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A Review of Inequality and Democratization: An Elite-Competition Approach, by Ben Ansell and David SamuelsInequality and Democratization

In this dense and absorbing review, Professor Ben Ansell explains how past and current models have failed to capture the paradox that development may lead to greater income inequality. He explores the roles of actors and structures in his own approach to the study of this relationship and casts a critical light on the plight of those who live in poverty despite democratization. Turning to the other end of the income spectrum, he discusses the global trend towards capital mobility and how it relates and affects different political systems. Overall, Inequality and Democratization raises a number of critical and highly relevant questions concerning the relationship between political systems and income distribution.

  1. How do you explain the fact that the positive association between development and income inequality has so far been overlooked by political scientists? Do you think researchers were too much guided by abstract economic models about redistribution, rather than looking at concrete historical cases? You seem to have been motivated by the case of Brazil.

In the book David and I argue that the supposed negative relationship between income inequality and democratization was seductive to many scholars, since it confirmed the folk wisdom of generations of scholars on the left and right.

On the left the tension between economic inequality and political equality is of course a major theme in Marxist and post-Marxist work. Indeed much energy has been invested into explaining why the apparent numerical majority of the poor has failed to produce socialist outcomes through the ballot (this is Przeworski’s and Sprague’s famous ‘paper stones’ argument). Oftentimes, these arguments have resorted to the concept of false consciousness.

Symmetrically, many scholars – and indeed politicians – on the right have been deeply suspicious of granting votes to the poor because of the threat of redistribution. This is evident in parliamentary debates about suffrage but also in the modern language of ‘makers and takers’, ‘skivers and strivers’, or Mitt Romney’s famous ‘47% comment’. The famous Meltzer-Richard economic model of redistribution essentially assumes that if the median voter has an income below the mean, the only thing that prevents them from setting a tax rate of one hundred percent is that rich people might stop working so hard.

So in a sense then people have been seduced by models, both by the informal materialist theoretical mechanisms of the Marxists and by the mathematical models of modern-day economists. But here’s the trick: Almost all of us have some underlying model in our heads of how people behave when we think about the motivations people might have to overthrow regimes. Few of us think it is truly random or completely contingent.

So then the question is: How might we alter the assumptions of these models to produce quite different expectations? We started with the example of Brazil and also the rather high levels of inequality in nineteenth century Britain as cases that did not seem to conform to expectations. But then we still needed to develop a model of our own to show why inequality of certain types might actually hasten democratization. So perhaps we too are too guided by abstract models! But then most of us are…

  1. There seems to be a certain tension in your book between a structuralist and an actor-centered approach to democratization. On which side would you position yourself?

This is a great question and without wanting to suck myself into the structure-agency debate, I think what does work in our book is that while it is basically a structural account in terms of expectations, we do try and do a good deal of work in really thinking through who the purported social actors in our model actually are. In doing so, by looking at social tables for example, we realized pretty quickly that almost all of the action in regime change occurs among actors who are relatively wealthy, even if we might not characterize them as ‘the wealthy’. Indeed the working classes in most countries have incomes substantially higher than the median, sometimes even the mean income. And if that’s the case, then simple models of redistributive politics don’t make a great deal of sense. So thinking about actors in a more serious fashion I think helps us adjudicate among structural models.

  1. Your book does not cast a very optimistic light on the effect of democracy on ‘the poor’. A cynical reader of Inequality and Democratizationcould conclude that the poor would not be better-off in a democracy. Would you agree with this assessment? Should the poor simply not care in which political system they live?

Our book certainly has some provocative claims along these lines! One way of thinking about this is that the poor rarely do well under any political system in the short run. Even democracies fail to fully reflect the interests (or preferences) of the ‘typical voter’. Elites exist everywhere and can dominate policymaking – and of course that insight is hardly original – we see it in Michels and Pareto, more recently in well-known books by Piketty, Bartels, and Winters on inequality, democracy, and oligarchy. But there is good news for the poor in one way. In general, democracies may not be the harbingers of progressive public spending, at least at first (war ironically appears a better predictor of increased taxes and spending), but they engage far less in arbitrary expropriation than do autocracies. We think there has been a bias in the literature in assuming that the poor are somehow fans of expropriation – that they would be the beneficiaries. But I think most accounts of the predatory state would suggest otherwise. Indeed the history of autocracy is a history of regressive taxation and predation – of tribute and salt taxes. So the reduction in expropriation under democracy is hugely valuable not just to elites but also to the poor. But that should not blind us to the fact that a great deal of public spending, especially in developing countries, benefits the upper middle classes before anyone else.

  1. There seems to be a global trend toward greater capital mobility, even in autocratic countries. What are the repercussions of this trend on democratization, both theoretically and empirically?

In our book we rather punt on this question of asset mobility. Carles Boix’s well-known book argues that if elites can spirit their wealth out of the country, they have little to fear from democratic redistribution and hence democratization is more likely. That is a neat claim, but our argument focuses on the threat of expropriation faced by the upper middle classes in autocracies. Capital mobility allows the relatively rich to escape the actual threat of autocracy as opposed to the potential threat of democracy. Think about the incentives faced by members of the Chinese or Gulf state elites today to buy ‘bolt hole’ properties in London! So if capital mobility goes up, it has some interesting effects in our model. On the one hand it reduces the threat of autocracy for these groups and might make them less excited about a transition to democracy. But on the other hand it makes being an autocrat less valuable for the current government since it is much harder to predate effectively on its citizens!

  1. Looking beyond Inequality and Democratization, where do you see further avenues of research in the well-trodden field of democratization studies?

While we certainly do not claim to utter the last word on the topic, we imagine that the focus will shift away from the big structural accounts surrounding inequality and democracy to more micro-level studies of how autocracies actually function. Already there is very interesting work on how autocracies actually repress, what tools they use to do so, how they tax, spend and expropriate. Another interesting question is to look more closely at the dynamics of newly emerging democracies, to see what reforms – if any – actually occur. And of course there remains a big question regarding the authoritarian turn in the post-Soviet world and elsewhere. To sum up, therefore, the question of whether democracy can easily consolidate remains as important as ever.

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