Q&A: Information, Democracy, and Autocracy: Transparency and Political (In)Stability

Jan 15, 2019
B. Rose Kelly
Woodrow Wilson School

Americans seeking information about unemployment rates, wage growth and inflation can do so with the click of a button. But transparency of this kind is not readily available in many developing countries. How does this flow of information — or lack thereof — affect political stability around the world?

A new book published by researchers at Princeton University, New York University (NYU) and the University of Minnesota (UMN) examines how information affects political and economic phenomena including mass protests, foreign direct investment, and the stability of dictatorships and democracies. They find that while transparency enhances the stability of democracies, it may increase instability in autocracies.

The authors answer questions about the new book in the Q&A below.

James R. Hollyer is a Benjamin Evans Lippincott Associate Professor in Political Economy at UMN.

B. Peter Rosendorff is a professor in the Wilf Family Department of Politics at NYU.

James Raymond Vreeland is a professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.

Q. Why did you write this book?

A. We hear so much these days about the importance of transparency. But you don't necessarily hear much about what transparency really means.

Once you start looking into various available measures of transparency – that compare different countries across different times – you find that these measures are, ironically, pretty opaque. Many scholars rely on measures of transparency that come from advocacy organizations that have specific political agendas. On top of this, transparency is a multifaceted concept. It can refer to the policymaking process, the connection of policy to outcomes or to the outcomes themselves.

So, we first set out to develop a new, more transparent measure of transparency. We decided to focus on the reporting of outcomes because, while policymaking is certainly important, many citizens care most about the outcomes of policy – how the economy is performing, for example.

In the United States, we take for granted that we can simply look up the current rate of unemployment, inflation rates and economic growth on the internet. But in many countries, governments hide employment data, they may lie about inflation rates, and in some impoverished countries governments may simply lack the capacity to measure various features of the economy, such as economic growth.

Our index of transparency considers the public availability of data on a wide range of measures of economic performance. We rank 125 countries between 1980 and 2010. The dataset — along with fun tools to chart levels of transparency for specific countries over time — is available on our website.

We also hear a lot that transparency is a good thing. We wanted to test this proposition when it comes to political stability. It wasn't obvious to us that sharing information necessarily leads to good outcomes. During the Arab Spring, for example, citizens sharing information led to various outcomes, with some countries experiencing transitions to democracy, others harsh repression, and still others political upheaval ending in military coups. So we wondered, is transparency always good? Where does it prove most beneficial and where might it lead countries into the danger zone?

Q. What are the biggest takeaways?

A. The biggest takeaway of the book is that transparency enhances the stability of democracies but may increase instability in autocracies.

Specifically, in autocracies, greater transparency is associated with more frequent mass uprisings.  Citizens who are of a mind to protest against the regime are better able to do so when they realize that others are likely to share this assessment. Sometimes this unrest can lead to a democratic transition. More commonly, however, mass unrest leads to political upheaval, which results in a new repressive regime.

However, while transparency increases the chance of mass unrest, it actually reduces the likelihood of coups. Thus an autocratic leader, in choosing how much data to disseminate, must balance the risk of a mass uprising against the threat of a coup from inside the regime.

We also find that opacity is bad for democracy. We suggest that electoral competition works best when citizens have good information on which to base their voting decisions. When voters have bad information, they may elect a poorly performing government. So a major take-away of the book is the importance of voter information for democracy to work.

Q. What are the policy implications?

A. When dealing with democratic governments, particularly those newly transitioning to democracy, our findings support policies that bolster transparency. Policymakers should promote data disclosure by providing resources and creating incentives for democratically elected governments to share information — especially for newly elected leaders in more fragile democratic states.

When dealing with autocracies, however, our findings suggest caution. Often old autocracies are replaced by new, or the old ones become entrenched; only sometimes do we witness transitions to democracy and often these eventually collapse back into autocracy. Interventions that may enhance transparency in autocratic states have the potential to backfire, increasing the risks of mass unrest and repressive entrenchment.

The time has come to recognize that we have little control as to the outcome when imposing transparency in autocratic countries. Instead, we suggest focusing on an attainable goal supported by scientific research. Democracy promotion is best achieved by helping to consolidate democratic rule in existing democracies. This book offers a new method to do so: promote data disclosure under democracy.