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Democracy vs. dictatorship

Comparing the evolution of economic growth under two political regimes1


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     Ling Shen thanks ‘Shanghai Pujiang’ project (2007) for their generous financial support. This project is also supported by Leading Academic Discipline Program, ‘211’ Project for Shanghai University of Finance and Economics (the third phase). We thank Thomas Gall and an anonymous referee for helpful comments.


A democratic society is often regarded as a prerequisite for economic growth and development. Yet, most empirical studies are not capable of identifying a positive link between GDP growth and democracy indexes. In addition, it is a stylized empirical fact that: (i) most developing countries are dictatorships; and (ii) many poor dictatorships have experienced high growth performances and emerged from poverty such as South Korea, China and Egypt. Against this background, it is of interest to analyse in which ways the growth performance between autocratic and democratic economies may differ, in particular among low-income countries. To answer this question, we compare the endogenous growth paths of two economies that differ only in their political regimes in the context of an overlapping generations model. The key features of the model are: (i) a positive bequest motive in the form of investments in education or productive public capital (infrastructure); (ii) a higher marginal (inter-temporal) utility of consumption today versus consumption tomorrow in low-income countries (for example, subsistence level of consumption); and (iii) a dictator that cares about her income or the income of her dynasty tomorrow. In this framework, we demonstrate that poor but large and stable dictatorships exhibit a higher equilibrium growth rate than comparable (equally poor) democracies. Moreover, there exists a particular threshold value in income such that the growth-reducing impact of dictatorial consumption (corruption) outweighs the higher (initial) public investments. Above this, the growth rate under democracy dominates the one in dictatorship.