A rainfall theory of democracy

by on October 22, 2010 at 1:50 pm in History, Political Science | Permalink

From Stephen Haber and Victor Menaldo:

Why have some countries remained obstinately authoritarian despite repeated waves of democratization while others have exhibited uninterrupted democracy? This paper explores the emergence and persistence of authoritarianism and democracy. We argue that settled agriculture requires moderate levels of precipitation, and that settled agriculture eventually gave birth to the fundamental institutions that under-gird today’s stable democracies. Although all of the world’s societies were initially tribal, the bonds of tribalism weakened in places where the surpluses associated with settled agriculture gave rise to trade, social differentiation, and taxation. In turn, the economies of scale required to efficiently administer trade and taxes meant that feudalism was eventually replaced by the modern territorial state, which favored the initial emergence of representative institutions in Western Europe. Subsequently, when these initial territorial states set out to conquer regions populated by tribal peoples, the institutions that could emerge in those conquered areas again reflected nature’s constraints. An instrumental variables approach demonstrates that while low levels of rainfall cause persistent autocracy and high levels of rainfall strongly favor it as well, moderate rainfall supports stable democracy. This econometric strategy also shows that rainfall works through the institutions of the modern territorial state borne from settled agriculture, institutions that are proxied for by low levels of contemporary tribalism.

For the pointer I thank www.bookforum.com.

1 Andrew October 22, 2010 at 10:15 am

The rain of terra

2 dirk October 22, 2010 at 10:20 am

I bet Roissy has a good explanation for this.

3 Millian October 22, 2010 at 10:26 am

I can show an econometric correlation between democracy and global warming.

It doesn't mean that any causation exists.

4 nate October 22, 2010 at 11:01 am

I for one believe it. We are all just puppets to the underlying environment. I learned that by watching The Wire.

5 Kevin Postlewaite October 22, 2010 at 11:59 am

Hmmm, with the exceptions of some of the Southern states, this seems to hold true for the US as well:
Rainfall: http://www.google.com/imgres?imgurl=http://3.bp.b

Red v Blue: http://www-personal.umich.edu/~mejn/election/2008/

6 allan October 22, 2010 at 12:11 pm

Well, with rain, perhaps, comes a rising tide, and a rising tide lifts all boats.

So, we now have theoretical support of Reaganomics?

editorial remark. This might not quite work, because, as we know, rising tides are caused by the moon, not rain. I will have to consult with the leading enviromental senator, Sen. Inhofe, on this matter.

7 Swedo October 22, 2010 at 1:20 pm

The mother of all things is war. Democratic governments are supported by about half the people and hence have great legitimacy. Legitimacy is good when raising taxes and armies. Taxes and armies are good for making war.

Item 1: Sweden introduced universal suffrage right after WWI. The slogan back then was: One man – One vote – One rifle (meaning conscription). Before then, voting rights were based on taxable income, although the institution of parliament is ancient.

Item 2: USA introduced universal suffrage for blacks during the Vietnam War, in which many blacks fought.

Item 3: According to legend, the transition from Roman Monarchy to Roman Republic began in 494 BC, when plebeian soldiers refused to march into war unless they could elect their own leaders.

Democracy always seem to start that way. You need an identity, an enemy and a rather dangerous situation. Soldiers are the noblest of subjects, in any society, and more entitled than anybody else. It is as true today as during the era of knights and crusaders.

In a total war, everybody is a indispensable and therefore entitled. Societies were people are subjects are simply weaker than societies were people are citizens.

8 Michael F. Martin October 22, 2010 at 3:20 pm

Had a similar reaction to B.B. Since they didn't cite him, I'm wondering whether the authors have read any Wittfogel.

9 Anthony October 22, 2010 at 9:04 pm

The paper has a curious blend of recentism and historical reach. Conditions in England and France and Germany were conducive to the long, slow, tortuous development of democracy, yet conditions in countries which have been independent only 50 years tell us about their prospects for future progress?

There's a line in the paper comparing Nigerian democracy to English, seemingly utterly unaware that English democracy of the 1600s probably looks worse than Nigerian democracy of 2010 to most honest democracy-lovers.

Their method frankly breaks down with high-rainfall countries – their model basically has no explanatory power for high-rainfall countries.

10 David J October 23, 2010 at 6:00 am

Just postulating here but high-rainfall areas would tend to have an abundance of natural vegitation thus making the establishment of agriculture, as well as dense communities, more difficult and increasing the probability of survival by foraging which is nominally a subsistence method of living.

The biggest complaint and issue with this kind of analysis is identifying a timeframe that is relevant – especially for commenting on "stability". If you consider that the United States is, for this purpose, a Democracy, I would suggest that you'd have to focus on the fact that it is effectively a colony of England/Europe where the natural factors there and in the U.S. led the societies to become less autocratic over time and support the degree of self-sufficiency necessary for those countries to maintain stable democratic societies over significant periods of time – with the main risk being self-implosion by relying too much on the outside world.

The biggest problem with any single paper like this, however, is not that it fails but rather that it is going to be incomplete due to the fact that no single paper can adequately deal with the degree of complexity found in the social sciences. Instead of reading it and looking for those areas where it fails I would read it (if I do) looking to take away ideas and inter-relationships that make sense and that are "complete" in their own right. With those in mind I can read futher works with the additional context and concerns in mind get a more clearer picture of how and why somethings happened and, most importantly, the relative degree to which different factors contributed. The more factors I can consider in this relativistic comparison the more I can understand.

11 farmer October 23, 2010 at 6:59 am

odd, because both israel and south africa have democracy, and certainly do not have high rain fall supported ag.

12 SJE October 23, 2010 at 2:01 pm

I think this thesis relies on overly facile set of facts.

For example, the birthplace of democracy, Greece, is notably drier than Northern Europe. Australia is very dry, but has had a strong democracy longer than many European nations. By contrast, the tropics are frequently the least democratic. Compare Congo vs South Africa, Central America v North America, or Australia versus Indonesia.

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