this should have kept conditions ripe for authoritarians, oligarchs — anyone but democrats. And then along came Mohamed Bouazizi, a downtrodden fruit vendor in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia, whose self-immolation set the Arab world on fire.

So is the inverse true? Does lack of economic opportunity set the conditions for democratic upheaval? Economic growth is, of course, a source of popular contentment and stability in countries democratic and autocratic alike. But if you really want to spark a transition from autocracy to democracy, your best bet may be economic stagnation mixed with the flow of ideas. A much more plausible story linking economic performance to political change in the Middle East and beyond is that governments tend to fall after creating expectations in a bulging youth population that they then singularly fail to meet.

Consider this: College enrollment in Egypt has climbed from 14 to 28 percent in the last two decades, and from 8 to 34 percent in Tunisia over the same period. But unemployment among 15- to 24-year-olds in the Middle East and North Africa is the highest in the world, averaging more than 25 percent. In Egypt and Tunisia the numbers are even higher. To the extent that the economy played a role in recent events, it was by fanning a sense of injustice at hardship — not by creating a class of bourgeois de Tocqueville fans.

Nor is the Arab world an outlier. In a 2009 study, MIT economist Daron Acemoglu and colleagues concluded that "high levels of income per capita do not promote transitions to democracy from non-democracy, nor do they forestall transitions to non-democracy from democracy." In fact, if the last century’s worth of global evidence suggests anything, it is that countries seeing a decline in incomes move toward democracy considerably faster than countries that have seen income growth. The Soviet Union fell apart while the economy was shrinking, not in the 1950s when growth was rapid. Newly independent African states moved toward autocracy in the 1960s and 1970s, a period of comparatively successful economic performance. They moved back toward democracy in the 1980s and 1990s, when growth had slowed markedly.

To say that recessions speed the fall of odious regimes is not to say that they are a necessary prerequisite; the overall link between economic shocks and political instability is still subject to debate. And Twitter, Facebook, and satellite TV surely played an important role in spreading the revolutionary fervor. But perhaps the real champions of liberty are the oligarchs and autocrats who promised opportunity and then failed to deliver. Surely they should understand: It’s the economy, stupid.

Charles Kenny is the director of technology and development and a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development and the author, most recently, of The Plague Cycle: The Unending War Between Humanity and Infectious Disease. Twitter: @charlesjkenny

More from Foreign Policy

A Panzerhaubitze 2000 tank howitzer fires during a mission in Ukraine’s Donetsk region.
A Panzerhaubitze 2000 tank howitzer fires during a mission in Ukraine’s Donetsk region.

Lessons for the Next War

Twelve experts weigh in on how to prevent, deter, and—if necessary—fight the next conflict.

An illustration showing a torn Russian flag and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
An illustration showing a torn Russian flag and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

It’s High Time to Prepare for Russia’s Collapse

Not planning for the possibility of disintegration betrays a dangerous lack of imagination.

An unexploded tail section of a cluster bomb is seen in Ukraine.
An unexploded tail section of a cluster bomb is seen in Ukraine.

Turkey Is Sending Cold War-Era Cluster Bombs to Ukraine

The artillery-fired cluster munitions could be lethal to Russian troops—and Ukrainian civilians.

A joint session of Congress meets to count the Electoral College vote from the 2008 presidential election the House Chamber in the U.S. Capitol  January 8, 2009 in Washington.
A joint session of Congress meets to count the Electoral College vote from the 2008 presidential election the House Chamber in the U.S. Capitol January 8, 2009 in Washington.

Congrats, You’re a Member of Congress. Now Listen Up.

Some brief foreign-policy advice for the newest members of the U.S. legislature.