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The Constitution, the Uniqueness Puzzle, and the Economic Conditions of Democracy, 56 George Washington Law Review 136 (1987)

Abstract

There is a theory of politics—or of history—or perhaps it should be classified as a sober fable—that might be called the Theory of Democratic Prosperity, for it holds that democratic stability is possible only in the presence of general economic prosperity. The Theory is an old one—the works of the post-Enlightenment thinkers and some of their predecessors are full of it—but it is repeatedly rediscovered, probably because it speaks with such clarity. The less the wealth enjoyed by the people of a nation, the greater the difficulties they will encounter in establishing counterweights to governmental power. If a nation's people are impoverished compared to the people who live elsewhere on the globe, then democracy will lead to impossible demands for wealth and what wealth buys: consumer products, real property, access, class. An authoritarian government might ignore the pleas of its impoverished masses, but in an age when a burgeoning technology of rapid mass communication has made the world a village, the people of any new democracy will lay claim to their "fair share" of goods and resources as a means of keeping up with the Joneses, who, although they may live half a world away and speak another tongue, remain electronic neighbors.

The Theory of Democratic Prosperity makes no claim that general prosperity is a sufficient condition for the development of a democracy, but the Theory does insist that democratic government in the absence of prosperity is inherently unstable. The prosperity must be general, according to the Theory, because if it is not, then the democracy becomes a battle in which the have-nots demand what the haves will not grant. Thus democracy is rooted in a large middle class, a class defined less by its income or property holdings than by its subjective understanding that its own stake is in the status quo, a class that will serve as a conservative bulwark against demands for change so drastic that the ruling elite is bound to resist them. The significant datum is not whether prosperity really is general or not, but whether this middle class believes that it is. When this middle class, or gradualist class, exists, change is likely to come slowly; when it does not, the likely result of a popular or representative democracy on the Western model is a hardening of positions at the extremes, the destruction of what center there might be, and either chaos or authoritarianism. Gradual change does not, on this view, create or require a permanent underclass. On the contrary, the less radical the government's interventions, so the Theory teaches, the greater the potential for sustained economic growth, growth with potential to improve the material conditions of all members of the society. The cycle is a neat one: Prosperity requires gradualism; gradualism requires patience; patience requires prosperity. In this sense, the prosperity that is the end of political society must also be present at its beginning.

Date of Authorship for this Version

1987

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