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Loving Growth – Not Freedom

When the legitimacy of the regime is based on its (economic) performance – not freedom- the decline of the economy erodes the appetite for freedom.

“It takes six months to change a political regime, six years to change the economy and at least 60 years to change society.”

Ralf Dahrendorf, 1990

As long as regimes choose economic or security performance as their preferred source of legitimacy, threat to either poses a threat to freedom. The insufficiency of institutional and economic change during democratic transitions becomes apparent during economic downturns (Nova 2011; Nova 2011a).[1] The general attitude quickly reverses into the old thought patterns or fear, uncertainty, apathy, paternalism, scapegoating, mystical thinking, and mistrust. The sense of helplessness leads to inaction and a profound need to justify it. Social capital is eroded in a vicious circle and so does resistance to populism and authoritarian leaders. But why is people’s appetite to freedom so non-resilient? The answer may be that it never existed in the first place.

There are more than a dozen aspects of democratic consolidation that may experience a reverse turn if circumstances change for the worse. Some of them hard and quantifiable (legislative and economic framework, institutions). Others however, belong to the soft aspects of consolidation. Scholars of democratic consolidation grapple with the challenge to include the soft elements of transition and consolidation: the human element. Almond and Verba call them values and attitudes, Fukuyama political culture, and Dahrendorf refers to it as the sixty-year necessary to change a society.

“The underlying conditions of societies around the world point to a more complicated reality. The bad news is that it is unrealistic to assume that democratic institutions can be set up easily, almost anywhere, at any time. Although the outlook is never hopeless, democracy is most likely to emerge and survive when certain social and cultural conditions are in place.”

(Inglehart – Welzel 2005)

Whether a democracy can be considered consolidated depends primarily on the definitions we adopt (Nova 2011).[2] When their legitimacy is primarily based on economic performance, their deconsolidation will be a consequence of a recession.

Warfare (effective defense of territory against foreign invasion and population against domestic or foreign aggression) has gradually ceased to be the major performance indicator in the Western world since the Second World War. It has been replaced by economic (and welfare) success as the primary source of performance legitimacy.[3] The emergence of the welfare state has coincided with the second and indeed the third waves of democratization, it is thus hard to tell whether the legitimacy (acceptance) of the regimes arises from political rights or economic performance in the form of welfare provision. As a consequence, the population may have greater tolerance for the limitations of their civil liberties than that of their social benefits and welfare, and the economic troubles of the welfare states can erode the credibility of democracy by association.[4] This lends relevance to investigating the underlying sentiment.

“Few relations between social, economic and political phenomena are stronger than that between the level of economic development and the existence of democratic politics.”

(Huntington 1991:21)

Lipset warns against such crude determinism. A certain level of wealth (the size of the middle class, better and widely accessible education) is indeed a prerequisite for democracy, but does not necessarily make it happen (Lipset 1959). Reversely, democracy may be a “luxury” or meta-need (according to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs) that will be put aside as long as more pressing needs are not served – but not necessarily so. It is arguably not a certain level of wealth that creates demand for democracy but rather the presence of economic growth (and thus private aspirations crowding out the focus on threats and thus the need for strong leaders). The electorate will thus punish a democratic government for stagnation as opposed to relative poverty (Ferguson 2001:364). It may turn an economic downturn into disillusionment with democracy/freedom in general – especially in cases where the “sixty years” have not yet passed since democratic transition. But democracy does not exclusively depend on the state of the economy, and economic weakness does not translate directly into the impossibility of democracy.

“…modernization is not linear. It does not move indefinitely in the same direction; instead, the process reaches inflection points. Empirical evidence indicates that each phase of modernization is associated with distinctive changes in people’s worldviews.”

(Inglehart – Welzel 2005)


[1] For the purposes of this research (and because the literature of democracy means it as such), democracy is synonymous with a free society, not just the presence of majority voting. Scholars have come up with hundreds of definitions for democracy (Diamond 1991). Political systems are not binary in terms of freedom or dictatorship. ‘Democracy’ is a rallying cry of politicians, not a solidly defined state of affairs. The definition can be reduced to majoritism or enriched with the rule of law, and independent institutions, freedom of expression, etc. to mean what we call a liberal democracy. Some even use it as a synonym to equality – although not this paper.

[2] Various definitions of democracy exist – ranging from mere electoral democracy to a more complex liberal democracy (see Mill 1859; Lipset 1959; Diamond 1999; Huntington 1996; Schmitter 2010). The same is the case with democratic consolidation (for definitions see Przeworski 1991; Plattner 1998; Schedler 1998; Linz-Stepan 1996; Zakaria 1997).

[3] In communist countries, it happened decades later. As Linz and Stepan observed the transition from post-totalitarian systems creates, in a sense, more fragile democracies if the legitimacy of the old regime has already been based on economic performance rather than some utopian ideology. (See the case of Hungary’s “premature welfare state” from the 1970s). The resulting new democracy must face these inflated economic expectations while political rights are almost secondary (Linz-Stepan 1996:295).

[4] According to Huntington there are two major alternatives to democracy in the post-communist world. One is the Islamist alternative. The other, much more potential alternative is what he called the “Asian authoritarianism” (Huntington 1996:10-11)




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2 thoughts on “Loving Growth – Not Freedom

  1. Pingback: Does Shrinking Population Contribute to Populism? | Meanwhile in Budapest

  2. Pingback: Love Is For Poor People | Meanwhile in Budapest

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