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I compared the democracy indexes of BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) plus Turkey (although UN would classify Russian and Turkey into developed countries, in my opinion, they are somewhere in between. I lived in Turkey for years. Anyways I just want to look at these large but not-so-developed countries) with their Human development index (HDI), GDP (PPP) per capita:

Democracy index and HDI are both 2020, while GDP is 2021. IHDI is 2019 (2020). As mentioned below in an answer, the data shouldn't change much over two years. So it should be reasonable for comparison.

Brazil Russia India China South Africa Turkey
Democracy index 6.92 3.31 6.61 2.27 7.05 4.48
HDI 0.765 0.824 0.645 0.761 0.709 0.820
IHDI 0.570 0.740 0.475 0.639 0.468 0.683
GDP (PPP) per capita $15,643 $29,485 $7,333 $18,931 $12,442 $32,278

While China, Russia, and Turkey have much lower democracy index (it is well-known they have poor human rights records in recent years), they have relatively high HDI and GDP (PPP) per capita on the other hand. I am confused since in general, democracy should boost the economy and the general living quality (measured at least partly by HDI in some ways). Does this show that democracy is not really helpful for countries like these six large countries? Or does democracy still need to take its time to show its strengths in such countries?


Update: Many thanks to the user Pete W. I added IHDI, which is short for the inequality-adjusted human development index. Based on Wikipedia,

The IHDI can be interpreted as the level of human development when inequality is accounted for," whereas the Human Development Index itself, from which the IHDI is derived, is "an index of potential human development (or the maximum IHDI that could be achieved if there were no inequality).

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  • 41
    "democracy should boost the economy" -- Why should it? Anyway the answer to the question is "confounding variables".
    – James K
    Feb 6 at 21:53
  • 11
    democracy should boost the economy and the general living quality I'd like to see why you think it should as well. I'm not convinced it does (c.f. politics.stackexchange.com/questions/10868/…)
    – Allure
    Feb 7 at 3:03
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    Russia is a petrostate; it's basically a colder, more populous Saudi Arabia / Qatar in that a lot of the GDP comes from the narrow industry of oil and gas, and the rest of the country effectively has a much lower GDP.
    – pjc50
    Feb 7 at 12:32
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    Isn't there a selection bias? If democracy turns a country into a "developed" country, then they aren't on the list of developing country. So is this showing anything other than that countries where democracy hasn't developed the country tend to be less developed than countries where autocracy hasn't developed the country? Feb 7 at 16:21
  • 4
    Because it is never given much of chance? A poor country cannot sustain democracy - it is too cheap to bribe officials and/or skew elections.
    – fraxinus
    Feb 7 at 18:24

9 Answers 9

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Changes in HDI and GDP usually take decades or generations. Notably, HDI includes mean years of school for the entire population. HDI also includes GDP, so any analysis which compares trends in both has systematic problems.

Even the Democracy Index usually does not change quickly. The Economist's Democracy Index is around since 2006. If democracy were to cause higher HDI and GDP, I would expect HDI and GDP to be a seriously lagging indicator. A bit of googling shows a few research papers (1, 2) supporting this assertion.

If you ask me, HDI is improved by having the rule of law for a long time and maintaining the rule of law for a long time requires some sort of democracy. One of the papers spoke of a century. Even so, other trends like regional issues, the environment, or population growth and decline might mask the effects.


Clarification: Some commenters seem to think that the papers say that a whole century of democracy is required for a high HDI. It isn't. But longer is better, and the timescale where this becomes visible is many, many decades.

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    Russia had a high quality education system in the communist era despite no democracy, and the legacy of that remains.
    – Stuart F
    Feb 7 at 13:51
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    @StuartF USSR and friends had a great deal of bragging about their high quality education system that was made intentionally hard to compare and quantify. Just like the economy.
    – fraxinus
    Feb 7 at 18:20
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    @fraxinus, they still did rival the West for much of the Cold War. Remember the Sputnik shock?
    – o.m.
    Feb 7 at 19:04
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    Asking for a century of stable democracy seems a bit much, that would exclude many developed countries, let alone middle income ones. Feb 8 at 0:05
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    @Crazymoomin, that quotes one of the studies, and it is about correlations, not preconditions. Compare, say, the UK and Spain.
    – o.m.
    Feb 8 at 5:10
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The problem is the wrong relation between democracy and economic prosperity. In the western world there is some kind of belief, that democracy is the reason for economic prosperity. This is not true as the most of the countries seen as democracies today had prosperative economies long befor they become democracies. The relations works exactly the oposite way, as only countries with prosperative economies became succesful democracies. Autocracy has not to be communism and even some communistc states have nowadays capitalistic economy.

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  • This strongly depends on what you call a 'stable democracy' and what timeframe you are looking at. Potential counterexamples: Switzerland, the first century of the USA, India, maybe others.
    – Jan
    Feb 8 at 11:42
  • That "belief" is somehow artificial, where the reverse relation makes sense: The right to private property is strongly correlated to a concept producing wealth. Feb 8 at 11:44
  • @Jan In which way they are counterexamples? Also which definition of democracy you refering to?
    – convert
    Feb 8 at 12:02
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    They are counterexamples in that they implemented a democratic system long before they attained economic prosperity. Switzerland's Landsgemeinden date back to the Middle Ages and were mostly a feature of the rural (i.e. poorer) cantons. Elections in the US were a feature since the creation of states but economic prosperity did not really arrive until decades later. India was established as a democracy following its independence which again preceded any kind of economic prosperity by decades.
    – Jan
    Feb 8 at 12:14
  • @Jan Economic prosperity is relative, yuo can´t compare what was economic prosperity 200 years ago and today. Also it´s important which definition of democracy you use. Do just having elections define a democracy?
    – convert
    Feb 8 at 12:35
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The important thing to note is that each country – and often even regions of a country – develops at different timescales due to their individual history, geographic situation and other factors. Within Germany, for example, the state of Bavaria was still rather poorly developed in the 1950's with a very agrarian society but managed to develop rather well and rapidly becoming one of the richest German states by economic power by the 1990's; meanwhile, other regions' developments were slower, sometimes even stalled or even went backwards due to overreliance on specific industries that became obsolete. (This is not even counting the former GDR which went on an entirely different path.) Therefore, trying to find general trends based on only a few indicators is often difficult or even misleading to impossible.

Taking the six countries you have mentioned and ranking them by economic power or HDI gives some somewhat distinct groups:

  1. Russia and Turkey with a GDP of around $30,000 and an HDI of 0.8something;
  2. Brazil and China have a GDP upwards of $15,000 and an HDI in the upper 0.7;
  3. South Africa has a GDP in the lower $10,000 with an HDI of around 0.7; and finally
  4. India is at the bottom of the list with a GDP below $10,000 and an HDI of around 0.65.

If I was going to look for indicators that explained this, I would look to history first.

Russia and Turkey

Both these nations have been independent since quite a while. Furthermore, they have a high degree of cultural and ethnic homogenity – for Russia, I'm especially considering the European core. The dominant demographic has been in charge of ruling the country in some way or another since, well, as long as they exist. Prior to World War I, they both ruled empires, although the Russian Empire was noted among the European powers for being somewhat delayed in its development, and the Ottoman Empire might be considered an early modern holdover rather than an empire of its age.

Both nations took to modernising in after the First World War, albeit on different path: Turkey chose a path of aggresive westernisation including introducing some form of democracy, while Russia followed the teachings of Marx and Lenin and decided to modernise under a socialist regime. Despite the differences, both regimes were successful in both the industrial modernisation and increasing the other scores that form the HDI such as access to education.

Towards the end of the 20th century, the Soviet Union famously collapsed and a new, democratic state took its place in Russia. While this did impact the economy note that before the state's collapse the economy was large so there was enough to fall back on, if you will.

In recent years, these two state's democracy indexes probably trended downwards but as the economies were already relatively large they stayed there. In general, less democracy need not burden an already large economy.

Brazil and China

I want to say that these two are on a similar level with respect to HDI and GDP by chance rather than by similarity. While both were colonised by European powers (in China's case: to some extent), Brazil gained its independence in the early 19th century while China went through a turbulent history in the first half of the 20th century until it was finally reunited as a modern state in 1949 when the Communist Party won the Chinese Civil War.

In the latter half of the 20th century, China began an aggressive economic development while maintaining a relatively tight control over civil liberties, resulting in both high economic index scores and low democracy index ones.

Brazil has a more complex and less easily summarised economic history but also one additional confounding factor: while the population of China is culturally and ethnically mostly homogenous (while minorities are being suppressed they do only consitute a relatively small percentage of the total population; and across the eastern half I believe most people would agree that they are more or less homogenously Chinese), Brazil was a major destination of European immigration resulting in a country that is 48 % white. As in most other places of the globe, the white elite believed in racist ideas until well into the 20th century resulting in a plethora of problems non-white Brazilians have to deal with and setting back the economic and HDI development. However, on a democracy scale Brazil ranks equivalent to the other two countries on your list.

South Africa

In a lot of ways, the history of South Africa parallels that of Brazil but being a century late. It was a colony of the British Empire until it gained independence in 1910. Unlike Brazil, the society remained deeply segregated in a system known as Apartheid until the 1990's which essentially held the development of the Black majority (80 % of the population) as low as possible while benefiting the ruling white minority. Of course, this as well as the sudden changes that came about when Apartheid ended affected the economic outlook as well as the HDI score negatively. However, like Brazil the country scores well in democracy which might affect its placement relative to other nations with similar history.

India

India was a colony of the British Empire, later Commonwealth until after the Second World War, tying it with China for latest period of being subjected to foreign rule. While historically, India was an economic and trade powerhouse until the British conquest, it has had a much harder time rebounding from its colonial period.

Like Russia, Turkey and China, the vast majority of the population descends from those who lived there a century ago (but I hesitate using homogenous in India's case even more than I do in China's case as the country is home to many different cultures, ethnic groups and languages).

India started off its post-colonial phase as a very underdeveloped economy; but at the same time China had already enjoyed a couple of decades of independence (albeit not as a unified state) so it had a development head-start which it could use to its economic advantage after World War II. India, in general, took a slower economic path than China while focussing more on democracy, resulting in its high democracy index. Since the GDP heavily influences the HDI, its lower GDP puts it at a disadvantage even when other aspects of the HDI such as education might look much better.

Conclusion

As I said in the beginning, it is difficult to compare different countries with very different histories and societies. Within the list of six, Turkey and Russia are probably the two with the most similarities in their history, resulting in a similar HDI score – although note the very different paths they took throughout the 20th century. On the other hand, one might see South Africa as very similar to Brazil yet a couple of decades behind; that would explain why Brazil is doing better than South Africa in HDI and GDP despite the latter having a better democracy index.

Finally, India is probably better compared to other former colonies that did not become independent until after the Second World War, which have a mostly autochthon population yet a diversity of ethnicities and languages. For example, take Nigeria (independence 1960~63; diverse population, mostly locally originating), which did not have a 70-year history of democracy since its independence. Its HDI is 0.539, its GDP (PPP) per capita is around $5000 and its democracy index is around 4. India has clearly outpaced Nigeria in its economic development far more than Brazil did South Africa despite India only getting just over a decade of head start.

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  • 1
    This: "In the latter half of the 20th century, China began an aggressive economic development" takes a lot of liberties. Through most of the latter half of the 20th century, China conducted huge (and often, deleterious) social experiments. Once Mao became disillusioned with the Hundred Flowers Campaign, he followed up with the Great Leap Forward and eventually the Cultural Revolution (both of which were aggressive, but neither of which did much in the way of economic development). It was the end of the 70s before the Cultural Revolution was disavowed.
    – Flydog57
    Feb 7 at 23:43
  • @Flydog57 You are correct and this is not the only place where this answer takes liberties. Arguably though, the aggressive economic development campaign only became a thing after Mao.
    – Jan
    Feb 8 at 11:44
  • autochthon - 1. The earliest inhabitant of an area; an aborigine. Feb 8 at 14:04
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Liberal democracy is essentially a political extension of laissez-faire capitalism, i.e., liberal economic system (see my more detailed post about their relation), putting the accent on individual rights and individual property. In this sense, the expectation of greater prosperity in western states is tied to the belief in the advantages of the capitalist system - there are good historical and economical reasons to believe in the advantages of this system... but many would disagree that this is the case.

Another important point is that the rankings cited by the OP are not quite independent - unsurprisingly presenting in a better light those who did the ranking and in less favorable light their economic and political opponents. This is not to say that these rankings are totally false, but it is better to take them critically.

For example, one could question whether the United States is really a liberal democracy: the two-party system virtually excludes any possibility of a third force emerging, although in Europe creation and death of parties are commonplace; most leading men and women in the Congress occupy their places for decades, being repeatedly reelected (sometimes more than 20 times) by overwhelming majorities due to lack of any opposition from another party (safe districts) or from within their own party (due to party rules); many of these men and women are politicians in a second or third generation and have many members of their families doing similar jobs on a state or county level; many of them are obscenely rich and their investments are not fully disconnected from the policies they favor, etc.

On the other hand, developed countries can be quite well qualified by various factors, such as the overall economic strength, the level of research and technology, the industrial strength, the education level, etc. Living in Russia or Turkey might seem hard for someone who comes from North America or Western Europe, but the difference is minuscule by comparison with most other places on Earth.

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  • I've never really liked the complaints about the two-party system. Correct me if I'm wrong, but don't coalitions form in European parliaments all the time, which result in politics being split in half between the government and the opposition? Sounds an awful lot like a two-party system to me.
    – Ryan_L
    Feb 9 at 0:33
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    @Ryan_L Coalitions mean negotiating and adopting policies acceptable to all coalition members - this is what in US is called "bipartisanship* (in practice this usually means just one or two senators voting with the other party). In the US party members and voters have to subscribe to the party positions, regardless of how ridiculous or contradictory these may be. More important is that emergence of new parties is impossible. It is akin to some countries where the president wins majority vote, because all the viable alternative candidates were disqualified from participating in elections. Feb 9 at 8:28
  • The emergence of new parties is impossible, but that doesn't mean we have the same parties we did 20 years ago. Trump is nothing like George Bush. We do coalition-forming at the primary stage, then people vote for which coalition they want.
    – Ryan_L
    Feb 9 at 17:05
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    @Ryan_L You don't seem to understand how coalitions work. Parties in a coalition continuously need to compromise through the whole term or the coalition breaks. I don't agree that this sounds "an awful lot like a two-party system". Coalitions promote cooperation, a two-party system promotes division. Don't forget that parties in a coalition need to keep open the option of forming a coalition with an opposition party after the next election.
    – Roland
    Feb 10 at 5:59
  • @Roland And in the US, voting blocks flip back and forth between the two parties. Environmentalism used to be a Republican position. Now it's a Democrat position.
    – Ryan_L
    Feb 10 at 6:43
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Tl;dr: Bad governance and structural violence prevent South Africa and India from prospering (more).


Why are democracies not performing better then planned economies: After all, an economy of free economic agents leads to optimal resource allocation, right? While planned economies are like one big government office, and we all know how that works.

Well, the first observation is that government agencies actually often work reasonably well, even if we like bashing them. There is obvious evidence that non-free societies with state-run economies can economically survive or even prosper for decades. (Sure, a million famine deaths here, 50 year old cars there, but still.)

But we would still like to think that a free society with an economy of free agents works better for systematic and systemic reasons. Why is that not so?

I think the main answer is that we underestimate how important good governance is. A market economy is not stable but needs constant intervention or you end up with a few super rich people who run the country monopolies, cartels, fraud, fooled consumers, pollution, corruption, unfairly eliminated competition etc. As in any game, the umpire plays a central role. The financial crisis of 2008 that for a day or two looked like the end of the world as we know it was at its core a governance failure: Banks were deregulated, supervision agencies were understaffed, consumers were not protected. Even the countries with the high democracy index in your list still are governed much worse than the U.S. The economic playing field is not well governed, which would be one prerequisite for a prospering market economy.

The position of the citizens, the "economic agents", is also important. In order to participate in the political and economic sphere individuals need certain prerequisites like education, access to resources, mobility, health, freedom from harassment etc.

Johan Galtung coined the term structural violence: A society can systematically deprive people of the means to lead a self-determined life. Just because a country has elections doesn't mean it is a true democracy in the sense that its inhabitants are self-determined individuals. Obvious examples are the slave holding societies of the United States before the Civil War or Athens in 300 BCE. But structural violence can have many forms: Ethnic or religious strife, hunger, illiteracy, corruption, a caste system, extreme poverty, disinformation. Such obstacles to economic and political participation are common in South Africa and India and also prevent them from prospering (more).

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The forms of society that the richest parts of the world use have one thing in common; stability.

Not stability in the sense of "the same people are in charge", but rather stability in that you can change who is in charge without massive destruction.

In a functioning democracy, people wanting political power can be directed away from bloody revolution. In a functioning market capitalism, someone can replace an existing titan of industry or trade without a scorched earth economic war. In a functioning society of free religion, social mores can change over time without the eclipsed party using the state to crush the new belief system. Even lack of racism allows for demographic shifts without bloody violence occurring.

The benefits here are avoiding disaster.

The second benefit is the avoidance of wasting resources on rent seeking and fortification. If you presume not being top dog results in you and those you care about being killed, you will want to put as many resources as you can into fortifying your position as top dog. On the other hand, if not being top dog means you are just a bit worse off than being top dog, over commitment to fortification of your position is less tempting.

Once your position is secure in any sphere of social life, rent seeking is tempting; you parlay your secure position into private benefits relatively unrelated to the problem your position is about solving. If your position is precarious and you have competition, those who invest rather than rent seek can get an edge on those who rent seek too much.

Peaceful and non-destructive transition of power, together with it being structurally difficult to keep power, helps prevent problems.

This avoidance of certain problems doesn't guarantee prosperity in any of these areas. Command economies can grow at a fast pace; but they also implode horribly. Either increasing amounts of resources are spent holding onto the position to control the society, the society experiences bloody revolution as a rival faction tries to take over, or the society starts down an ineffective path without feedback mechanisms to correct its course.

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Looks like there is another version of HDI published by the UN, called IHDI, which is adjusted for inequality. It may be of interest.

The IHDI can be interpreted as the level of human development when inequality is accounted for," whereas the Human Development Index itself, from which the IHDI is derived, is "an index of potential human development (or the maximum IHDI that could be achieved if there were no inequality)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_inequality-adjusted_Human_Development_Index#List

Perhaps the IHDI index does better reflect the expectations of the OP question in regards to correlation vs the social ideals of democratic governance that we teach kids in school.

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  • Thanks. Brazil 0.570, Russian 0.740, India 0.475, China 0.639, South Africa 0.468, Turkey 0.683. Russian, China and Turkey still lead...
    – No One
    Feb 7 at 17:18
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The statements "While China, Russia, and Turkey have much lower democracy index (it is well-known they have poor human rights records in recent years), they have relatively high HDI and GDP (PPP) per capita on the other hand. I am confused since in general, democracy should boost the economy and the general living quality (measured at least partly by HDI in some ways)" may suffer from a logical fallacy called "denying the antecedent". The fallacy goes like this: "If A, then B; not A, therefore not B". In this case, A is being a democracy and B is having prosperity. In other words, concluding from "if democracy then prosperity" that "no democracy, therefore no prosperity" is a fallacy. As a result, we cannot conclude very much from the table shown, since non-democracies may or may not prosper. Another problem is the democracy index, which is compiled by institutions in democracies and cannot be assumed to be unbiased. In addition, the criteria involved in compiling the index may not all be connected to economic prosperity, thereby diluting its value. Given the above, the observations aren't surprising and would probably be found regardless of how long a country has been a democracy, whether prosperity came before the regime change, etc.

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The system that you are calling "democracy" is a Western idea. More precisely it is called the "liberal democracy" or "Western form of democracy". This idea originated in ancient Greece and matured in ancient Rome.

The Western form of democracy is only successful if a state/country has already adopted Western values in its society and culture. The countries you mentioned have historically been maintaining their own values in their cultures and societies. Therefore, western democracy has not been successful and would never be successful there.

This is what Zhang Weiwei said:

A non-Western country adopting the western form of democracy would end up in one of the two scenarios: a. From euphoria to despair b. From euphoria to anarchy

References

  1. Zhang Weiwei (2012), The China Wave: Rise of a Civilizational State, World Century Publishing Corporation.
  2. Is democracy wrong for China? | Al Jazeera Head to Head
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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Philipp
    Feb 7 at 14:30
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    Doesn't this idea have a name? Cultural determinism or something like that? Feb 8 at 14:27
  • @Peter Mortensen: Why add the term 'determinism'? The term culture covers it, which is what the poster is saying. Different countries have different political cultures. Feb 8 at 15:20

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