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Can the middle class really guarantee good governance?

Sina Odugbemi's picture
When social scientists and historians look back on the transformation in the quality of governance that took place in, first, Great Britain and, later, much of Europe in the course of the long 19th century, one explanatory factor often stands out: the rise of a large enough middle class.  What is large enough is, of course, a question of fact, and varies depending on the particular country context. This explanation is often contested, but it has stuck. People refer, for instance, to the revolts against monarchies that occurred across Europe around 1848 as the middle class revolutions. The sense that this explanation makes sense is so strong that when you attend seminars on improving governance in developing countries at some point or the other someone is bound to say: “Let’s be patient folks. Once these countries have a large enough middle class the pressure for improved governance will be unstoppable.”

I write about this now because I have just read an essay by Nancy Birdsall of the Center for Global Development that restates the view with some sophistication. Please see: “Middle –Class Heroes: The Best Guarantee of Good Governance.” The essay is worth reading in full. I am going to focus only on her core case. Key quote:
Having a large middle class is also critical for fostering good governance. Middle-class citizens want the stability and predictability that come from a political system that promotes fair competition, in which the very rich cannot rely on insider privileges to accumulate unearned wealth. Middle-class people are less vulnerable than the poor to pressure to pay into patronage networks and are more likely to support governments that protect private property and encourage private investment. When the middle class reaches a certain size – perhaps 30 percent of the population is enough – its members can start to identify with one another and to use their collective power to demand that the state spend their taxes to finance public services, security, and other critical public goods. Finally, members of a prospering middle class are unlikely to be drawn into the kinds of ethnic and religious rivalries that spur political instability. (Italics mine.)
To be fair, Birdsall qualifies all this carefully. Her threshold for the middle class is high: $10 a day is what makes you middle class. And she admits to three exceptions:
  1. Oil rich states do not necessarily become more accountable even as the wealth occasions a large middle class.
  2. Authoritarian regimes, when already established, can resist the pressures from a growing middle class with brutal efficiency. We should add totalitarian regimes.
  3. During an economic downturn even a large middle class can fall prey to “demagogic and populist appeals – from the right or the left”.
You might ask: so, what’s left of the explanatory force of the idea of a large enough middle class guaranteeing good governance? Not a lot, it would appear.

And there are a few more caveats that I would enter. Liberal constitutional democracy is an interlacing set of values, norms and institutions. As a wit once said: you cannot build a democracy without democrats. Even if you have a large enough middle class in a country, unless enough of the members are committed to the values, norms and institutions of liberal constitutional democracy, that system of rule will not take hold, and, even if it takes hold for a while, it will not be sustained.  You will notice that I am stating bluntly that what is often referred to as “good governance” is really liberal constitutional democracy in development-speak.  I am always astonished how often I run into highly educated, well-to-do citizens of developing countries who have zero commitment to the ideals of good governance/liberal democracy. They love visiting the so-called mature democracies, and keeping their wealth and kids in these countries, but they do not necessarily think that is what they need “back home”.

The second caveat that I would enter is caught beautifully by the uproariously cynical Pidgin English expression: Na democracy we go chop? It means: are we going to eat democracy? Is it going to feed us? In several developing countries, or emerging markets, new middle classes are being created as the Birdsall essay documents. But a lot of these people are focused on making money, I mean serious money, in any way that the system allows. They are not seeking to improve the system. They simply want to use it to get ahead. Large sections of these middle classes are insiders involved in diabolical triangles (public official- local businessperson- foreign businessperson) designed to rip off their own country. Which leads to the kinds of Faustian bargains that authoritarian/totalitarian regimes often make with new middle classes in their territories: “Get rich all you want but leave politics/power  to us…or else…!”

The third caveat is the enduring sway of primordial loyalties in many developing countries. The sense of a national middle class acting to improve the system as a conscious force is disabled when every public issue is seen through the lens of ethic or national or sectarian identity or race. Particularly in plural multinational or multi-confessional societies, it is far from easy for the sense of a class acting in its or the national interest to soar above the deep divisions in society. Bad governance is often tolerated if the “bastards” in power belong to one’s group. You know the saying: they might be bastards but they are our bastards.

The final caveat is the unsteady willingness to pay the price of participation in the political process. Good governance will not happen magically in a corrupt, badly governed country. It has to be fought for. Coalitions, even movements, have to be built. It is a long and difficult struggle. And those who like the system as it is will fight back… with batons, truncheons, imprisonment or even murders. When the going gets tough… protest movements mostly vanish. We all know too many instances where movements for change have petered out because bad rulers and awful governing elites launched a ferocious crack down.

To conclude, I agree wholeheartedly that a large and growing middle class is, for all kinds of reasons, a good thing to have. But the good governance effect? That might take a while!


Submitted by Makarand on

Oh what a super piece. I wish that every member of the overly vocal & selfish Indian middle class would read it.

Submitted by Anonymous on

The article rings true for PNG and hope some of us working to promulgate governance and are middle class are not letting our right hand eat our left hand.

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