Governance and the dimensions of autocracy


Recent work at the frontiers of classical liberal political economy has reconsidered the idea that certain autocratic political institutions may improve on the consensus liberal, constitutional democratic political institutions. This paper will discuss conceptually how these new arguments, predatory forms of autocracy, the status quo of constitutional democracy, and the proponents of more majoritarian forms of democratic governance should be understood in terms of one another. It will then perform a simple empirical examination of the modern world, looking at the quality of governance by country by the quality of its democracy, conditional on a country’s economic output, education, and culture. Examples of autocracy with good governance, even when conditioning on these other variables, are sufficiently rare to raise serious questions for the new classical liberal proponents of autocracy.

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  1. 1.

    See Buchanan (1990) for his view on Constitutional Political Economy in his own words. See Congleton (2014) for an overview of Buchanan’s work on the topic.

  2. 2.

    It should be noted that MacLean’s work has come under heavy criticism, as the foundations of her criticisms are innuendo and ad hominem attacks, not substantive (Fleury and Marciano, forthcoming).

  3. 3.

    “Majoritarian” in this paper will be used as a neutral description of political institutions following the will of more than fifty percent of voters, for the lack of another concise phrase. It is not referring to political institutions similar to the Westminster system.

  4. 4.

    Within Classical Liberalism and the Constitutional Political Economy tradition, still other scholars have also suggested that anarchy should be considered as an alternative to the constitutionally constrained state (among many others, see Stringham 2005; Powell and Stringham 2009).

  5. 5.

    See Murphy (2015) and Jones (2019). The claim follows from the fact that being rational is costly and in many ways difficult, and that there is little or no individual benefit to voting rationally, as each individual vote has approximately zero impact on any given election. Where individuals should be expected to be systematically biased, it will be fully expressed at the polls, as the cost of doing so is zero. This is where we see the greatest divergence between popular opinion and expert opinion, for example regarding trade and immigration policy. Restrictions on majorities could include possible reforms that are both controversial (e.g., the re-imposition of poll taxes) and non-inflammatory (e.g., extending the terms of legislators). Murphy (2015) emphasizes the implicit tradeoffs in movements away from purer forms of democracy.

  6. 6.

    Hoppe (2001) and Salter and Hall (2015) each make strongly worded statements regarding the superiority of certain types of autocracies. Niskanen (1997), Bell (2015, 2017) present more moderate versions of the argument. Besley and Reynal-Querol (2017) can be seen as recent empirical support. More indirectly, Holcombe and Boudreaux (2013) have found that autocrats with longer tenures have ended their regime, but didn’t begin it, with more economic freedom. In contrast, Yanovskiy and Ginker (2017) create a new measure of de facto constitutional constraints on the executive, and find that it correlates positively with rates of economic growth, even after controlling for the quality of property rights enforcement.

  7. 7.

    See Murphy (2018) for a discussion of which countries have come the closest to combining socialist economic institutions with otherwise effective state institutions.

  8. 8.

    Economic freedom and the quality of governance have conceptual overlap, notably regarding the rule of law and approach to regulatory policy. They do differ however; Guatemala is one example of a country which combines high levels of economic freedom with a very weak state (Murphy 2017). Governance will remain the focus of this paper.

  9. 9.

    Governance is spoken of in terms of public provision. Within the sample of countries and time period used, public provision of governance is generally relevant. This is not to deny that governance is often provided privately, or that private governance is low quality. See Stringham (2015).

  10. 10.

    The Gambia and Ethiopia combine very low levels of GDP per capita and education with merely somewhat poor governance. Additionally, the most recent trends in both countries is that they are moving in the direction of democracy (The Economist2018; Meseret 2018).

  11. 11.

    Hong Kong, which does not receive a score from Polity IV, may function as a second example alongside Singapore, though it is not clear how it would rank relative to Singapore in its executive constraint. Very recent changes to Hong Kongese law may have placed more power in the hands of the executive, but that is contrary to a history of the legislature holding at least some power (Cheng 2017). It is also unclear where Liechtenstein would rank given that the executive has very broad authority if he chooses to exercise it, but the same can be said for the royal family of the United Kingdom.

  12. 12.

    These “ancillary factors” are likely internal institutions over which the political order of Singapore arose, in the frame of Voigt (1999).


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Correspondence to Ryan H. Murphy.

Appendix: Additional robustness checks

Appendix: Additional robustness checks

Assumptions besides which measure of democracy is to be used may be challenged. Instead of individualism, social trust may be the dimension of culture that is important for determining institutions. Secondly, the empirical examination of Langbein and Knack suggests that “[Political Stability] may not be part of the general concept of good government” (2010: 362). Although this latter concern is less problematic than the tautological conclusion that would be reached were Voice and Accountability to be included in the empirical exercise of this paper, it is well worth confirming that our findings here are not contingent upon in the inclusion of a variable that may only be weakly related to effective governance.

To address social trust, we used the net positive responses to the World Values Survey question V24, “Most People Can Be Trusted,” for all countries with data in either Wave 5 or Wave 6 of the survey (Inglehart et al. 2014). Since individualism was only included in the final main specification (Fig. 4), this robustness check only requires a replication of this single specification. Replacing the variable, re-estimating the regression model, and re-extracting residuals were all completed, the results of which are found in Fig. 7. These results are somewhat sparser than previous estimations, but the same general pattern emerges of democratic countries tending to outperform autocracies conditional on economic output, education, and social trust. The outlier autocratic country in this case is Rwanda, as Singapore’s governance is explained sufficiently by its above-average social trust for it not to appear as an outlier.

Fig. 7

Distribution of governance residuals, given economic output, education, and social trust, by executive constraint score

The second robustness check requires dropping Political Stability and the Absence of Violence from the average of Worldwide Governance Indicators and again re-estimating Regression 1 and Regression 3. Doing so results in Fig. 8 (c.f. Fig. 3) and Fig. 9 (c.f. Fig. 9). The qualitative pattern again remains just the same. Outlier autocratic countries in these cases are Rwanda (in Fig. 8) and Singapore (in Fig. 9). Findings in the main text, therefore, were not contingent on whether Political Stability and the Absence of Violence is to be included in the appropriate measure of governance.

Fig. 8

Distribution of governance residuals, given economic output and education, by executive constraint score, exluding political stability and absence of violence

Fig. 9

Distribution of governance residuals, given economic output, education, and individualism, by executive constraint score, excluding stability and absence of violence

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Murphy, R.H. Governance and the dimensions of autocracy. Const Polit Econ 30, 131–148 (2019).

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  • Democracy
  • Autocracy
  • Governance
  • Executive constraint

JEL Classification

  • O43
  • D72
  • P50