Advancing a Free Society

Can Poor Countries Afford Democracy?

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

“Poor countries cannot afford democracy” is a common refrain suggesting that poor countries need strong and authoritarian leaders to overcome the various forces that kept them poor for centuries. In apparent support for this claim is the fact that the great majority of rich countries are mainly democratic. Yet, while the effects of democracy on economic performance are controversial, democracies can have some economic advantages for poor as well as rich countries.

The actual effects of democracy on the economy and other aspects of life should be compared not with an ideal form of government, but with various governments that do not have a free press, do not allow open competition for political office, do not have widespread suffrage, and lack the other institutions and freedoms that define democracies. As Winston Churchill famously said, “"No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time." This is from a House of Commons speech on Nov. 11, 1947 that was delivered about two years after he was defeated in an early post- World War II election.

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