Buying off political trouble: can economic growth compensate for lack of freedom?

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Does lack of freedom result in greater support for rebellion in countries like China or Saudi Arabia? And if so, what is the cost of buying off the potential threat of greater instability via faster economic growth?

Research by Robert MacCulloch and Silvia Pezzini suggests that a policy of buying off trouble by going for growth when freedoms continue to be denied requires close to unattainable rates of sustained economic growth. Instead, more should be done to promote political rights and democracy, where revolutionary fervour is strongly increased by lack of freedom.

MacCulloch and Pezzini have analysed the results of a large international survey of the taste for revolution of over 100,000 people to assess the relative impact of economic development and political freedoms on reducing support for revolt. Their research reveals that:

Controlling for the characteristics of people and countries, both the level of political and civil freedoms as well as the pace of economic development have marked effects on decreasing the taste for revolt.

But it is very expensive in terms of income to buy off those who want a revolution when their freedoms are taken away. Losing one standard deviation of freedom equivalent to a shift from Argentina to the United States increases support for revolt by around 3 percentage points. To reduce support by the same amount requires adding 14 percentage points onto the GDP growth rate.

In terms of personal characteristics, the most likely to want a revolt are men, the young and the unemployed.

These results are robust to considering the possible endogeneity of the effects. This means that the researchers measure the effect of freedoms and growth on taste for revolt while taking into account that when many people want to revolt, they in turn are likely to affect the level of freedom and growth.

The researchers note that one of the suspected causes of civil conflict has been the denial of democratic freedoms to a nation’s people. Whether or not to support regimes whose legitimacy is questioned for this reason has posed a foreign policy dilemma for the United States.

For example, in the case of Saudi Arabia, rather than push for political reform, one view argues that successive administrations have indulged Riyadh’s penchant for buying off trouble as long as the regime also paid its huge arms bills, purchased Boeing aircraft, kept the price of oil within reasonable bounds, and allowed the United States to use Saudi air bases (Martin Indyk, former US Ambassador to Israel, in Foreign Affairs, Jan-Feb 2002).

But the absence of freedom in Saudi Arabia has not been without its costs though these have been difficult to directly quantify. Some trace the origins of the September 11th World Trade Center attacks to a perceived lack of legitimacy of the Saudi regime among groups of its people. This research confirms the significance of lack of freedom on the taste for revolution, and quantifies the impact.


The Role of Freedom, Growth and Religion in the Taste for Revolution by Robert MacCulloch and Silvia Pezzini was presented at the Royal Economic Society’s 2003 Annual Conference.

Silvia Pezzini is a research associate of the University of Namur in Belgium. Robert MacCulloch is at Imperial College London.

Related information

You can find other publications by these authors, related research and citations from IDEAS and you can search for more Internet resources on the topic of Political Economy on SOSIG.

Economics in Action is a collaboration between the Royal Economic Society, the Economics Network of the Higher Education Academy and SOSIG, the Social Science Information Gateway. It forms part of the Why Study Economics initiative.

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