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.

David Graeber’s ‘Debt’ will shake your world

David Graeber’s ‘Debt: The First 5,000 Year‘ is easily the most thought-provoking, insightful, erudite and provocative book I have read over the last few years. While you can disagree with particular arguments or resist certain conclusions, it will shake your most fundamental assumptions about social life. After reading the book, you will never see money, credit, war, debt, slavery, states, religion, capitalism, finance, economics, anthropology, presents, hierarchy, and history in the same way again.

Don’t be fooled by the title (and the horrendous cover) – this book is nothing less than a reconstruction of world history in the grand traditions of Toynbee, Spengler, Jaspers, and Braudel. Debt plays center stage but one learns just as much about the genesis of the state, the origin of money, the history of slavery and the meaning of gifts. The approach of the book not only spans history, anthropology, social science and philosophy but switches effortlessly between the empirical and the normative, the theoretical and the metaphysical. Which is actually, my major problem with the book. The prose is so convincing and the erudition of the author so deep that one has to be constantly on the alert to separate the evidence from the opinion, the analysis from the speculation, the social critique from the dispassionate search for scientific truth (I suspect Graeber wouldn’t really agree that these can be separated anyways).

Personally, I found the demolition with the help of anthropological evidence of the ‘foundational myth of the discipline of economics’ – the origin of money from barter – the most convincing part of the book. You can get a taste of the argument here. The chapter is important also because it illuminates so well the differences between economics and anthropology as modes of scientific inquiry.

On the other hand, I found the last parts of the book the least convincing. It’s not that the arguments about the links between the origin of modern states, the rise of capitalism, slavery, and credit are totally misplaced, but they all just seem to have been pushed too far.

The book has already been discussed and reviewed in numerous blogs, magazines, etc. (see for example the forum here). It was actually out of print just before Christmas both in the US and Europe, but now you have no excuse – get it and get ready to have your world shattered.

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.

Natural experiments of history? Not really, but still a fine book

Natural experiments are a fine (and fun) way to study questions where the researcher doesn’t have control over the assignment of cases. But the label ‘natural experiment’ can get abused – not all comparisons are ‘natural experiments’. Nature needs to intervene into the assignment of cases in a way that can be credibly regarded as random in order to approximate the experimental method (e.g. here).

Jared Diamond and Paul Robinson have collected seven essays in a book entitled “Natural Experiments of History”. But from the seven studies, only one or two might be regarded as a true ‘natural experiment’ – the rest are just more or less systematic comparisons. It is still a fine book – I found all seven essays interesting and stimulating. But they are not natural experiments; in fact, Diamond and Robinson themselves seem to retract from the label in the concluding chapter of the book.

For example, in his chapter Patrick Kirch studies Polynesian cultural evolution. The three islands of Mangaia, Marquesas, and Hawai”i end up with quite different social and political institutions despite being populated by the same people. To his credit, Kirch uses ‘controlled comparisons’ instead of ‘natural experiments’ to describe his approach. But does the fact that the three islands were settled by people coming from the same homeland in Western Polynesia allow us to ‘control’ for the pre-settlement characteristics of the people who inhabited Mangaia, Marquesas, and Hawai’i? The explorers leaving in search of new homes are seldom a representative sample from the original population. They could be the most adventurous, skilled, risk-taking individuals who depart in search of better fortunes. Or they could be the most aggressive, rebellious, conflict-seeking and uncooperative individuals who get expelled from their original island. In any case, they are likely to be different than the median individual of the source population. As a result, we cannot really rule out that Mangaia, Marquesas, and Hawai’i develop different and progressively more complex political organizations because of differences between the original inhabitants rather that the ecological variables discussed by Kirch. My aim here is not to criticize the substance of Kirch’s research – I actually find his conclusions rather compelling, but to illustrate how self-selection can undermine the comparisons when the assignment of people to islands is not entirely random.

In fact, from the seven chapters the comparison of different Polynesian islands is one of the more persuasive ones from a methodological point of view. Only Banhijit Banerjee and Lakshmi Iyer’s essay on the impact of land tenure institutions on public goods provision in India comes closer to the use of a selection mechanism that can be regarded as a natural experiment. But even there, if the British governors who opted for village-based ownership were also more likely to engage in other ‘progressive’ projects (thus establishing the initial infrastructure for public good provision), then the differences we observe today between Indian regions might not be attributable to the different land tenure regimes during colonial rule.

Even if not based on true natural experiments, the seven essays collected in this little book have a lot to offer. For historians especially, some of the methodological approaches might be eye-opening and hopefully lead to more rigorous search for patterns in history.  If the price for bringing methodological insight to a bigger and more diverse audience is a catchy title that is not entirely fair to the content of the book, so be it.

Emigrants vs. Settlers

In his contribution to ‘Natural Experiments in History‘ James Belich  argues that shifting attitudes towards emigration in Britain and the US were essential for the settler explosions in the American West, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa. Belich puts the shift in attitudes between 1810 and 1820 and illustrates the transformation with the contest between the use of ‘emigrant’ and ‘settler’ on the pages of the Times of London. Always on the lookout for potential application of the awesome power of Google N-gram, I checked whether the shift of attitudes and vocabulary is visible in the larger body of English-language literature indexed  by Google N-gram as well. Here is the graph: ‘Settler’ gets more popular than ‘emigrant’ indeed! But the shift occurs a bit later with an initial catch-up around 1930 and the ultimate win of ‘settler’ around 1970. Interestingly, in the corpus of British books, ‘settler’ never surpasses ‘emigrant’ in popularity, while in American books the two terms are practically even between 1830 and 1865 when ‘settler’ overtakes ‘emigrant’ for good. Actually, it is ‘pioneer’ that rises in popularity beyond ‘emigrant’ around 1810 and then surpasses both ‘emigrant’ and ‘settler’ after 1845: Overall, Belich’s transformation in attitudes and vocabulary towards emigration seems reflected in literature, although the shift occurs later, and is much stronger for American English.