Read the following section of Robert Kagan’s latest column and try not to be terrified:
During the slavery controversy of the 1850s, Northerners who opposed confronting the South argued for letting nature take its course. Slavery was doomed, they argued, because it could not spread where the climate was inhospitable to cotton and because the atavistic slave system would inevitably be overtaken by industrialization
Abraham Lincoln called these “lullaby” arguments. He agreed that slavery could not compete in the long run, but he feared slaveholders could adapt for a time and even thrive. Slavery had seemed doomed in the 1790s, too, until Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin, and then it had boomed. The Industrial Revolution could produce new ways to make slavery profitable. It would take the will of men, not nature, to bring down this horrific human invention.
This old debate ought to sound familiar, for we have been having it again over the surprising resilience of autocracy in China, Russia, Venezuela and elsewhere. It wasn’t supposed to be this resilient. After the Cold War, many insisted that in a globalized economy, nations had to liberalize to compete and that economic liberalization would produce political liberalization. As national economies approached a certain level of per capita income, growing middle classes would demand legal and political power, which in turn would provide the basis for democracy. Some pundits pointed to the desirability of “liberal autocracy” — the dictator who could steer his nation through the necessary stages of development until stable democracy could take hold.
It’s worth noting that Lincoln eventually ended slavery by, you know, invading the South. It would be nice to think that Kagan is only using the analogy to compare supporters of economic integration to slavery apologists; I certainly wouldn’t put such demagoguery beyond him. But on the other hand, when Bill Kristol can casually suggest military action against Burma and Norman Podhoretz is backing a four-state invasion tour of the Middle East, it’s easy to imagine that Kagan actually wants military action against China, Russia, and Venezuela.
As for the actual substance of whether economic growth leads inexorably to democracy, I don’t think there’s a strict causal relationship. It’s true that the richest nations, especially per capita, are far more likely to be democratic than not, but that’s not enough to base a theory of democratization upon. What I do think is relevant is the work of Adam Przeworski and Fernando Limongi, who have found that a nation’s GDP per capita seems to determine the stability of a democratic transition. There seems to be a tipping point of $6,000; if the nation’s GDP per capita is above that, the democratic system will last indefinitely. Between $4,000 and $6,000, the average duration is a hundred years; between $1,000 and $4,000, it’s 33 years; and under $1,000, just 8.2 years. So while it’s important to pressure dictatorships for enough liberalization to allow a democratic revolution to take place, it’s also important to support their economic growth to ensure that such a revolution sticks.