In Box

The Law Still Stands

Why I stand by my arguments about oil and dictatorship.

Kris Connor/Getty Images
Kris Connor/Getty Images

Thank you for sharing Romain Wacziarg’s paper challenging my 2006 FP cover story, "The First Law of Petropolitics." I am flattered that Wacziarg took my argument so seriously as to do this in-depth statistical analysis. I would urge readers to read his critique, but to also read several other major statistical analyses that broadly support my arguments in favor of the oil resource curse. These include:

As for the specific critique of my argument, I would simply note that Wacziarg focuses on the effects of oil prices, which is a literal reading of the "first law." But he 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. Higher oil prices have a more powerful political effect in major producers (Russia, Venezuela) than in minor ones (Thailand). In-depth studies, like those by University of California/Los Angeles political scientist Michael L. Ross, and others, find the strongest effect of oil revenues is to help undemocratic (or semi-democratic) regimes stay in power, such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Azerbaijan, Russia, Gabon, Iran, Algeria, and Equatorial Guinea. Opinion is divided on whether higher oil revenues also lead to the deterioration of accountability in democracies. Ross argues that under some conditions — basically outside the industrialized democracies — it does, as exemplified by Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela. Most of Wacziarg’s analysis lumps together all oil-producing countries, democracies and autocracies alike. I could cite other statistical techniques that were used by Wacziarg to come to his conclusion. One has to do with the time frame of his study. In most countries, oil wealth only became an important political factor after the oil shocks of the 1970s. The other has to do with the fact that, while Wacziarg is correct in showing that higher oil prices have not made oil-rich countries less democratic, as Ross has shown in his statistical work, it has allowed them to remain steadily undemocratic at a time when the rest of the world has become vastly more democratic. Oil has made it possible for these regimes to avoid the Third Wave of democratization. Again, I hope readers will read my original piece, read others that have come to similar conclusions, and read Wacziarg and decide for themselves.

Thomas L. Friedman is a columnist for the New York Times.