The article, “Riding the Wave: World Trade and Factor-Based Models of Democratization” by John S. Ahlquist and Erik Wibbels appears in the April 2012 of the American Journal of Political Science. Here, they summarize its content:

Much of the recent interest in the high and rising levels of income inequality in the United States and beyond seems to derive from people’s intuition that high levels of inequality could have negative consequences for political stability, possibly leading to conflict or even revolution. Much of the concern with economic globalization–the increasing economic interdependence across borders that enables so many of our goods to be manufactured in China–has the same flavor: increasing international trade can exacerbate distributional conflicts and perhaps destabilize political systems as some groups win from trade and others are hurt.

The social scientific evidence on these questions, however, is mixed. Important contributions from political scientists and economists have argued that greater inequality, up to a point, can stimulate the democratization of nondemocratic regimes. When a poor majority in an unequal autocratic society sees democracy as a tool to get what they want, it might make sense to push for democracy; the more unequal the society the greater the incentive to challenge the existing regime. Furthermore, globalization-induced changes in the income distribution may, in fact, be a positive catalyst for democracy. Classic ideas about international trade argue that trade benefits and empowers workers in countries where the primary economic endowment is labor (as opposed to abundant, fertile land or lots of capital). This view makes for a rosy set of expectations for democracy, at least in labor-rich, authoritarian countries like China.

In our paper we use the expansion and contraction of world trade over the last 130 years as a way of examining how the economic empowerment of different groups affects the prospects for democracy. Looking at all countries for which we have data and going back to the 1870s, we find that there is no consistent evidence that increased world trade increases the chances for democratization in labor-rich autocracies, contrary to the assertions in several existing studies. We do find some evidence that world trade has hurt the prospects for democracy in countries like Argentina, whose primary economic endowment is land. Our research calls in to question both the claim that globalization is good for democracy and that democracy is an effective tool for addressing distributive conflict in favor of workers and the poor.

About the Authors: John Ahlquist is the Trice Family Faculty Scholar and Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Erik Wibbels is Associate Professor of Political Science at Duke University.

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The Editor of the AJPS is at Michigan State University and the Editorial Office is supported by
the Michigan State University Department of Political Science and the School of Social Sciences.

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