University of Oslo
Why did democracy originate in Europe? This is the wrong question, according to this new book. History shows that pre-modern forms of consensual government were widespread in pre-modern times in societies on all continents. Pre-modern democracy arose from the need for rulers to monitor production in a decentralized fashion absent capabilities for centralized monitoring, to govern small polities where citizens had exit options, and where rulers needed popular consent to conscript soldiers and raise taxes. The alternative to pre-modern consensual government, centralized autocratic rule, is best exemplified by China. It relied on a centralized bureaucracy to monitor production, raise taxes and conscript men for war, so consensual government was not needed. Elites could get their way without asking the people for power. Drawing on both historical examples and global comparative data, Stasavage argues that pre-modern democracy was widespread, existing alongside pre-modern autocracies such as China, the Caliphate(s) and the Azande and Inca empires. But why did democracy become so successful in Europe in the early modern period while for the most part vanishing elsewhere? The book claims that Europe inherited weak states, where centralized, autocratic bureaucratic governance was less of an option. Compared to their Chinese or Arab counterparts, European princes were weak and thus more likely to share power. This groundbreaking study reveals the shocking lack of attention to pre-modern democracy outside of Europe, trounces the myth of democracy as a European invention, and presents a rigorous and compelling explanation for why democracy rose to prominence in Europe in the early modern and modern era. It is a must read for anyone interested in democracy today.