Was European colonialism the force that spread democracy?

A new paper in the American Political Science Review suggests that European colonialism was the key driver in establishing democratic systems of government around the world. Only states which had strong established political structures prior to the colonial wave managed to resist colonial rule and/or  the establishment of “democratic” European institutions. According to the author, Jacob Gerner Harir of the University of Copenhagen,

”This could mean that perhaps we need to adopt a new view of the colonial era. Even though it led to massive exploitation and oppression of many people in the Third World, we can now see that it also contributed to the spread of democracy.”

There is a hint of defensiveness here, almost as if this work is also an attempt to justify the oppression and exploitation that was the main-stay of European colonialism.

The idea that a European style “democracy” is the greatest thing since sliced-bread and is the answer to all the world’s ills is something of a “holy cow” in Europe even though it is subject to short memories and the changing definitions of “democracy”. European democratic systems – however flawed at the time – brought Hitler and Mussolini to power. Hamas and Ahmadinejad gained power through European-style democratic processes. A most peculiar “democratic” process is now in play between the European Parliament and the Parliaments of the member states of the EU. Politicians nowadays represent political parties rather than all their constituents. A democratic process has been exported to and will now be put to the test in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt. But these political experiments after the Arab Spring will be accompanied by their share of bloodshed. We have already seen in the Middle East the inherent conflicts that arise when “Western -style” democratic processes bring autocratic forces to power.

Is a state a democracy if it  democratically chooses to be undemocratic? As fascist parties gain strength in Europe will we once again see democratic processes bring new autocrats to power?

I am coming to the conclusion that there is a time and a place and a constituency for any form of government. Political systems are not inherently “good” or “bad”. People are. And we risk missing the most optimum form of government for a particular situation at a particular time by making a false god of some ideal – but theoretical – “democratic” process.

The Autocratic Legacy of Early Statehood, by JACOB GERNER HARIR, American Political Science Review / Volume 106 / Issue 03 / August 2012, pp 471-494,

DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S0003055412000238, Published online: 09 August 2012

Abstract: This article documents that precolonial state development was an impediment to the development of democracy outside Europe, because indigenous state institutions constrained the European colonial endeavor and limited the diffusion of European institutions and ideas. Some countries were strong enough to resist colonization; others had enough state infrastructure that the colonizers would rule through existing institutions. Neither group therefore experienced institutional transplantation or European settlement. Less developed states, in contrast, were easier to colonize and were often colonized with institutional transplantation and an influx of settlers carrying ideals of parliamentarism. Using OLS and IV estimation, I present statistical evidence of an autocratic legacy of early statehood and document the proposed causal channel for a large sample of non-European countries. The conclusion is robust to different samples, different democracy indices, an array of exogenous controls, and several alternative theories of the causes and correlates of democracy.

ScienceNordic reports:

Old states outside of Europe are, statistically speaking, less democratic than newer states. The more organised a state was when European colonisers arrived around the year 1500, the less democratic it is today.

“Pre-colonial state development in itself has had a negative influence on the development of democracy because territories with strong, state-like institutions were better at resisting the Europeans,” says Hariri.

….. “And thus they were also better at guarding themselves against democratic currents from Europe.” 

“We have long known that countries rich in natural resources such as oil or diamonds are less democratic and that well-educated and richer countries are more democratic. What we did not know, however, was that early states were less democratic,” he says.

…. “The Europeans ‘exported’ early democratic institutions, and the countries that were strong enough to keep the European influence out therefore became less democratic in their structure.” ….

He mentions China and several Middle East state as examples, and adds: “The oldest state in Africa south of the Sahara, Ethiopia, is also the only African country that’s never been colonised over a long period.” 

Other countries such as India and many Middle East states had strong state formations – but not strong enough the keep the Europeans out. Here the colonisers seized control of the existing state apparatus and used it to suppress the population. To this ruling group, the import of European political institutions and ideas thus became superfluous. …… Just as strong as the correlation in the researcher’s data is between strong states and weak democracies is the correlation at the opposite end of the spectrum. Here we find countries such as the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, which didn’t have any organised state formation prior to the arrival of the Europeans, but which today have some of the best-functioning democracies outside of Europe.

…. ”This could mean that perhaps we need to adopt a new view of the colonial era. Even though it led to massive exploitation and oppression of many people in the Third World, we can now see that it also contributed to the spread of democracy,”


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