Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Don't Hope for Change in Libya

Copyright, The New York Times Company

Even as the United States and its allies press their military campaign against forces loyal to the longtime dictator Muammar el-Qaddafi, economic indicators suggest that helping Libyan rebels will neither reduce oppression nor result in democracy for Libya.

Libya’s oil reserves are among the largest and most valuable in the world, and that alone is a big obstacle to democracy. Leaders of oil-rich countries almost always enjoy rich economic rewards, and there’s an endless supply of factions that would, no doubt, like to have those rewards for themselves.

So even if rebel forces succeed under the banner of an essentially democratic revolution in overthrowing Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, and regardless of whether Libya’s next leader arises from a democracy movement, at some point he is likely to consider political oppression as a survival strategy that helps hold back all his competitors.

For this and other reasons, research in economics and political science has found that democracy’s advances are few in oil-rich countries. Prof. Robert Barro of Harvard found that countries with relatively large net oil exports were less likely to have a democratic national government. Prof. Michael Ross of the University of California, Los Angeles, also found that effect.

Citizens of rich countries like democracy and like to use a lot of energy, so they generally import a lot of oil. The Barro and Ross results are sometimes questioned on the basis that oil exports are a symptom rather than a cause of a country’s political and economic situation.

This is one reason that Prof. Kevin Tsui of Clemson (my former student at the University of Chicago) examined oil reserves rather than net oil exports in a study published in The Economic Journal.

He found that democratization –- the process of moving to fair elections, allowing free speech, free political expression and so on -– was much less likely to occur after a country discovered significant oil reserves, regardless of how much oil the country chose to export.

Libya has other characteristics that make democracy unlikely. It is more Muslim that the average country in the world and more ethnically heterogeneous, and Professor Tsui has found both of these conditions to be associated with less democracy.

If Libya’s rebels are successful, no amount of Allied help will change the country’s location or its basic economics. Nor would it change Libya’s demographics, though perhaps a post-Qaddafi Libya would consist of multiple countries, each more homogeneous than the unified Libya was.

The Allied intervention will not bring Libya peace in the short term, and will not bring democracy in the long term as long as Libya has valuable oil in the ground.

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