Places that had strong precolonial states are more likely to be autocratic that democratic in the late 20th century. It is the colonized that are more democratic today. So argues Jacob Hariri in an excellent APSR paper:
This article documents that precolonial state development was an impediment to the development of democracy outside Europe, because indigenous state institutions constrained the European colonial endeavor and limited the diffusion of European institutions and ideas. Some countries were strong enough to resist colonization; others had enough state infrastructure that the colonizers would rule through existing institutions. Neither group therefore experienced institutional transplantation or European settlement. Less developed states, in contrast, were easier to colonize and were often colonized with institutional transplantation and an influx of settlers carrying ideals of parliamentarism. Using OLS and IV estimation, I present statistical evidence of an autocratic legacy of early statehood and document the proposed causal channel for a large sample of non-European countries. The conclusion is robust to different samples, different democracy indices, an array of exogenous controls, and several alternative theories of the causes and correlates of democracy.
Ungated copy here. Remarkably, he is a grad student in Scandinavia.
Closest relative in the economics literature is the Reversal of Fortune paper by AJR. The papers deserve to be read together.
Mahmood Mamdani famously argued that colonial rule fostered despotic regimes. Colonial powers such as Britain built structures of coercive, top-down rule. When they left, local strongmen easily took over, stripping away the veneer of parliamentary democracy left by departing colonials.
This still seems correct to me. I think what Hariri shows is these despots were shorter lived that we might have thought in 1990. They’ve been more likely to give way to quasi-democratic movements. The pre-colonial despots show greater staying power.
The trouble is that I’m not certain how to reconcile the paper with another of my new favorites, by Stelios Michalopoulos and Elias Papaioannou. They show the stronger pre-colonial states are wealthier today.
I have ideas, but this could turn into a new paper project of mine so I will not discuss just yet. All three papers are essential reading if you are interested in state development.