Why democracy and autocracy both endure



Two common beliefs about democracy – that it began in ancient Athens and, on spreading from there, remained peculiarly Western – are mistaken, David Stasavage, a professor of politics at New York University, argues in The Decline and Rise of Democracy: A Global History from Antiquity to Today (Princeton University Press), The Economist notes. The key to the emergence of early democracy was information, he contends:

Early democracy tended to flourish where rulers knew little of what people were growing and had few ways to find out. They might underguess taxable produce (forgoing revenue) or overguess (provoking non-compliance). It was better to ask people how much they grew and, in return, listen to their demands. That pattern was typical where populations were small and a central state weak or non-existent.

With big populations, consultation was impractical. Rulers instead sent officials to see how much was grown and, before long, how many young men could be drafted into armies. Bureaucracies emerged. With their aid, autocratic rule imposed itself on local custom….


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