Capabilities in Non-democracies: A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing? Comparing Welfare (Hi)stories of Singapore, Jordan and Belarus.
Kaleja, Ance (2016). 'Capabilities in Non-democracies: A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing? Comparing Welfare (Hi)stories of Singapore, Jordan and Belarus.' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Tokyo 2016.
Authoritarian welfare states remain an empirical puzzle to contemporary researchers. For understandable reasons, explorations of welfare systems have almost exclusively been focused on democratic countries as concerns about data availability, transparency and validity in non-democracies remain. As a result, welfare research has examined the role of structural factors (such as the influence of resource availability) and institutional ones (such as elections or the number of veto-players) in the provision of socio-economic goods and services. By now it is clear that economic resources can, to an extent, determine state’s capacity for enhancing capabilities, but does not necessarily imply that capabilities will be pursued. Similarly, although the role of formal institutions has been extensively examined, it is not clear whether elections and legislatures have the same effect in authoritarian states as they do in democracies, lest because formal institutions in non-democratic regimes cannot be taken ‘at face value’ (Svolik 2012).
Rational-choice approaches tell us that dictators too may have certain incentives to further people’s wellbeing and that these motivations matter as they influence their chances of maintaining power. As the possible use of repression in achieving this aim is what distinguishes authoritarian states from democracies, a large segment of game-theoretic literature has been focused on this aspect in particular. But several authors have remarked how authoritarian leaders may be inclined to abstain from the use of repression in order to stay in power, because it is likely to incite insecurity about the actual amount of support they enjoy from either the population or the ‘launching organizations’ (Haber 2008; Wintrobe 1990, 2007; Tullock 1987). Hence, when dictators strive to not only gain power, but also to maintain it, they may instead focus on the co-optation of strategic elites, or ensuring input or performance legitimacy. While input legitimacy often results in the construction of seemingly democratic political institutions, performance legitimacy rests on an “authoritarian bargain” whereby people’s capabilities are enhanced in exchange for people's political rights (Desai et al 2009). These insights clarify that advancing wellbeing can be achieved by a variety of political regimes, but it is not clear why some autocrats may pursue these strategies over others; whether they advance people’s abilities in similar ways as those in democratic states or what factors exactly play a role in motivating non-democratic polities to be responsive to people’s needs. While there seems to be a consensus that democratic states have higher social spending, findings about the effects of political regime on various socio-economic outcomes are, at best, inconclusive.
To clarify these ambiguities, the paper presents comparative results of extensive research with regard to three authoritarian states, namely Jordan, Singapore and Belarus, which counter-intuitively have managed to provide better capability outcomes than their democratic counterparts at similar levels of economic development, as indicted by the SERF Index. The broader study employs a historical institutionalist framework and asks how and why these particular states have expanded people’s capabilities, tracing their policy developments and contributing to the plight of improving knowledge about capability attainment in diverse economic, social, cultural and political contexts.
First, the findings endorse the suggestion that capability provision combined with coercive elements can contribute significantly to strengthening the stability of the ruling elites. This is applicable not only for capabilities that relate to well-being, but also with regard to the expansion of various consultative and participatory mechanisms in determining the course of desirable action that consequently creates an image of responsiveness. Second and more importantly, they illustrate how attention to informal institutions is of crucial importance when analysing capability attainment in non-democratic settings. When the state apparatus is responsible for drafting policies, whilst being able to effectively control the public discourse, values that are seen as desirable by the ruling elites (such as the focus on family, respect for diversity, religious values or other characteristics of ‘desirable’ citizenship) can more efficiently become intertwined within people’s own worldviews. These beliefs, in turn, influence the scope of legitimate range of objectives that governments are expected to pursue and has potential to strengthen the existing formal institutions (Thelen 1999). Finally, the implications of the study challenge capability theories that do not clarify procedural requirements for legitimate action as they suggest that people's aspirations 'to do and be what they have reason to value' (Sen 1999; 2004) may to a large extent be influenced by the political elites themselves.