From a theoretical perspective, Amartya Sen is perhaps the best-known thinker to weigh in on the role of CP rights in economic development, most famously in his book Development as Freedom, where he stresses that the value of political freedoms does not have to be strictly tied to their effect on economic growth—CP rights contribute to economic development, he says, but that value is over and above their direct (“constitutive,” in Sen’s parlance) role. Indeed, Sen centers his definition of development on CP rights, arguing that development requires the removal of major sources of “unfreedom,” including tyranny, systematic social deprivation, and intolerance or overactivity of repressive states. In his view, development is not just about changes in economic status, but about the expansion of human capabilities. Most basically, then, the goal of development is to enrich people’s ability to choose how they want to live.
Sen’s holistic view of development demonstrates that it is not just economic growth that governments should pay attention to, but the ways in which development can enrich human lives more generally. By enabling people to have a say in the way that economic development happens, including the extent to which economic policy establishes safeguards for ESC rights, CP rights are an integral part of this enrichment. Political rights enable the expression of people’s preferences and priorities, which are important informational inputs to the policy process. The integration of more people into a political system channels more viewpoints into that process and increases ownership in political decisions, which can be important in ameliorating public discontent in lean times. CP rights do not guarantee, of course, that policy changes will be effective or easy, but they can be an important pressure valve to mediate grievances.
Similarly, in an early evaluation of the case for the prioritization of ESC rights at the expense of CP rights, Rhoda Howard argued that the costs of not allowing CP rights far exceed the costs of allowing them. Closed political systems prevent full input to the development process and, because there is little input from the majority of the country, it is likely that new policies will promote elite interests. (Note that the overlap between economic development and ESC rights is less-than-complete. Authoritarian governments tend to conflate specific metrics—particularly GDP growth—with expanding ESC rights. While it is true that economic growth is often the means through which broad improvements in living standards are obtained, the uneven and often inequitable nature of economic development means that GDP growth is not a synonym for increased ESC rights.) Distribution issues aside, popular input is also essential to the dignity of the people that economic reforms are intended to benefit. Howard quotes an anonymous participant in a 1966 human rights seminar in Dakar, in a statement that remains compelling almost 50 years later: “To sacrifice the liberties inherent in the human personality in the name of economic development…[is] to reduce the individual to the role of producer and consumer of goods, which…[is] far too high a price to pay for improving the material conditions of existence.” (490)
Moreover, more recent empirical research suggests that there is nothing mutually exclusive between the promotion of CP rights and attaining improvements in ESC rights. For one thing, there is no clear indication that authoritarian power and the political restrictions it entails make it easier to create economic growth. As economist William Easterly points out, for every case of impressive growth under authoritarian leadership (e.g., Singapore under Lee Kuan Yew), there are numerous equally distressing cases of stagnation and poverty (e.g., Cameroon, where—despite high revenues in oil wealth and foreign development assistance—the average citizen is poorer today than when President Paul Biya took power in 1982).
In a recent book, Emerging Africa: How 17 Countries are Leading the Way, economist Steve Radelet offers additional demonstration that economic development can go hand-in-hand with democratic political development. Radelet looks at a set of 17 countries in sub-Saharan Africa that have achieved dramatic gains in economic growth, poverty reduction, and political accountability since the mid-1990s, including Ghana, Mali, Tanzania, and Cape Verde. To be sure, economic progress has not always been rapid or predictable, and the protection of CP rights in these states is not always ideal, but this group of countries, home to more than 300 million people, shows that one need not restrict or curtail CP rights in the name of economic growth.
CP rights can actually be an important part of the economic development process. Economist Dani Rodrik compares economic growth in democratic and authoritarian countries:
“[Democracies] provide much greater economic stability, measured by the ups and downs of the business cycle. They are better at adjusting to external economic shocks (such as terms-of-trade declines or sudden stops in capital inflows). They generate more investment in human capital – health and education. And they produce more equitable societies.
Authoritarian regimes, by contrast, ultimately produce economies that are as fragile as their political systems. Their economic potency, when it exists, rests on the strength of individual leaders, or on favorable but temporary circumstances. They cannot aspire to continued economic innovation or to global economic leadership.”
Adding to the empirical evidence, the recent book The Democracy Advantage: How Democracies Promote Prosperity and Peace takes aim what the authors call the "authoritarian advantage doctrine," deconstructing the myth that authoritarian states are better able to establish conditions for economic growth. The authors found that the typical authoritarian government's economic performance is terrible--in fact, they say, 95 percent of the worst economic performances over the last 40 years occurred in non-democracies. The Democracy Advantage identifies a set of 70 low-income countries that have clearly advanced toward democracy over the past two decades and finds that these poor, nascent democracies performed better than authoritarian governments in a range of indicators directly related to ESC rights, including literacy, access to clean water, life expectancy, infant mortality, and agricultural productivity. Echoing the analyses mentioned above, the authors argue that democracies’ traits of shared power, openness, and adaptability better position them to formulate nuanced policies. Though democracies and democratizing countries do not always achieve the dramatic gains that some authoritarian governments do, they tend to be more resilient in weathering the economic crises that often cause ESC rights to regress. The authors quote democracy scholar Adam Przeworski to sum up their findings: "There was never any solid evidence that democracies were somehow inferior in generating growth-certainly not enough to justify supporting or even condoning dictatorships."
Thus, given that authoritarian restrictions on civil and political rights are not necessary to build economic growth or to promote ESC rights, the touting of material gains by authoritarian and semi-authoritarian governments should be viewed skeptically. In a world of scarce resources there are, of course, trade-offs in any government policy. And the debate over the relative importance of ESC and CP rights is a valuable one, as is the argument over the developed world’s responsibility in helping achieve improve ESC rights around the globe. But participants in that debate are well served by bearing in mind its real world manifestations – in particular, the abuse of the ESC-first argument by undemocratic states that impose unjustifiable limitations on core human freedoms. Even as these cynical leaders amplify the debate, they also cheapen it. In a context in which the advance of core CP rights has been on extremely shaky ground in recent years, it is critical that the engagement of analysts, activists, and policymakers around the world are appropriately grounded in both facts and principles about the basic rights that every human should enjoy.