24 August 2020

Where Does Democracy Develop?

I'm not convinced that I would read the evidence the same way. 

The critical factor in my view has been the need of the autocrat to obtain resources that are not in the nature of rents that a monarch or aristocratic class or national government with socialized resources can exploit, as opposed to requiring the active cooperation and economic contribution of a commercial economy. But it is a serious attempt at answering a question worth answering with the right kind of methods, so it deserves serious consideration.
Historical accounts of democracy’s rise tend to focus on ancient Greece and pre-Renaissance Europe. The Decline and Rise of Democracy draws from global evidence to show that the story is much richer—democratic practices were present in many places, at many other times, from the Americas before European conquest, to ancient Mesopotamia, to precolonial Africa. Delving into the prevalence of early democracy throughout the world, David Stasavage makes the case that understanding how and where these democracies flourished—and when and why they declined—can provide crucial information not just about the history of governance, but also about the ways modern democracies work and where they could manifest in the future. 
Drawing from examples spanning several millennia, Stasavage first considers why states developed either democratic or autocratic styles of governance and argues that early democracy tended to develop in small places with a weak state and, counterintuitively, simple technologies. When central state institutions (such as a tax bureaucracy) were absent—as in medieval Europe—rulers needed consent from their populace to govern. When central institutions were strong—as in China or the Middle East—consent was less necessary and autocracy more likely. He then explores the transition from early to modern democracy, which first took shape in England and then the United States, illustrating that modern democracy arose as an effort to combine popular control with a strong state over a large territory. Democracy has been an experiment that has unfolded over time and across the world—and its transformation is ongoing.

From this publisher's summary of David Strasavage, "The Decline and Rise of Democracy: A Global History from Antiquity to Today" (Princeton University Press 2020) (Strasavage is a professor on the faculty of NYU law). 

Hat tip to The Economist magazine.

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