Democracy?: A Question Framed through Human Rights and Economics

By Sarah Fiske

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A few years ago, I wrote an undergraduate paper on the benefits of democracy. It’s a topic I have had on my mind a lot lately as I have seen the extent to which we (the US especially and other democratic states) use the alleged benefits of democracy to justify some fairly costly means of promoting it.

On a larger scale, the “Arab Awakening” (where democratic uprisings occurred in many Arab countries) has stirred both passion and hesitation about democratic promotion. First, popular uprisings had many people in democratic countries excited about the prospect of more people having a voice in how they are governed, but continued violence and the failure to see a successful democratic transition in the area causes one to question what price is right to pay for this region. Our initial excitement, however, stemmed from a belief that democracy has advantages.

These advantages include improved human rights, decreased risks of violence, enhanced economic development, declining poverty levels, and escalated happiness and life satisfaction.  Advocating for the spread of democracy is a pillar of most democracies’ foreign policy, and a policy that is perused at a high cost – military intervention and engagement, economic statecraft and foreign policy in the US are all oriented to the spread of democracy and we must ask ourselves as citizens of the US if we believe democracy is worth it.

My paper explored the impact of democratic institutions on human rights, violence, the economy, as well as happiness and well-being. For today I will share human rights and economics with you.

On Human Rights:

Bollen defined democracy as “the extent to which the political power of the elite is minimized and that of the non-elite is maximized,”[i] and Dr. Conway Henderson points out, “The democratic process, with its emphasis on bargaining and compromise, offers a meaningful alternative for handling conflict if leaders choose to use it… with a large measure of democracy, conflict should not grow so sharp as to invite repression.”[ii]  Given this definition’s characteristics, it is logical to predict that a correlation between human rights and democracy may exist.  The United Nations promotes the link between the two saying, “Democracy deficits, weak institutions and poor leadership are among the main challenges to the effective realization of human rights.” [iii] It is indeed reasonable to conclude that democracy sets up an ideal context for the strengthening of human rights in a state and therefore democracies should have fewer abuses of these rights than nondemocratic regimes.  Additionally, the checks and balances employed on the executive through democracy make it difficult for a leader to assume authoritarian power to implement systematic human rights abuses.  In a functioning democracy, the head of the state is brought into power by the will of the people and can be unseated by the people.  If democracies indeed have less human rights violations and abuse, one should be able to examine human rights reports from before and after democratic moments in recently transitioned countries and see a trend towards a state free from human rights abuses.

While organizations and states have limited data available on human rights, since most documenting and indexing began in the 1990s, there are comparative studies that attempt to analyze democracy and human rights.  One well referenced study on this was published in 1994 by Poe and Tate and analyzed human rights offenses in the 1980’s.  Poe and Tate focused on human rights abuses in the category of state terrorism or coercive activities on the part of the government designed to induce compliance from the people (e.g. murder, torture, forced disappearance, imprisonment for political views).  They sought to determine which variables among democracy, population growth, military control were had the greatest impact on human rights.  In order to insure the study was not skewed towards economic development or democracy as prime indicators human rights, they chose to use only egregious offenses, which if anything, would yield a lower correlation with human rights as the variables are by no means linked with democracy or economic standing.  Using data from the US Department of State and Amnesty International on human rights and from Tatu Vanhanen, a well-known researcher and scholar of democracy; and Freedom House for their measures of democracy, they found, “democracy and participation in civil or international war to have a substantively important and statistically significant effect on repression.”  Their study concluded that among all variables studied, it was democracy that had the greatest correlation on human rights, saying “It would now seem difficult to deny that democratization decreases governments’ use of coercion to abuse the human rights of private citizens.”(Tate 1994).[iv]

On The Economy:

The economy and democracy is a controversial topic filled with mixed opinions and theories from well known researchers.  Entire books have been devoted to the subject from an abundance of positions.  Economists, such as Milton Friedman, argue that democratic political systems reinforce economic rights and economic freedom is essential  (Friedman 1962)[v].  Still, other authors and scholars maintain the idea that economic development often leads to democracy or at least democratic reforms in societies, but democracy is not a precursor for economic development. For example, China is the shining example of a new economic super-power without a democratic government. Although the causality of democracy on the economy is difficult to determine, the correlation is difficult to argue.

Additionally, it is noteworthy that there is a consensus of data stating that there is no correlation between authoritarian governments and long-term economic growth. Despite the lack of corroborated direct evidence linking democratic transition to economic growth, there is significant research showing correlations between democracy and increase in wealth producing measures.[vi]  Democracies create a sustainable and stable environment for capital growth. Dani Rodrik claims that authoritarian economic performance is dichotomous – it is either tremendous or terrible, but democracies tend to be reasonably strong and generally stable.  A much higher proportion of democracies perform well on the world stage Research from Stanford explains why this might be in showing that democracies are more likely to invest in human capital (education) which is critical to long term economic stability and growth.  On the other hand, authoritarian regimes have demonstrated an increased likelihood of investing in physical capital (factors of production) over education which may cause short bursts of economic gain but is less sustainable for long term development[vii]. Over all, while the question of whether democracy helps economies is incredibly difficult to answer specifically, the fact remains that democracies have better institutional capacity for economic growth in general, and on average, democratic states perform better than their non-democratic counterparts.

As a student, one of my passions is critical thinking. I’d like to encourage you, as you read this, to see what the facts say for yourself. I hope I provided a relatively fair overview of two reasons why people support democracy, and how they fuel the thought on the subject. I asked the question earlier about whether the benefits of democracy justify our means of trying to see democratic transitions. This is where my blog post ends, and your conclusions take over. So, I want to leave you with the challenge of considering what ends justify what means.

[i] Bollen, K. a. (1980), ‘Issues in the comparative Measurement of Political Democracy’, American Sociological Review, 370

[ii] Henderson, C. “Military Regimes and Rights in Developing Countries: A Comparative Perspective.  Human Rights Quarterly, 4(1), 110-123.

[iii] Nations, T. U. “Democracy and Human Rights.” Retrieved 04/12/2012, from

[iv] Poe, S. and Tate, C. (1994) ‘Repression of Human Rights and Personal Integrity in the 1980’s: A Global Analysis’, American Political Science Review, 88/4: 853-72

[v] Friedman, M. (1962). Capitalism and freedom. (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press)

[vi] Rodrik, D., Wacziarg, R. (2004) “Do Democratic Transitions Produce Bad Economic Outcomes?”

expatt headshot (1)Sarah is a student at the Patterson School studying development. The right coach and hard work transformed her from a clumsy kid to a national champion and equipped her to continue to progress independently. She hopes to help individuals and communities to maximize their strengths and potential in the development field and continually leave her job to local community members well equipped to do the work on their own.


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