CritCom | Homepage

Inequality and Democratization: An Elite-Competition Approach

0 Comments 🕔21.May 2015

Inequality and Democratization: An Elite-Competition Approach comes at a time when inequality is once again in the spotlight, both in the academic and popular debate. Inequality is usually assumed to have pernicious effects, such as reducing public goods provisions, impeding development, or even triggering political violence. In a similar vein, political scientists and economists have long argued that inequality is an obstacle to democratic transitions. Democracy, it is commonly assumed, brings about a system of redistribution from the rich to the poor: since the median voter is typically poorer than the national average, universal franchise under democracy should give rise to progressive taxation, whereby the rich are ‘soaked’ to save the poor. This is the familiar logic posited by the Meltzer and Richard model, which still constitutes the fundamental building block for economic theories of modernization. Afraid of redistribution if democracy were to be adopted, rich elites should oppose democratic change. The higher the level of inequality in a society – and therefore, the more the rich have to lose – the lower the chances of a transition.  Thus, we can add the democratization-impeding effect to the list of inequality’s bad social outcomes. Or can we not?

In Inequality and Democratization: An Elite-Competition Approach, Ansell and Samuels challenge the commonly assumed relationship between inequality and democratization. In fact, they turn it on its head. Their proposition is that inequality fosters democratization. Why? They argue that it is not the poor masses who drive transitions but, rather, comparatively rich elites under autocracy who are excluded from political influence. For them, democracy is a tool to limit the extent to which autocratic power-holders can grab a share of their wealth. Therefore, as inequality goes up (which, as Ansell and Samuels show, happens largely through an emerging middle class), the incentives for democracy increase. This story goes squarely against the established explanations for democratic change and not only with regards to the predicted effect of inequality. In their account, change is triggered from within the (economic) elite, not by the poor masses: it is these very elites who benefit from democracy to secure their wealth.

The book’s chapters present the basic steps in building and testing this argument. Chapter 2 provides more intuition for what inequality means in autocratic settings, and what social strata really drive it. In particular, using historical data on a number of cases, Ansell and Samuels show that increases in inequality are oftentimes driven by the emergence of a middle class, not by the rich moving away from everyone else. Chapters 3 and 4 use a wealth of case examples to introduce the actors involved in the democratization process and their motivations. In particular, they locate the middle class (the bourgeoisie and the working class) as the key actor of democratic change. The formal model in Chapter 4 refines this logic, and derives a number of empirical expectations. In particular, the authors distinguish between different types of inequality (land and income inequality), which have opposite effects. In contrast to income inequality, if land inequality is high, the small agricultural elite will oppose democracy because it would threaten their labor supply. Therefore, land inequality should impede democratization, while income inequality should foster it.

The remaining chapters set out to test these relationships empirically. Chapter 5 employs the standard time-series, cross-sectional approach but using a variety of regression models and more comprehensive data than previous research. The results in this chapter provide compelling evidence that income inequality actually fosters democratization, whereas land inequality inhibits it. Chapter 6 presents a number of interesting empirical extensions, such as different operationalizations and disaggregations of democracy, or analyses of how democratization plays out under different levels of development or asset mobility. The final two chapters shift the focus to democratic contexts, once again testing the core tenets of the elite completion framework. If democratization was really driven by new economic elites, we should expect these elites to shape redistribution in their favor once a country has democratized. This outcome is then tested in Chapter 7, which presents results about the relationship between inequality, democracy, and public spending. Results confirm that, counter to redistributionist arguments, higher levels of inequality do not lead to more public spending in democracies. Chapter 8 moves the analysis to the individual level and once again shows that in highly unequal societies, the poor are not among the strongest supporters of democracy, running counter to theories of redistribution.

All in all, Ansell and Samuels’s book is an interesting and stimulating read. I believe it constitutes an important and much needed contribution to the study of inequality and democratization. However, while I find the theory and the evidence to be compelling and well presented, the book also shows the stickiness of research of our field. Ansell and Samuels are certainly not the first ones to question redistribution theories à la Meltzer and Richard, yet these theories continue to influence our thinking about democracies and autocracies alike. Similarly, in empirical tests, inequality is still primarily measured by the Gini coefficient – the fact that Ansell and Samuels need to spend an entire chapter distilling what dynamics really drive the changes in this indicator should lead us to question whether the Gini coefficient is really the best way to capture what we want to know. One of the book’s key strengths is the multi-faceted test of the elite-competition theory. Ansell and Samuels carefully go through a number of empirical predictions of their theory at different level of analytical resolution – the tests range from cross-national comparisons to individual-level survey responses. This approach is very convincing and demonstrates the power of their theory. Clearly, the book is a must-read for students and scholars interested in inequality, one of the most pressing issues of our time.

By Nils B. Weidmann, University of Konstanz

Inequality and Democratization: An Elite-Competition Approach
by Ben W. Ansell and David J. Samuels
Cambridge University Press
Paperback / 236 pages / 2014
ISBN: 9780521168793

No Comments

No Comments Yet!

No one has left a comment for this post yet!

Write a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *