Protestants, Missionaries and the Diffusion of Liberal Democracy

A new APSR article [ungated] argues for the crucial role of Protestant missionaries in the global spread of liberal democracy. The statistical analyses tease out the effect of missionaries from the influence of the characteristics of colonizers (Britain, the Netherlands, France, etc.) and pre-existing geographic, economic and cultural characteristics of the states. Interestingly, Protestant missionary influence not only remains a significant predictor of democracy outside the Western world once these factors are controlled for, but it renders them obsolete (which is a big deal because the same institutional, geographic, economic and cultural characteristics have been the usual explanations of democracy diffusion). On the other hand, the patterns in the data are consistent with the plausible mechanisms through which the effect of Protestant missionaries is exercised – the spread of newspapers, education, and civil society.

I am sure this article is not going to be the last word on democracy diffusion, but it certainly puts the influence of Protestantism center stage. The major issue, I suspect, is not going to be methodological (since the article already considers a plethora of potential methodological complications in the appendix), but conceptual – to what extent the effect of Protestant missionaries can be conceptually separated from the improvements in education and the growth of the public sphere. In other words, do (did) you need the religious component at all, or education, newspapers and civil society would have worked on their own to make liberal democracy more likely (even if fostered by other channels than Protestant missionaries) .

In terms of methodology, it might be interesting to analyze the same data using necessary and sufficient conditions: I would find it even more informative to see whether the presence of Protestant missionaries is necessary and/or sufficient for the emergence of stable liberal democracy, in addition to the evidence for a robust (linear?) association between the two, as reported in the current article.

Here is the abstract:

This article demonstrates historically and statistically that conversionary Protestants (CPs) heavily influenced the rise and spread of stable democracy around the world. It argues that CPs were a crucial catalyst initiating the development and spread of religious liberty, mass education, mass printing, newspapers, voluntary organizations, and colonial reforms, thereby creating the conditions that made stable democracy more likely. Statistically, the historic prevalence of Protestant missionaries explains about half the variation in democracy in Africa, Asia, Latin America andOceaniaand removes the impact of most variables that dominate current statistical research about democracy. The association between Protestant missions and democracy is consistent in different continents and subsamples, and it is robust to more than 50 controls and to instrumental variable analyses.

Inclusive institutions and economic development

Francis Fukuyama reviews Why Nations Fail, the new book by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, at his blog. The review is fairly critical. Fukuyama agrees that institutions are of paramount importance for development (as you would expect given his own recent book) but is unsatisfied with the vague (or even missing) definitions of the two central concepts of the book – ‘inclusive institutions’ and ‘extractive institutions’. This conceptual stretching allows the labels to be applied quite arbitrarily to fit the argument of the book.

In substantive terms the critique boils down to the question whether democratic (inclusive) institutions are necessary for stable economic development. In Fukuyama’s view they are not (think contemporary China) and might even be counterproductive (following Huntington). In Acemoglu and Robinson’s view, democratic political institutions and inclusive economic institutions are indispensible for sustained long-term development. Fukuyama’s quibble with Why Nations Fail fits into a line of argumentation he is in the midst of constructing which can be summarized as ‘good governance is necessary for development but democracy is not necessary for good governance’. His latest project, for example, is to develop a new conceptualization and measurement of governance which moves away from the traditional indicators of (Western-style) rule of law and democratic accountability. Here is a characteristic quote from the project’s announcement:

One can think of many ways in which greater democratic participation actually weakens the quality of governance.  

Acemoglu and Robinson respond to Fukuyama’s review at their own blog. But in my opinion Fukuyama’s general critique (and his smaller points about misinterpretations of historical episodes) remains. Irrespective of one’s normative convictions, one has to admit that economic development has been possible throughout history and space in the absence of inclusive, democratic institutions (unless one stretches the definition of democratic institutions to include 17-th century England or contemporary Singapore). Whether growth without political democratization is sustainable in the long term remains an open question (China).

Both Fukuyama and Acemoglu & Robinson focus on macro-level institutions but it is instructive to look at the meso- and micro-levels of institutions as well (taking the work on the management of common pool resources by Elinor Ostrom and others as a guide). In my reading, the message of this literature about inclusiveness, democracy and governance is the following: Successful management of common resources needs some form of participation and voice by the people within the community but also restricted access to the resource. Effective governance needs institutions that are inclusive for ‘insiders’ and exclusive for ‘outsiders’. For example, early community-based institutions for managing marine resources throughout the world provided for some influence by ordinary members of the community but at the same time they strictly defined who can and cannot fish and enforced these boundary rules. Of course, who is an outsider and who is insider is in itself a political question. And we don’t know whether these lessons from the micro-level generalize to society-wide institutions. 

Finally, although I remain skeptical whether democratic (in the narrow sense) institutions are necessary (in the strong sense) for economic development, the recent experience of Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) suggest a strong link between the two. Even for those with only cursory knowledge of the region would be clear that the countries that installed the most open, democratic and inclusive political regimes are also the most economically successful ones. In the early phases of post-communist transitions after the fall of the Berlin Wall many advocated economic development before political liberalization. In line with Fukuyama’s reasoning, it was feared that democratization prior to, or together with, economic reforms would impede development and lead to the implosion of these countries. Fortunately for the region, these opinions did not prevail and most of the CEE states initiated political and economic reforms simultaneously (in some cases with the additional burden of nation-building). Looking back, we can ascertain that those states which experienced the earliest and most far-reaching political liberalization were also the ones to achieve the greatest economic development (Poland, the Czech Republic, one hesitates to add Hungary). Whether economic reforms led or followed political liberalization or whether they were all predetermined by pre-communism legacies, political culture, etc. might be still an unresolved issue. Nevertheless, at the very least we can say that in CEE the establishment of democratic political institutions did not halt economic development.

Slavery, ethnic diversity and economic development

What is the impact of the slave trades on economic progress in Africa? Are the modern African states which ‘exported’ a higher number of slaves more likely to be underdeveloped several centuries afterwards?

Harvard economist Nathan Nunn addresses these questions in his chapter for the “Natural experiments of history” collection. The edited volume is supposed to showcase a number of innovative methods for doing empirical research to a broader audience, and historians in particular. But what Nunn’s study actually illustrates is the difficulty of making causal inferences based on observational data. He claims that slave exports contributed to economic underdevelopment, partly through impeding ethnic consolidation. But his data is entirely consistent with a very different interpretation: ethnic diversity in a region led to a higher volume of slave exports and is contributing to economic underdevelopment today. If this interpretation is correct, it could render the correlation between slave exports and the lack of economic progress in different African states spurious – a possibility that is not addressed in the chapter.

The major argument of Nunn’s piece is summarized in the following scatterplot. Modern African states from which more slaves were captured and exported (correcting for the size of the country) between the XVth and the XIXth centuries are associated with lower incomes per capita in 2000 (see Figure 5.1 on p.162, the plot reproduced below is actually from an article in the Quarterly Journal of Economics which looks essentially the same):

The link grows only stronger after we take into account potential ‘omitted variables’ like geographical location, natural openness, climate, natural resources, history of colonial rule, religion and the legal system. Hence, the relationship seems more than a correlation and Nunn boldly endorses a causal interpretation: “the slave trades are partly responsible for Africa’s current underdevelopment” (p.165).

Not being a specialist in the history of slavery, my initial reaction was one of disbelief – the relationship seems almost too good to be true. Especially when we consider the rather noisy slave exports data which attributes imperfect estimates of slave exports to modern states which didn’t exist at the time when the slaves were captured and traded. While it is entirely plausible that slave exports and economic underdevelopment are related, such a strong association several centuries apart between the purported cause and its effect invites skepticism.

It seemed perfectly possible to me that the ethnic heterogeneity of a territory can account for both the volume of slave exports, and current economic underdevelopment. In my layman’s worldview, people are more likely to hunt and enslave people from another tribe or ethnicity than their own. At the same time, African countries in which different ethnicities coexist might face greater difficulties in providing public goods and establishing the political institutions conductive to economic prosperity. So I was a bit surprised that the analysis doesn’t control for ethnic diversity, in addition to size, climate, openness, etc.

But then towards the end of the essay, the relationship between slave exports and ethnic diversity is actually presented and the correlation at the country level turns out to be very high. But Nunn decides to interpret the relationship in the opposite direction: for him, slave exports caused ethnic diversity by impeding ethnic consolidation (which in turn contributes to economic underdevelopment today). He doesn’t even consider the possibility of reverse causality in this case, although the volume of slave exports could easily be a consequence rather than a cause of ethnic diversity in a region.

Of course, data alone cannot give an answer which interpretation is more likely to be correct. And this is exactly the point. When the assignment of countries into different levels of slave exports is not controlled by the researcher or randomized by nature, it is imperative that all possible interpretations consistent with the data are discussed and evaluated; especially in a volume which aims to bring research methodology lessons to the masses.

And finally, if my suggestion that ethnic diversity is more likely to be a cause rather than an effect of slave exports is correct, can ethnic diversity explain away the correlation between slave exports and economic performance? While Nunn doesn’t test this conjecture, he has the data available on his website, so why don’t we go ahead and check: while I can’t be entirely sure I replicate exactly what the original article is doing [there is no do-file online], a regression of income on slave exports with ethnic diversity included as a covariate takes the bulk of the significance of slave exports away.