April 2009, Volume 20, Number 2 $12.00
Reading Russia
Ghia Nodia Garry Kasparov Ivan Krastev
Andrei Piontkovsky Nadia Diuk Leon Aron Andrei Illarionov
Vitali Silitski Lilia Shevtsova Archie Brown
The 2008 Freedom House Survey
Arch Puddington
The Consequences of Democratization
Giovanni Carbone
Manuel Hidalgo on Venezuela
Marco Verweij & Riccardo Pelizzo on Singapore
E. Gyimah-Boadi on Ghana
Zoltan Barany on NATO at Sixty
Oisín Tansey on Kosovo
Religion and Democracy
Jean Bethke Elshtain
Giovanni Carbone
Giovanni Carbone is lecturer in political science at the Universit`a degli
Studi di Milano and visiting fellow at the Crisis States Research Centre
of the London School of Economics. This essay is part of a research
project cofunded by the Italian Ministry of Universities and Research
and the Universit`a degli Studi di Milano.
n recent decades, growing numbers of countries have embraced democratic institutions as a result of both domestic and external pressures. A
“spirit of democracy” has come to pervade the international community.
Today, there is no need to espouse the notion of an “end of history” to
appreciate that no other form of state—save perhaps, in some regions,
the Islamist form—possesses anywhere near the kind of international
legitimacy that democracy enjoys. Democracy, it would seem, has been
gradually defeating its rivals.
It is precisely because of its widespread legitimacy and rapid expansion, however, that the question of what democracy is “good for” is
becoming ever more pressing. People living in recently democratized
states will soon begin asking, if they have not already done so, what their
new regimes have brought. Most citizens will probably acknowledge
and dearly prize the rights and freedoms that constitute the foundations
of democratic life. In some places and at some times, however, others
will consider a broader balance sheet. They may ask whether democracy
has been costing them more war, social inequality, or economic stagnation, for example. They may raise questions about whether, in view of
adverse outcomes, democratic arrangements still make sense. By that
time, the legitimacy that democracy currently enjoys at the global level
may be eroding, and democracy’s future may look shakier.
But does democracy actually come at a cost, and if so, what cost? These
questions constitute the underlying core of a fragmented, largely unacknowledged, but essentially unified approach to the study of democratic
change, an approach that focuses on the “consequences of democratizaJournal of Democracy Volume 20, Number 2 April 2009
© 2009 National Endowment for Democracy and The Johns Hopkins University Press
Journal of Democracy
tion” (COD). Since the “third wave” of democratization got underway in
1974, scholars have mostly asked why, how, and what. In other words, they
have focused on the causes of political change, the modes by which one
type of regime gives way to another, and the characteristics that the new
political orders display. Remaining insufficiently studied have been the
broader political, social, and economic consequences that have occurred
in countries where democratizing changes have taken place.
Democracy and democratization have been historically and theoretically justified by reference to a multiplicity of values. These have included
broad ideals such as liberty, equality, or justice, and also more specific
notions such as the expression of the common will, the moral development
of the individual, the need to respect human diversity, or the rationality
and efficiency of decisions. These values, or “desirable aspects of life,”1
are meant to be incarnated via the introduction and subsequent working
of a democratic political system.
Yet the very strength of the normative arguments for democracy, along
with its vast spread over the last few decades, have produced a series of
broader anticipations about the effects of democratic governance. Aside
from what democracy may embody—be it political equality, individual
freedom, or something else—a democratic political system is often expected
to generate a number of side benefits such as better-consolidated state institutions; more firmly established rational-legal administrative structures;
domestic and international peace; improved economic performance and development; and the adoption of redistributive and welfare policies. After all,
the reasoning goes, if everyone is going to have a say on the way a country
is governed, does it not follow that such self-evident public goods as peace
or economic well-being should be among the obvious outcomes?
Yet scholars as well as laypeople may be assuming too much, and swallowing a large dose of mythology about what democratization can actually do. Reforming a country’s political sphere in the direction of greater
democracy can have a downside. No one can guarantee, for instance, that
democracy will not lead to rising levels of poverty or inequality. Indeed,
a closer look at the expert literature reveals concerns about the harmful
consequences that may be associated with democratization. Most notable
is the worry that in divided societies, elections or the prospect thereof may
trigger or exacerbate violent conflicts. Only slightly less prominent is the
fear that participatory politics may promote poor economic performance
and gradual decline. On balance, however, democracy gets credit for
causing mostly positive effects. The introduction of democracy is thus
portrayed as something worthwhile not only for its own sake, but also as
a useful (if indirect) method for promoting other goods.
The question of democratization’s likely corollaries is of more than
academic interest. Many a Western country’s foreign policy assumes,
for example, that “good governance” (a concept boasting significant
overlap with that of multiparty democracy) spurs economic development,
Giovanni Carbone
or that promoting democracy helps to bring about peace among as well
as within nations. Understanding the extent to which these and similar
assumptions are correct requires systematic theoretical reflection and
empirical investigation. Inquiries into COD are a further step along the
research path that comparative-politics scholars with an interest in thirdwave democracies have been following in recent years.2 These scholars
began by studying democratic transitions and their causes, then moved
to looking at the problems of democratic consolidation, and followed
that with attention to questions surrounding the “quality of democracy.”
In the new step that the COD approach represents, democratization is
no longer observed as a dependent variable that must be explained, but
rather as an independent variable that may help to explain a wide range
of political, economic, and social effects. Democracy is here seen not as
an endpoint, but as a starting point.
Mapping Democracy’s Consequences
Published studies of democracy’s effects are few compared to research
efforts that view democracy as a dependent variable. Many of the former
focus heavily on the problems of conflict and macroeconomic performance,
and leave democratization’s other possible effects mostly aside. Social
scientists, for example, “know surprisingly little about what types of governments tend to improve the welfare of the poor.”3 Studies of the impact
of democratic change also suffer from being scattered and fragmented,
so that even for subjects such as the relationship between democracy and
economic growth, the considerable literature that now exists is “rather
dispersed.”4 This is compounded by the relative compartmentalization of
these works, with little mutual recognition among scholars interested in
the various phenomena that are supposedly linked to democracy, nor much
cumulative effort to clarify common, underlying issues. The very existence
of the unifying thread that binds together this heterogeneous, but strongly
interrelated, set of arguments is hardly acknowledged.
To illustrate the breadth of the extant COD literature, the Table on
page 128 below offers a nonexhaustive list of more than fifty different
hypotheses—grouped under seven major headings plus a miscellaneous
category—about the effects of democratic rule. It is important to note
that all the hypotheses listed in the Table involve the expectation that
democracy will produce good effects. This not only reflects the prevalence of an optimistic (or, if you like, optimistically biased) perspective
toward democracy in the works under consideration, but also represents a
deliberate choice that I have made in order to build a more straightforward
and consistent framework.
Existing COD studies differ, but have enough basic elements in common to form a distinct subfield of study. The key commonalities are a
view of democracy as something that explains (rather than demands
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explanation, as in most of the literature), and the insight that the implications of introducing democracy go beyond the change of regime itself.
Another basic element of commonality is the shared set of definitional
issues that studies of democratization’s consequences must face. All such
works need, on the one hand, to specify what they mean by democracy
and democratic change, and on the other, must define the democracydependent phenomena under examination.
The debates within the COD literature on what is meant by democracy
and democratization—a fundamental issue for democratization studies
at large—raise three important questions. The first asks how broad a notion of democracy should be adopted. This relates to the crucial need to
distinguish what democracy is from what democracy generates. The question is whether such items as stateness, political order, rule of law, basic
resources, human rights, gender parity, or egalitarianism are constitutive
parts of democracy, or, if not, what the relationship between them and
democracy is supposed to be. The abovementioned elements are often
found as “borderline features” on the margins of notions of democracy.
But are they prerequisites of democracy, essential aspects of democracy,
or possible consequences of democracy? Investigating the consequences
of democratic change requires that the independent variable—in this case,
“democracy” itself—be demarcated in a particularly economical way. For
this reason, the best expedient is to adopt Joseph Schumpeter’s famously
minimalist notion of democracy as institutionalized political competition
carried out by means of free and fair elections.
The second issue has to do with the “magnitude” of the regime change. 5
A certain phenomenon—promotion of interethnic peace, for instance—
may be explained not merely by a given country’s introduction of democratic institutions, but also by the extent of the political changes that the
democratization process implied. The changes undergone by country
X after moving (let us say) from light authoritarianism to low-quality
electoral democracy may plausibly be much less crucial than those experienced by country Y, which moved from a harsh authoritarian regime to
a well-functioning democratic system and thus climbed more rungs on the
democratic ladder. Where political change is more basic and far-reaching,
the stimulus to side-effects is likely to be that much stronger.
The third problem also relates to the need to observe what follows
democratization, a need that distinguishes the COD approach. Time is a
crucial factor: Once democratic reforms are adopted, how long does it
take for the expected consequences to appear? The short-term impact of
democracy may be quite different from its long-term, durable effects. If we
are unaware of this, we risk missing what are arguably the “true” effects
of democratization. With regard to inequality, for example, the claim has
been made that “at least approximately 20 years of democratic experience are required for the egalitarian effect to occur.”6 Countries that are
now democratic, but which were not so five years ago, may not yet have
Giovanni Carbone
gone through this reduction of inequality. If they are included in a crossnational sample simply on the basis of their current “democratic status,”
their presence will tend to reduce any estimate of democratization’s effects
on income disparity. Rather than simply measuring a country’s level of
democracy at any given point in time, therefore, one should quantify the
“stock of democracy”7—or, in other words, the extent of experience with
democracy—that the country has accumulated. Democratic processes
need time to take root and flourish; a longitudinal definition, therefore,
can have a decisive impact on research findings.
Aside from definitional issues, the interrelations and overlap among
the expected by-products of democratic change lend further elements of
unity to COD studies. The intertwining is most evident when we look at
the causal mechanisms that the various theoretical explanations put forward to account for the hypothesized relationships. A phenomenon that
one strand of the COD literature examines as a dependent variable often
appears as an intervening variable in another strand. If, say, the argument
is made that democracies increase growth or reduce conflict by lessening
inequality, scholars whose main interest lies in finding out what causes
good economic performance or civil wars could benefit by hearing what
researchers who study the links between democracy and social inequality
have to say. Thus, a more systematic examination of the causal mechanisms implied by existing theories highlights the interrelations among
various strands within the COD subfield of study and shows that such
strands would strongly benefit from reciprocal recognition.
It may be that some transformations turn out to be mutually reinforcing—a switch to democracy may, by reducing inequality, strengthen a
regime’s capacity to bring about or maintain internal peace. Other shifts,
however, might involve trade-offs, as in the scenario where democracy’s
reduction of inequality also works to dampen economic growth. If tradeoffs really exist, understanding the implications of democratic change
is ever more crucial, as the distinct consequences expected from the
introduction of democracy may have to be weighed against each other
in assessing the desirability of political reforms: Would we be willing
to foster democratization if we knew that, while reducing inequalities, it
would also threaten to spark violent domestic conflicts?
Improved Social Welfare?
Among the lines of inquiry within the COD literature is one that explores
the relationship between democracy and social welfare. This can be a starting point for gathering together some selected studies and looking at the
way they constitute a fairly coherent, if still dispersed, body of work.
In many early cases of democratization, a key motive was to improve
social welfare by tackling poverty, redistributing wealth, and establishing
new social services and social-protection systems. Without reforms in the
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Table­—Purported Effects of Democracy
Main Hypothesis
Democracy . . .
Democracy . . .
enhances nation-building
makes state authority more legitimate
weakens communal identities
advances citizenship rights
strengthens the state
lessens the authority of nonstate centers of power
makes state authority more legitimate
reduces coups d’état
increases international legitimacy
strengthens administrative structures
increases state revenues
increases the size of the state
improves the rule of law
reduces arbitrary rule
reduces corruption and clientelism
improves public-service provision
promotes domestic peace and
reduces armed conflicts
reduces coups d’état
reduces nonstate armed centers of power
reduces communal conflicts
reduces political violence
reduces probability of mass murder and genocide
promotes international peace
strengthens national security
favors peaceful settlements of international disputes
favors peaceful settlements with other democracies
favors victory in war
reduces military spending
encourages use of economic sanctions
promotes interstate cooperation
promotes participation in international peacekeeping
reduces terrorism
favors economic development
raises growth rates
stabilizes growth rates
stabilizes economic policy
improves the protection of property rights
lowers fiscal deficits
lowers inflation
improves credit ratings
favors foreign investments
makes development aid effective
facilitates economic reforms
promotes privatization
promotes economic liberalization
reduces taxation
promotes trade openness
promotes financial openness
increases social welfare
lowers inequality
lowers poverty levels
raises wages
raises social spending
facilitates social reform
facilitates land reform
improves human development
improves education
improves health
prevents famine
also has other effects
improves respect for human rights
promotes gender equality
favors protection of the environment
improves trust and social capital
makes people happier
Giovanni Carbone
political sphere, it was felt, social needs would never receive proper attention. The notion that there is a positive relationship between democracy
and social welfare assumes that the type of process used to make collective
decisions shapes the substance of what is decided. The introduction of
universal adult suffrage and democratic politics entailed an opening of the
political arena and its decision-making processes to previously excluded
social strata. Once included, the reasoning goes, the least privileged will
demand policies that give them more access to material resources, promote
a more equitable distribution of wealth, and improve the well-being of the
many, rather than the few. Political democracy will thus sooner or later
change social outcomes. For most political economists, it is “nearly axiomatic that democracy serves as a mechanism for redistribution.”8
A number of specific causal mechanisms are supposedly at play in the
democracy-welfare linkage. Competitive and inclusive politics creates
an environment in which the demands of the worse-off can be openly
voiced in public debates and the media. Claims can be advanced and
pressure exerted in organized, sustained, and systematic ways through
interest groups, political parties, social movements, and the ballot box.
Pluralist elections enable voters to exercise real influence by holding
rulers accountable for the outcomes of their decisions. The needs of the
poor can no longer be neglected as policy makers concerned with gaining
popular consensus find it a matter of their own self-interest to provide
public goods and services rather than trade in private rents.9 Even where
certain elements of democracy (such as alternation in power, a lively civil
society, or direct forms of participation) are absent or inchoate, electoral
pressures may be enough to prompt policy changes. This contrasts sharply
with the way things work in full-fledged nondemocratic regimes, where
even the most ill-chosen policies and disastrous consequences may fail
to knock the ruling group from its perch “as long as the authoritarian
regime’s core constituency . . . is well compensated.”10
Yet the idea that democracy benefits the many and the needy may have
a shakier basis than is commonly assumed. The experience of East Asia’s
“developmental states,” for example, appears to show that state leaders
who enjoy a degree of insulation from social demands and bottom-up
pressures may adopt policies that contribute impressively to raising the
living standards of the less-advantaged. In this view, authoritarian regimes
may be better able to protect the interests of the poor and to implement
measures that tend to reduce inequality. The very notion that democracy
means inclusive politics may be misleading. Where majoritarian institutions are in place, democratic politics may produce a distinction between
winners and losers that ends up marginalizing certain groups. Even if
outnumbered, the middle class may turn out to be better organized and
hence more influential than the poor, with the latter struggling to affect
decision-making processes in anything more than a marginal way. Furthermore, formally extending the franchise and opening up public debate
Journal of Democracy
is no guarantee that key social issues such as famine, poverty, education,
or health will acquire political saliency. If they do not, electoral processes
are unlikely to make much difference. Finally, nondemocratic practices
may prove resilient and continue to play a significant role in countries that
have undergone democratic reform. To the extent that informal processes
and neopatrimonial clienteles are more relevant than electoral mechanisms
and the rule of law, the assumption that voters are in a position to demand
and obtain responses to their social-welfare needs may be misplaced.
Is there any evidence that the formal recognition of a political role for
the worse-off actually makes a difference? The empirical literature regarding democracy’s impact on social-welfare policy focuses on the ways in
which extension of the franchise creates pressures and incentives for those
in government to a) ensure the survival of the deprived; b) fight against,
and possibly eliminate, poverty; c) distribute income in a more equitable
manner; and d) expand and improve the provision of social services.
At the most basic level, democratic rule helps to put the survival
concerns of vulnerable people on the agenda of elected governments,
which are held accountable through the combination of a free flow of
information, open public debate, and electoral mechanisms. Nobel laureate Amartya Sen has famously claimed that democracy protects the lives
of the underprivileged by working as an early-warning system that helps
to avert major social disasters. Even in countries as vulnerable as India
or Botswana, open political systems have allegedly been instrumental
in staving off the worst food crises, so that “no substantial famine has
ever occurred in a country with a democratic form of government and
a relatively free press . . . [as] democracy . . . would spread the penalty
of famine to the ruling groups and the political leadership.” By contrast,
regardless of their broader economic performance, nondemocratic governments in countries such as Ethiopia, Somalia, and, most notably, China
had no mechanisms to learn about popular needs and make politicians
respond to them in a timely fashion. These states repeatedly failed to
prevent famines—sometimes even using the withholding of food as a
weapon—and thus failed to protect the lives of the poor. The lesson that
Sen draws from this is that rights and needs are strongly interconnected,
as “political rights can have a major role in providing incentives and
information towards the solution of economic privation.”11
Besides favoring the sheer survival of the worse-off, democracy raises
expectations about broader improvements in social welfare, including
poverty eradication, wealth distribution, and human development. Democratic change may promote social policies that reshape the distribution of
income. These can come in the form of land reform and changes in labor
policy; fiscal and social-security policies, including pensions and welfareoriented transfer payments; housing and social services (including health
and education); and even policies designed to empower women.
When it comes to fighting poverty, democracies have a modest record.
Giovanni Carbone
From Bangladesh to Namibia, success stories can be cited in which
electoral-competition mechanisms seem “to have acted as a favourable
impetus towards the introduction of policies aimed at the very poorest.”
Overall, however, “chronic poverty and destitution remain visible phenomena in long-standing democracies, [and] there is little evidence to
suggest that democratisation is the long-term panacea for the poorest.”12
Poor countries with established democratic regimes, in particular, did
prevent poverty from worsening significantly, but they only achieved
moderate results in reducing indigence. No developing country that is
also a democracy has been successful at eliminating poverty.13 The record of authoritarian states, on the contrary, is much more varied. While
some, notably in Sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America, have driven the
material conditions of the needy from bad to worse, others have shown
themselves remarkably adept at bringing poverty down to extremely low
levels. Singapore is a case in point here, as are South Korea and Taiwan,
which are democracies now but which made their large strides in poverty
reduction during periods of authoritarian rule.
Democracy’s limited success at fighting poverty in low-income countries constitutes a paradox. This is not only because democracy should in
theory provide channels for the expression of such compelling needs, but
also because developing countries, where poor people are so numerous, are
precisely the places where they should be able to bring the greatest electoral
pressure to bear on behalf of antipoverty measures. What can explain the
failure of such pressure to appear? Alex de Waal suggests that the reason
why poverty, homelessness, and malnutrition have not been defeated—
whether in developing countries or in advanced democracies such as the
United States—is that forms of deprivation other than famine have rarely
achieved significant political saliency.14 Even in India, where poverty is
terrible and widespread, political contention has rarely focused on poverty
alleviation. (One exception is the 1971 general election, when Indira Gandhi
ran on a platform of “abolish[ing] poverty.”) In many developing countries,
the reason may be that voters (including poor ones) privilege some other
form or forms of identity over that of socioeconomic class. Questions of
poverty and economic redistribution will likely be left by the wayside if
elections come to turn on ethnicity or religion, for example.15
The Impact on Inequality and Social Services
If democracy has a mixed record tackling poverty, perhaps it fares better
in addressing inequality. The idea that a reduction of political disparity must
cause a reduction of economic inequality seems straightforward. In fact,
it does appear that redistributive policies are more likely to be introduced
under democratic rule. Some empirical findings show, for example, that
popular pressures in developing countries are likely to place land reform
on the agenda of elected governments, and that wage increases are more
Journal of Democracy
easily achieved within a democratic framework. 16 Under authoritarian
systems, by contrast, landowners and capitalists with a stake in the ruling
coalition are likely to prevent redistributive processes from taking place,
as happened in Augusto Pinochet’s Chile, in Brazil after a military-backed
regime took power in 1964, and in Iran under the Shah.
Despite a tendency toward more redistribution, real-world democracies
nonetheless stop short of fulfilling the so-called median-voter hypothesis. The latter posits that, if the median voter’s income is lower than the
average income, democratic politics will bring about a redistribution of
national wealth through, for example, progressive tax rates. 17 But the East
European cases of transition after the fall of communism are instances in
which inequality went up rather than down as democratization advanced.
And as mentioned above, South Korea and Taiwan undertook efforts to
bring about a more equitable distribution of wealth before rather than after
they became democracies. How can we explain this mismatch between
the median-voter hypothesis and the evidence? Perhaps the poor simply
lack the political capacity to demand and obtain redistribution, or perhaps
they restrain themselves from making radical demands in this direction. 18
Moreover, while the short-term effects of democracy admit of enough
ambiguity to make generalizations problematic, substantial empirical
evidence suggests that, in the long run, democracy does reduce inequality.
In this sense, an inverse U-shaped relationship, or a “political Kuznets
curve,” appears to exist: The advent of democracy has initial costs in terms
of rising inequality, but eventually democracy will tend to shrink the gap
between rich and poor and produce more equal outcomes.19
Enlarging the Public Sector
Besides openly redistributive measures, democratic politics is also
expected to generate calls for an overall enlargement of the public sector.
Low-income groups tend to benefit most from state intervention, since,
in contrast to the upper classes, they are not in a position to secure such
services privately. The newly enfranchised middle and lower sections of
the population are thus likely to demand both a general expansion in the
provision of public services (including, for example, access to electric
power or clean water) as well as a specific extension of social services
(for instance, more schools and health clinics).
An empirical assessment of the impact of democratic change on social
services requires a distinction between the “scope” of services (that is,
how much is spent on them) and their “quality” (how effectively they are
delivered). With regard to the former, a range of cross-sectional quantitative studies confirms the existence of a positive link between democracy
and social spending. In both Africa and Latin America, for example, countries that are ruled by elected leaders spend more on primary education.
Rural voters appear to be particularly keen on education spending, which
Giovanni Carbone
can be a significantly redistributive policy whose greatest beneficiaries
are the poor and their children.20 Electoral competition, as David Brown
explains, thus promotes responses to this kind of demand:
[D]emocratic politicians are driven to adopt survival strategies designed to
widen their electoral base. Allocating government resources to programs
such as housing, public works, health and education all represent timehonoured strategies of broadening one’s base of support. Directing resources
toward education is a particularly effective strategy. . . . Spending on education, particularly primary education, reaches a significant segment of the
population. Constructing new schools, establishing school lunch programs,
supplying books and other resources all provide tangible evidence to the
voter that his or her political representative is worth re-electing.21
While the effect of democracy on social spending seems clear, the
existence of a relationship between democracy and actual government
performance in “the social sector” is, surprisingly, more controversial.
Of course it is easy to list cases, ranging from Bismarck’s Prussia to Suharto’s Indonesia, in which authoritarian regimes have achieved impressive expansions of social services. Despite this, several researchers have
found that democracy has a positive impact on levels of public health and
education.22 In a pair of essays published in these pages, for example,
Patricio Navia and Thomas D. Zweifel have shown that infant-mortality
rates—which they take as indicators of chronic hunger, health, and general
social welfare—are lower in democracies than in autocracies. This holds
true, moreover, at all levels of per capita income (PCI) and for the period
before and during the Cold War as well as the years after its end.23
As for education, an examination of primary-school enrollments in
developing countries from 1960 through 1987 reveals a strong link with
democratic rule. Interestingly, democracy’s effect is greatest in the case
of poor countries: Among those where PCI was around US$1,000 per
year, the share of grade-school–age children actually enrolled in primary
classes was 12 percentage points higher among democracies as opposed
to nondemocracies. At a PCI level of around $4,365 per annum, however,
authoritarian and democratic countries have similar (very large) shares of
their preteen youngsters in school. Beyond a certain level of development,
in other words, all countries tend to achieve universal primary education.24
In sub-Saharan Africa, the incentives for democratic governments to promote primary education seem to be much stronger than for full-fledged
autocracies: The democracies have higher rates of primary-school attendance, and these correlate positively with higher rates of public approval
for the democracies’ presidents. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the
provision of primary education was a salient issue in national elections
across Kenya, Malawi, Tanzania, and Uganda. In each country, an elected
government went on to abolish primary-school fees.25
Other researchers, however, claim that increased social spending
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rarely translates into larger outputs (such as immunization or schoolenrollment rates) or better outcomes (such as higher literacy or lower
infant mortality). According to Joan M. Nelson, the electoral pressures
that foster increases in social spending have a substantial impact neither upon social services nor upon the actual education or health of the
populace. Improvements in the quality of services and the fairness with
which they are distributed would require institutional reforms or resource
reallocations, but bureaucratic resistance and a public without enough
interest, information, or capacity to assess change raise tall obstacles
to real reform. “Politicians in democracies,” as Nelson puts it, “receive
signals from the public and major interest groups that favor spending
and expansion, but not reallocation or reform of social services.”26 Thus,
as Michael Ross observes, more money may be spent on health without
infant and child mortality falling by much, because the additional public
goods that are produced in response to the median voter’s preferences
selectively target middle-income households. Yet the latter would buy
essential health services from private providers anyway—middle-class
people already have the wherewithal to keep their babies from dying—
and thus the higher public spending’s net benefit to society as a whole
is limited. The poor, on the contrary, are not the main beneficiaries of
these policies despite the fact that they lack access to alternatives.27
The notion that democracy fosters human development is thus subject
to serious challenge. Not only the reality and strength of the relationship
but also the underlying causal mechanisms have come under question.
Against such skeptical analyses, those who argue for a positive link
between democracy and human development raise the issue of time.
Although the presence or level of democracy at any given point in time
may make little or no demonstrable difference, over a longer haul the
persistence of democracy does have a positive impact on human development (as this is measured by the summary index of infant mortality). In
the immediate wake of a transition, a new democratic regime typically
finds itself overwhelmed, with key institutions and processes that have
not yet had a chance to consolidate. Under such circumstances, politics
and policy making often become scrambling affairs of “putting out fires.”
When democracy becomes more established, by contrast, governments
become more likely to adopt the kind of long-term perspective that favors
the creation and execution of better social policy.28
Although the link between democracy’s advent and improvements in
social welfare seems as if it should be straightforward, the few studies
that have tried to test this link’s existence hint at a more complex connection. Democratic mechanisms can be instrumental in addressing extreme
vulnerability, but they are better at protecting the survival of the poor than
they are at vigorously fighting poverty. Democratic change can also help
to reduce the distance between a country’s low-income and high-income
groups, but such reduction may take time to appear, and then only after an
Giovanni Carbone
initial worsening of inequality. Democracies tend to spend more on social
sectors than authoritarian governments do, but this is no guarantee that
those who are worse off will benefit. On what remains an understudied
subject, these initial, tentative findings are the best currently available.
Are such results enough to satisfy those who hold high hopes connected
to the introduction of democracy?
Consequences for Consolidation
In terms of both its normative legitimacy and its spread on the ground,
democracy has gained unprecedented momentum over the last few decades, some recent setbacks notwithstanding. A sound understanding
of democratization’s side effects is critical not only to our current net
assessment of what democratic reforms have wrought around the world,
but also to our grasp of democracy’s likely prospects.
In order to survive and consolidate over the long term, any new
democratic regime will need to undergo (among other things) a process
of gradual legitimization. Legitimacy, in turn, can be acquired in two
fundamental ways. The first is normative: People hold values and beliefs that assert democracy’s inherent superiority and value it “for its
own sake.” The second is performance-based: People come to accept
democracy because it helps to attain valued goals such as material wellbeing or social peace. Although these two dimensions of legitimacy are
distinct from each other on the conceptual level, in real life they are
interrelated. Deeply engrained democratic values would likely lead the
elites and ordinary citizens of an established democracy to resist the
abandonment of participatory politics. And yet, gravely and consistently
dismal results in the achievement of other goals (security, economic
well-being, or social equality) might overwhelm the will to remain loyal
to the democratic model.
Of course, compared to nondemocratic regimes, democratic arrangements are unique in that they offer a chance to eject the government of
the day without sacrificing the whole democratic edifice. In practice,
however, this goes only so far: For emerging democracies especially,
legitimacy requires at least a modicum of adequate performance. In the
latter’s absence, people are likely to withdraw their support, and may accept the wholesale abandonment of democracy on the ground that some
nondemocratic alternative will prove more effective at key tasks such as
keeping order and promoting prosperity.
Looking at the by-products that democracy “produces,” therefore, is
vitally important if we wish fully to understand democracy’s own development, including the possibility of finding remedies for its least appealing
consequences. Ultimately, however, if, where, and when all “good things”
do not go together, democracy is more likely to be put in question. Thus,
through their positive or negative impact on the legitimacy of the regime,
Journal of Democracy
the consequences of democracy feed back into and affect the very process of democratic consolidation. In an apparent paradox, the effects of
democracy can themselves become important causes of democratization.
What democracy is able to generate, particularly in developing countries,
will crucially affect democratic prospects the world over.
The author wishes to thank Davide Grassi, Rocco Ronza, Elisa Giunchi, Federico Battera,
Matthijs Bogaards, Gloria Regonini, Matteo Jessoula, and Marco Giuliani for their helpful
comments on earlier versions of this essay.
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Giovanni Carbone
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28. Gerring et al., “Democracy and Human Development,” 4–5.

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