Monday, September 28, 2015

Are Democracies More Stable than Dictatorships?

At the U.N. today, Obama said:
I believe in my core that repression cannot forge the social cohesion for nations to succeed. The history of the last two decades proves that in today’s world, dictatorships are unstable. The strongmen of today become the spark of revolution tomorrow.
This got me wondering; are democracies really more stable than dictatorships? It is true that some of the oldest regimes in the world (the UK, the US) are democracies. But on the other hand it seems that in much of the world democracies are routinely overthrown, leading in some countries (Thailand, Pakistan) to a revolving door of elected and military regimes. So what is the actual story?

Here is some data, from a serious-looking academic paper:

Leaving aside the question of how one assigns regimes to one category or another, you can see that democracy is no guarantee of stability. The very long-lived democratic regimes of the U.K., the U.S., Canada, and Scandinavia raise the mean duration of democratic regimes in Europe, but even within the western world they are not the norm. In the rest of the world, there is little difference between the different types of regimes, and much instability no matter the system.

I wonder what these tables would look like if we added "monarchy + aristocracy" as a regime type and extended the time line back to the classical world?


David said...

It seems to me the question of "duration" would be as bad, or even worse, of a bugbear than which category one would put a regime in. Would the fall of Norway to the Nazis represent a break in the duration of Norway's democracy? How about the fall of the Third Republic? Britain claims, more or less, one continuous regime since at least 1066, if not Alfred; if we don't honor that, where do we put the break(s)? How about the Roman Empire? Do we give that one continuous regime history from Augustus to Romulus Augustulus, and ignore the civil wars and changes between? You could debate forever, where to put the breaks.

John said...

You're right, that would be a problem. I think a lot of political scientists say the British regime dates to 1688, but that begs a lot of questions.

There can also be lots of turmoil without regime change, for example in France between 1871 and 1940.

But anything I think Obama was wrong, and democracy is no guarantee of stability; indeed I am sure that under some circumstances it promotes conflict.