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I figured I needed to know more about the history of democracy, if I was ever going to fix this broken system of ours. That much was obvious after hearing David Stasavage talk on the MindScape podcast. Or at least gain an understanding as to why "the system" is the way it is.

This post is a quick review of his latest book, "The Fall and Rise of Democracy". In short, I would rate it 9/10. Extremely interesting book, however, I wished it was a bit longer and would spend a little more time on the current situation of democracy around the world. Nonetheless, it is a thorough overview of the origins of democracy and gives a peek into how democracy and autocracy worked throughout history and around the world.

The main thesis of the book

First, the authors lay out that fundamentally, you can divide the many types of organising politics into two larger groups: more towards democracy, and more towards autocracy. Don't think of democracy as our modern, parliamentarian, particratic, corporate, oligarchic way of organising society, but more as very low levels of hierarchy and tribe councils. Similarly, for autocracy, think of pharaohs and emperors, where a single person wields a lot of decision making power.

The main thesis of the book is that from a statistical point of view in the times before bureaucratic technologies like writing, three things lead to tribes being more democratic.

  • First off, if people can walk away, there is a bigger chance of them living in an early democracy. That makes total sense if you think about it. If I am in a tribe, and I have to pay taxes but do not get to get involved in any decisions, I am sodding off the first chance I get. Therefore if I have fewer chances to escape and start anew, I am more likely to be stuck in an autocracy.
  • Second, if people have some kind of leverage on their leader, having a democracy is more likely. For example, say a rowdy tribe lives next door to us, waiting for a chance to violently take over our clan. If I do not get to have an impact on decision making in our clan, I am more likely to be all pacifist when this enemy tribe is passing by my front door on the way to our leader. The tribe leader is probably less enthusiastic about being killed by the enemy tribe, so he might set up a more democratic system where I get to feel like I have a say, to prevent the above from happening.
  • Third, if it is hard to raise taxes, you are more likely to have a democracy. This one takes a bit more to explain.

On taxes

So, when it is hard to raise taxes, why are you more likely to have a democracy? Imagine you run a small tribe, you will need to set a level of taxes from your subjects. You will need these taxes to run your military and the bureaucracy that collects taxes. If you set this level too low, you are not collecting enough taxes to run your bureaucracy. If you set this level too high, you illicit a riot or your peons will starve. You need to get this level right.

Now, when you are an early democracy, this level of taxes is set by agreement and in the common interest. If everyone cheapens out, the tribe might be overrun by neighbouring tribes or breaks down due to inside bickering. Simultaneously, nobody will want to contribute too much either. However, everyone is also well aware of how much they can pay, based on the land they work with and the last harvest. So starving due to taxes is less likely and riots even more so. The decisions are made by the people that have the best information.

However, if you are an autocrat, you need to set the tax levels. Since these taxes are controlled by your tax collecting bureaucrats, the system cannot be too complex or arbitrary either. And if you are wrong, you will go under to either an unpaid military and a collapsing weak bureaucracy, or to a rioting population.

Jean-Baptiste Colbert (finance minister to Louis XIV) is said to have described the problem of taxation as plucking a goose to obtain as many feathers as possible, without making it hiss.

One of the interesting places where this third point becomes clear, is by comparing places where harvests are easy to predict to the places where harvests are unpredictable from afar. Take for example China or Egypt with a uniform fertile Loess soil around a yearly flooding Nile or Yellow river. Very easy to set up a tax system in this situation, as you do not need to know how fertile the farmer's soil is this year, all soil does pretty much the same every year. As a consequence, you find giant autocratic systems in these places.

On the other hand, take a look at Huron tribes around the Great Lakes in North America, where the fertility varies quickly depending on where you are and depending on the weather every year. A farmer a little higher up might have a lot more rocky soil, and some years the farmer down below can get ruined by a local drought. How could you set up taxes that your small bureaucracy can handle? The autocrats do not have the information available to assess a good tax level, as it is too variable.

When you look at the data of these examples and the dozens more in the book, you will find a tendency of more early democratic approaches among tribes that live in more unpredictable conditions.

The role of Technology and Bureaucracy

When it becomes really interesting, is on the transition from early democracy to something more mature, when technology enters the stage. And the result of Stasavage's analysis is fascinating.

Unlike the common narrative of how Europe's industrial revolution and democratization went hand in hand, Stasavage claims that if you dig deeper, the effect goes the other way around. It turns out that civilisations that have been democratic, can still become autocratic once they pick up technologies such as map-making or writing. However, once autocracies pick up these technologies, the odds of them becoming more democratic goes down. So on a larger scale, technology seems to inhibit democracy.

And that does not have to be surprising. Writing helps decrease the information asymmetry autocrats have concerning how productive their subjects are. Writing makes it possible for information to flow from the low levels to the high levels. Map-making empowers bureaucrats to streamline the economy by forcing people to move to places where they can be more productive, but also easier to control. On top of that, technological improvements such as crop rotation made farming more reliable, and thus easier to tax.

This decrease in a democracy which happened thousands of years ago, is what is meant by the "Fall of Democracy" in the title. So, how did democracy rise again?

Democracy in the West

The book goes on to describe how the West did stay more democratic all the way to the 21st century. For one, Europe was considerably behind in technological know-how to the rest of the world, far into the middle ages. On top of that, the European patchwork of soil types made centralisation hard to achieve, despite a plethora of medieval kings trying really hard to get their way. So when industrialisation really took off, Europe already had some strong early democracies and has mostly kept up that tradition in the Western modern democracies we know today.

A variety of other subjects are touched upon in the book: democracy in the United States (obviously), the rise of democracy in Africa in the last decennia, and what happened in the Arabic world, Russia and China. But also voting rights for women, slavery, inequality, the role of mandates, Quod Omnes Tangit and many other topics that dig down to the fundamentals of democracy.

In general, with broad strokes, it seems that autocracies do not go away, unless the people go really hungry due to their weak state. And these insights lead to some poignant observations one could make about the democratic optimism in the West, like the one below:

At the time of the Tiananmen Square protests thirty years ago Western observers sometimes suggested that economic development would necessarily push China in the direction of democracy. [...] It is always easy to pass judgment on erroneous predictions like these, but in retrospect, a deeper look at history might have led to different predictions, even in 1989.

According to the book, China is a prime example of the bureaucratic alternative to democracy. And while they went from empire to communist state, the bureaucratic heritage is something that goes back for thousands of years, all the way back to before even writing was invented there. The same holds pretty much for democracy in the West.

Finally, the best feature of the book, is that it does not treat democracy as a holy relic we should treasure at all costs. It makes some good points of cases in history where a little less democracy lead to more economic prosperity for everyone involved. For example, when industrialisation took off, the Netherlands was slower to pick it up, because they had a more decentralised way of governing where regional cities had a bigger say.

The book concludes on the following quote, nicely stating that democracy is not the end-all goal, it is what you do with it that is more important.

Finally, we need to remember that just because modern democracy survives does not mean that we will be happy with how it performs if the 1% dominates over the 99. Instead of only asking whether democracy will survive, we need to also ask whether we will be satisfied with the democracy that does survive.
Jonas Degrave

Jonas Degrave

Research Scientist at Deepmind. Writes in own name.