Does Democracy Make Us Richer and Better Educated? Or Is It the Other Way Around?

It’s one of the ultimate chicken or egg questions: Does democracy lead to increases in education and income, or do education and higher income lead to democracy? It’s a tricky one, considering that over the last 200 years, they’ve essentially moved in tandem across much of the developed world. Seen here in the chart below:

So which is affecting which? A new working paper (full version here) by Fabrice Murtin and Romain Wacziarg attempts to untangle the two to understand whether democracy grows from education and higher income, or vice versa. Their essential question is: “Does education help raise the quality of institutions as well as productivity, or is an efficient institutional framework a prerequisite for expanding education levels and economic growth?”

Using a data set going back to 1870, with statistics from 70 countries, they conclude that education (particularly increases in primary schooling) and, to a lesser extent, per capita income levels, are strong determinants of the quality of political institutions – not the other way around. So education and income first, democracy second.

From the abstract:

Over the last two centuries, many countries experienced regime transitions toward democracy. We document this democratic transition over a long time horizon. We use historical time series of income, education and democracy levels from 1870 to 2000 to explore the economic factors associated with rising levels of democracy. We find that primary schooling, and to a weaker extent per capita income levels, are strong determinants of the quality of political institutions. We find little evidence of causality running the other way, from democracy to income or education.

Their findings re-affirm what Joseph Schumpeter declared in his 1942 book, Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy: “Modern  democracy is a product of the capitalist process.” And which political sociologist Seymour Lipset, popularized as the theory of modernization: “[T]he more well-to-do a nation, the greater the chances that it will sustain democracy.”

The authors argue that primary schooling has been a “major trigger” of the democratic transition over 1870-2000, more so than GDP growth. Without getting bogged down in the specifics of their regression analysis, or their use of “modern dynamic panel estimation methods,” I’ll simply post two of graphs that illustrate their point that education is a stronger determinant for democracy than economic growth:


(MISAM SALEH/AFP/Getty Images)

So, now that Egypt is less than a month away from its first elections, is there evidence of these findings in the recent events there? It would seem so, considering the advances Egypt has made in education over the last few decades. In 1980, the youth literacy rate (ages 15-24) in Egypt was 52 percent. By 2008, (according to UNICEF) 88 percent of males aged 15 to 24 were literate, while their female counterparts were 82 percent literate. Egypt’s economic development paints a muddier picture. Despite decent economic growth, poverty rates remained stubbornly high as GDP per capita growth lagged behind its regional neighbors.

Robbert Thurner

Maybe they're just not considering the right variables: maybe a society's quality of education, quality of institutions, productivity, and efficient institutional frameworks are all driven by the same underlying variable, namely intelligence. But most economists still fail to include that crucial dimension in their analyses; one hopes the work of pioneers like Garrett Jones will help change that, and the sooner the better.


I find your views intriguing and wish to subscribe to your newsletter.

I've just downloaded one of his papers and am looking forward to reading it. Sounds like something that would draw out a lot of knee jerk accusations of racism.


I wonder if it works in reverse?

Could the relative decline of ou democratic institutions in the US over the last couple of decades, be explained by the relative decline of our educational system (especially at the high-school level)?


"Modern democracy is a product of the capitalist process"- heh- well, for 1942 this is seen as quaint propaganda- but read nowadays, this can only be understood as cynical, what with the ows movement and all


I believe one of the arguments of neo-conservatives like Condoleezza Rice was that free market dictatorships tended to drift towards democracy, I think because they developed middle classes who would eventually demand greater control of the country's future. They referenced Greece, South Korea, Taiwan and so on as examples of right-wing dictatorships that would eventually turn democratic.

So did they have a point?

Perhaps I go too far in presuming that wealth and education would indeed grow better under a right-wing dictator than under a socialist/communist dictator, however.


when is this going to apply to China?


Its happening as we speak. China today, with its increased wealth and education levels, is certainly more democratic than it was 100 years ago (or even 40 years ago). Sure, they aren't a "democracy," but it seems pretty clear that this theory already applies to them.

I think India is the biggest anomaly to this theory. If its education levels and wealth formation that lead to democracy, how can we explain India? They were very impoverished and largely illiterate, yet still managed to form a democracy under these conditions. Some might say it was the British Empire's institutions that enabled democracy, but then what can we make of Pakistan which presumably had those same institutions?


True, but India has gotten a lot more democratic since the economic reforms of the early 90's, which have created a burgeoning middle class, and a watchdog media that caters tot heir interests. Literacy rates have also increased over that period.
The legacy of the caste-system and its entrenched inequality is the z variable that has made Indian progress lopsided and the statistics still abysmal, though improving. otherwise, the relationship would be more linear.


A similar question was answered in a recent TED talk:

He identifies 6 factors which directly correlate to economic prosperity and national vitality. Taken together they provide an explanation for the dominance of European based cultures over the last several hundred years.
The implication is that democracy is one logical outcome of a culture which includes these factors. I imagine that a high education level would be another.

Robbert Thurner

Niall Ferguson is a smart guy, but he too fails to consider IQ, which makes his observations a bit useless, really. Again, though, people are slowly coming around.


The sad flip side to this is that this means it is in every tin-pot dictator's interest to run its people and economy into the ground if they want to stay in power. North Korea, central Asia, and half of Africa aren't run by insane despots, they're simply economic agents rationally acting in the way that benefits them most with the incentives presented to them. It would certainly lend some credence to the idea that altruism is irrational when you view at all the dictators who bettered their people with successful economic/social programs as setting the groundwork for their eventual demise.


Do they even consider IQ? Garett Jones has published work showing that for later periods, average IQ better explains growth than education levels and low education, high estimated IQ countries (like China pre 1950) did better than much higher education nations with low average measured IQs. It's hard to disentangle them of course because higher cognitive ability makes greater education easier but to the extent it is possible, the literature tends to favor IQ over education.

Basil James


I have another chicken and egg question on which I would like some information. Do television viewers watch a particular news channel because they agree with its views and are seeing what they want to see (an example could be conservative people exclusively patronising Fox News Channel) or do news channels form opinions and engender political leanings in a person? I am a college student and I was arguing this point with my professor in class. I was of the opinion that people watch a channel they agree with but my professor was least impressed. Could someone please direct me to some statistics regarding this or any studies that have been conducted?


Eric M. Jones.

This rings my alarm bells as blatant statistics manipulation. "Democracy?" I don't get it. Democracy is just a word that pertains to an ideal that is abused to a fare-thee-well by plutocrats, aristocrats, oligarchs, right-wing puppets and political insiders. Give me a benevolent socialist dictatorship where they'd guillotine Madoffs, any day.

"Average Log GDP per capita"? Now there's a way to conceal what is happening if I ever saw one. I'd say all the money in the palace and hills full of starving slave shacks would yield the same curve.

"Average Democracy Index?" WTF?

I prefer the "Are you doing better now than you were ___ years ago" Index.

The very notion that the USA will be able to call itself a Democracy or Capitalist is on shaky ground. The question in 1932 was exactly that. Democracy and Capitalism HAD CLEARLY FAILED, and the direction the US was going to move in was very much undetermined. The conservatives should worship FDR for saving Capitalism. Without him, there would have been blood, and bodies, in the streets.

The Norman Rockwell portrait of Democracy America has often been close to complete collapse. I don't see it improving any time soon.



Is this not round trip fallacy? We need more instances before we can conclude either way, what causes what.

Jacob S.

I think this question is badly framed due to a lack of understanding of economics... wealth is created by producing the wants/needs of consumers; which increases the overall attempts by all persons to meet their needs/wants (relative wealth). All circumstances being equal, there is no reason to suppose that , democracy, monarchy, aristocracy or any other political organization would have an effect on the economic production unless we assume that some political organizations are more apt to be economically disruptive. The over-arching political organization is almost irrelevant to production, unless the by-products of that political organization result in 'regulation' or control of forces (means) of production, creating inefficiencies in the ability of the market to meet the needs/wants of consumers, decreasing overall wealth.

The kind of guy your neighbor is, is unlikely to affect your own wealth/production, unless he's a total jerk and his behavior makes a mess of your property, or perhaps his property is such a wreak that it brings down your overall property value (...or aghast!, he's some kind of sociopath and attacks you!) . Political organization is much the same thing; it is only economically relevant to the extent that it interferes or attempts to control the market, which is always and necessarily result in decreases in production and therefore a decrease in the market's ability to meet the needs/wants of people (consumers). At the end of the day, we are all trying to improve our conditions, and make a better future for ourselves, to that extent meeting the needs of consumers is not just 'good' economically, it is fundamentally a matter of ethics and treating people with respect and dignity (human rights of life, liberty and property).

Education is a service/commodity like any other, and on a free-market, forces of competition and comparative advantages would result in the best quality education for the least cost. Education today, is so enmeshed in the political organization, that we create the very lowest quality educational product (one that doesn't service the interests/needs of the students/consumers) for the highest possible price (I think the average in my area is $14,000 per average student, with $40,000 for special education).