For growth we want good institutions—democracy is irrelevant

It is eternally surprising to me that people keep doing studies of whether democracy affects growth using the same cross-country data but their regular findings—that institutions and the rule of law matter but democracy doesn’t—are less of a surprise.

The latest, “Democracy and Growth: A Dynamic Panel Data Study” (pdf) is from Jeffry Jacob, of Bethel University and Thomas Osang of Southern Methodist University:

In this paper we investigate the idea whether democracy can have a direct effect on economic growth. We use a system GMM framework that allows us to model the dynamic aspects of the growth process and control for the endogenous nature of many explanatory variables. In contrast to the growth effects of institutions, regime stability, openness and macro-economic policy variables, we find that measures of democracy matter little, if at all, for the economic growth process.

They look at a full 160 countries over 50 years, building on a large existing literature, which includes (my own picks, not theirs):

  • Acemoglu et al. (2008) found that once you control for ‘country fixed effects’ (i.e. systematic and apparently intractable differences between countries) there is no link between the level of democracy in a country and its income. This is because democracies tend to (not necessarily coincidentally) have other good characteristics.
  • Cervellati et al. (2004) found that never-colonies benefited from democracy whereas countries that had once been colonies did worse if they were democratic.
  • Barro (1996) found that democracy was slightly negative for growth once you account for variables like the rule of law, small governments, free markets and human capital (i.e. skills, education and cognitive ability)
  • Lehmann-Hasemeyer et al. (2014) found that democratising Saxony between 1896 and 1909 destroyed lots of stock market wealth in anticipation of worse laws
  • Mulligan et al (2004) found that democracies and non-democracies choose very similar policies

That the evidence suggests democracies and non-democracies perform about the same might be surprising given the state of public ignorance. In Sam’s words “the public is ignorant about politics and lacks even the basic facts that it would need to make sound judgments about political issues.”

But at the same time, as people get more knowledgeable they get more dogmatic. Experts know a lot, but they gather evidence that fits their existing ideology; ideologies both help us understand the world and blinker us in some ways.

Perhaps democratic ignorance and expert narrow-mindedness roughly balance out—or perhaps representative democracies and non-democracies both choose similar sorts of people to rule anyway.

Either way, the evidence seems to suggest that insofar as we can help countries to develop, the key institutions we should be supporting are markets, property rights and the rule of law, and considerably less significance should be accorded to democratisation.

Ending the BBC licence fee

Today, BBC Director-General Lord Hall will say that the corporation will back plans to scrap Britain’s 1930s-style TV licensing fee. That’s good. Unfortunately he wants to replace it with a broadcasting levy on every household – whether or not they own a television. That’s bad. Indeed, it’s crazy.

Why should households pay a levy to support broadcasters, even if they have no television? Or even if they have a television but rarely use it? It’s a broadcasting poll tax, which will impose the biggest burden on the poorest households, like the one-parent families who, already, account for the bulk of the prosecutions for non-payment.

And what’s the logic of it anyway? That we need broadcasters, and the licence fee is no longer a realistic way to pay for them? Firstly, you can question the extent to which we need broadcasters. Many of us live quite happily without needing daily doses of Call the MidwifeDeath in ParadiseCasualty or for that matter Premier League football: why should we subsidise those who can’t? Politicians might reckon that Question Time and Newsnight are essential ‘public service broadcasting’, but precious few of the rest of us would mourn their passing.

Broadcasters are by no means the only people to argue that they are producing a product essential to our lives or culture, but for which it is hard to get people to pay. Newspapers are saying exactly the same: they feed us news, analysis and opinion, but we are buying fewer and fewer of their dead-tree products, picking it all up free online instead. Should we have a levy on households so that Rupert Murdoch can continue to serve us up his vital product? No, definitely not. It is up to those industries to find market ways to charge for what they produce – through advertising, for example, or through subscription mechanisms.

The BBC should do the same. Technology is pretty nifty these days, in ways it wasn’t when the BBC was created in the 1930s. For folk who pride themselves on their creativity, developing a subscription service, from which non-payers can be excluded, should not be too far beyond their wit. Or even using advertising and sponsorship, as so many other perfectly reputable broadcasters do.

If the BBC did not exist, we certainly would not invent it. Today it looks rather like a bloated fixed-line network monopoly in an age of mobile phones. A lumbering dinosaur in an age of fleet-footed niche producers. So why force households to keep subsidising this sad throwback?

A Labour Party policy we look forward to

In the interests of being fair handed, for recall that we are not a party political organisation, here is a Labour Party policy just announced that we thoroughly look forward to:

He added: “David Cameron’s ideological selloff has ended a public sector service which has delivered over £1bn to the Treasury, kept fares down, had record passenger satisfaction and engaged the workforce with unparalleled success.
“It is clear that when it comes to transport, people have a straight choice – the status quo or Labour’s better plan. Labour will start the process of legislating in the first 100 days of a new parliament to allow a public sector operator to be able to take on lines and challenge the private sector on a genuinely level playing field.”

We have no problem with public sector organisations applying to run anything at all. Nor with capitalists, cooperatives or Uncle Tom Cobbleigh. Our desire is that there should be that level playing field so that the best people for the job do the providing. And we’re just overjoyed at the idea that there might be competition between forms of organisation just as much as there might be between individual examples of the same type of organisation.

So, yes, we fully support this.

However, in the same story:

Stagecoach has pledged to invest about £140m to deliver what it calls “an improved service and a more personalised travel experience for customers”, and is scheduled to pay £3.3bn in premiums to the government.

That capitalists are pledging to give the government £3.3 billion over 8 years, the public sector organisation gave the government £1 billion over 5. So this is actually going to be a level playing field is it? That the privatisation would have gone ahead anyway as the capitalists are quite obviously offering the better deal?

Good, excellent, glad we’ve got that sorted then.

Economic Nonsense: 16. Government should own and run vital industries such as transport and energy

This is laughably untrue.  Where governments own and run industries, whether ‘vital’ or not, they pursue political rather than economic objectives.  In the case of things such as transport and energy, they will be tempted to keep prices below economic levels to gain electoral popularity, or at least to avoid unpopularity.

Such industries will tend to be under-capitalized, since capital expenditure is less visible to the public than are transfer payments such as pensions and welfare.  Governments cannot spend the same money on both, and the former attracts less support than the latter.  This under-capitalization threatens future supplies.  In the case of transport it means that there will probably not be enough infrastructure built to meet future demand.  In the case of energy it poses the threat of future power cuts.

If the state owns and runs transport and energy, those industries will be more prone to strike action.  Unions behave more cautiously with private firms because they do not want to risk the firms closing or going bankrupt.  This does not happen in the public sector, so the unions have more clout.  For the same reason state industries will also tend to be over-manned.  This is not mere theory.  All of these things actually happened in state-owned industries in Britain, including transport and energy.  Train services were unreliable and equipment was shoddy and outdated.  In the energy sector there were blackouts.

Although we use the term “public ownership,” the public cannot exercise any of the rights of ownership as they do when things are privately owned.  Instead it is politicians and bureaucrats who decide priorities, rather than businesses trying to anticipate and cater for public demand.  When people talk of the need for the state to run ‘vital’ industries, we do well to remember that few are more vital than the food industry.  One can imagine what it might be like if the state controlled the supplies, determined what should be produced, and only sold through state-owned outlets.  We don’t have to imagine this.  It happened in Soviet Russia and was characterized by shortages, low quality produce, and interminable queues at state shops.

Logical Fallacies: 14. Shifting the burden of proof

 

In this, the latest in his Logical Fallacies series, Madsen Pirie looks at ‘shifting the burden of proof’.

You can pre-order the new edition of Dr. Madsen Pirie’s How to Win Every Argument here