In this short essay, I will assess the grounds for democracy promotion as an EA cause area--to my knowledge the first such attempt to do so. I will demonstrate the importance of democratization for various outcomes considered important by EA organizations, including the reduction of global poverty, the promotion of peace and public health, and the mitigation of global catastrophic risks (GCRs).
At the end of the Cold War, alternatives to democracy seemed to be in secular decline, ushering in "the end of history." However, recent "Freedom in the World" reports from Freedom House indicate declines in the global share of countries considered "Free" and a rise in the proportion of countries considered "Not Free." Their most recent report indicates that 2019 was the 14th consecutive year of decline for global freedom. While this trend has sparked concern among democracy activists, it has gone largely unnoticed by effective altruist organizations. In this essay, I will argue that promoting democracy may be a promising EA focus area.
There may be many philosophical reasons why democracy is intrinsically preferable to autocracy--EAs with non-utilitarian perspectives may value democratic institutions because they respect the dignity of citizens and represent the popular will. Because these benefits of democracy would be obvious to many readers, this essay instead highlights the utilitarian benefits of democratic governance. Specifically, I highlight how democratic governance can increase economic growth, improve public health, and reduce the likelihood of interstate conflict and other global catastrophic risks.
Throughout this essay, I primarily cite peer-reviewed research published in top-tier political science and economics journals. I refer mostly to recent articles, as standards for empirical research have become more rigorous over time, especially with regards to isolating causal effects ("causal inference") rather than merely examining correlations.
I will first demonstrate the importance of democracy promotion for improving public health, reducing global poverty, and mitigating global catastrophic risks. I begin by considering the domestic benefits of democracy, before moving on to the positive externalities of democratic governance for various international issues.
There is strong reason to believe that democratization can have substantial benefits for reducing poverty and improving public health within the democratizing country. Democratization expands the size of the group that selects the government (the "selectorate"), so democracies are less likely to pursue policies that favor a narrow few at the expense of broad-based prosperity.  Recently published research in political economy finds a strong causal effect of democratization on economic growth. Acemoglu et. al. 2019 estimate that democratization produces a 20 percent boost in GDP over a 25 year period relative to the counterfactual of no transition to democracy. Democracies grow faster because they invest more in capital, education and public health--themselves key outcomes for human flourishing. The accountability mechanisms of democracy encourage politicians in developing countries to take steps to prevent famines  and to reduce tariff barriers that protect elite capital interests at the expense of broad economic gains for workers. 
There are reasons to think democratization is important not only in the near term but also from a longtermist perspective. Political institutions are a stronger determinant of a country's wealth than weather or culture.  There is substantial empirical evidence that economic development is highly path dependent-- economic and political institutions persist for hundreds of years, and have corresponding consequences for economic development. Because of long-term institutional persistence, improving democratic institutions today can lead to better institutions--and correspondingly better economic outcomes--not only in the near-term but also for the "long-term future."
Democratic governance produces not only domestic benefits but also positive externalities for global public health, poverty and GCR mitigation. Democracies make more of their policy relevant data available to the world. This particular downside of autocracy was on display recently in the case of Covid-19. Chinese officials told the World Health Organization there was no evidence of human to human transmission-- even as their government restricted medical supply exports to stockpile supplies for domestic use. This obfuscation by the Chinese government imposed significant negative externalities for global public health as well as for the global economy. While EAs have long been concerned about pandemic risks, the role of political institutions has been largely neglected as a contributing risk factor--indeed, Covid-19 has thus far been deadlier in non-democracies.
Perhaps the most important positive externality of democratic institutions is the "democratic peace," regarded as the "closest thing we have to an empirical law in international relations." There exists a "separate peace" among democracies-- fully democratic states have never fought one another.  Democratization can therefore reduce the global catastrophic risk posed by interstate warfare.
Another positive externality is higher levels of interstate trade. Democratic pairs of countries engage in unusually high levels of bilateral trade. Leading researchers of globalization link expanding global trade to faster growth and declining poverty in poor countries ; while the short term impacts of trade liberalization are sometimes destabilizing, "In the long run and on average, trade liberalization is likely to be strongly poverty alleviating."  The bulk of the evidence suggests the link between democratization and trade liberalization is a net positive for tackling global poverty and increasing economic growth. Finally, another externality of democracy promotion is that democratization in one country tends to promote democracy in neighboring countries.  Investments in democracy promotion in one country may therefore facilitate a "wave" of democratization in the region.
Having demonstrated the importance of democratic institutions, I now assess the extent to which democracy promotion is neglected by governments and philanthropic organizations. It is difficult to assess the amount of funding devoted to democracy promotion due to the larger number and variety of civil society organizations around the world. Perhaps the largest single source of spending on global democracy promotion is the United States government. U.S. Foreign policy institutions (the State Department, the National Endowment for Democracy, the U.S. Agency for International Development and other entities) provide more than $2 billion in annual funding for democracy promotion according to a Congressional Research Service report from January 4, 2019.  Another prominent promoter of democracy is the United Nations Democracy Fund UNDEF), founded in 2005, which funds initiatives that "empower civil society, promote human rights, and encourage the participation of all groups in democratic processes." UNDEF mostly funds local civil society organizations in countries that are either transitioning to democracy or consolidating their new democratic institutions. The UNDEF budget comes from member state contributions--they fund about 50 projects a year that cost between $100,000 and $300,000 each (so the maximum estimate of their annual spending would be $15 million, a relatively small sum).
Another prominent source of funding for pro-democracy programs is the
Open Society Foundations (OPF). According to their website (OpenSocietyFoundations.org), the organization's 2020 budget of $1.2 billion included $140.5 million to improve democratic practices, along with another $77.3 million for human rights movements and institutions. There are also organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, though these organizations focus primarily on documenting civil rights abuses rather than promoting the creation and consolidation of representative political institutions.
With a few exceptions, democracy promotion seems to be largely neglected outside of the promotion of U.S. foreign policy interests. This represents an opportunity for EA for a few reasons. The first is that EA can be open to empirical evidence on the most effective way to promote democratic institutions, rather than being guided by perceived political priorities (and by the way things "have always been done.") EA organizations are also less likely to be perceived as biased or self-interested actors. Finally, even though there are already organizations engaged in democracy promotion, recent evidence suggests that greater diversity in the donors providing pro-democracy aid makes democratic reform more likely.
Having demonstrated the importance of democracy for economic and public health outcomes (and for GCRs), and having considered the neglectedness of this cause, I now assess the degree to which democracy promotion is actually tractable.
A review essay on the efficacy of tools of external democracy promotion finds that non-coercive tools like foreign aid that is conditioned on democratic reforms and election monitoring are effective, while coercive tools like sanctions and military intervention are ineffective.  Of course, EA organizations are unlikely to pursue imposing sanctions or authorizing military interventions even if these tools "work" for both normative and practical reasons--but there is thankfully a convergence between the tools available to EA organizations and the instruments that have proven to actually be successful in supporting democratic governance. One tool EA organizations can fund is election monitoring. Research suggests that election monitoring can play a causal role in decreasing fraud and manipulation. 
Another effective tool of democracy promotion is pro-democracy foreign aid. A recent article explains that "over a decade of empirical research indicates that foreign aid specifically for democracy promotion is remarkably successful at improving the survival and institutional strength of fragile democracies." Drawing on a natural experiment, Carnegie and Marinov (2017) estimate that increases in conditional aid from the EU cause substantial improvements in institutionalized democracy in recipient countries.  The bulk of the recent evidence suggests that increasing pro-democracy aid may prove to be an effective intervention for EA organizations. Because institutions tend to persist, even small boosts to the consolidation of democratic institutions in transitioning countries can have substantial effects on the long-term future.
I have shown above that democracy promotion is a highly important cause, a somewhat neglected cause and a potentially tractable cause for EAs.
Beyond promoting democratization as an EA cause area, I also wish to endorse a broader research agenda within EA organizations on the role of
political institutions. While organizations like the Open Philanthropy Project have focused their efforts on particular policies like immigration, criminal justice and land use, it is worth noting that political institutions are themselves important determinants of public policy. Democracies invest more in public health and education, and grow at faster rates--with important long-run implications for the elimination of global poverty. Further research should more explicitly consider the importance of political institutions, rather than taking them as given.
Fukuyama, Francis. "The end of history?." The national interest 16 (1989): 3-18. ↩︎
De Mesquita, Bruce Bueno, et al. The logic of political survival. MIT press, 2005. ↩︎
Acemoglu, Daron, et al. "Democracy does cause growth." Journal of Political Economy 127.1 (2019): 47-100. ↩︎
Sen, Amartya. Poverty and famines: an essay on entitlement and deprivation. Oxford university press, 1982. ↩︎
Milner, Helen V., and Keiko Kubota. "Why the move to free trade? Democracy and trade policy in the developing countries." International organization (2005): 107-143. ↩︎
Acemoglu, Daron, and James A. Robinson. Why nations fail: The origins of power, prosperity, and poverty. Currency, 2012. ↩︎
Acemoglu, Daron, Simon Johnson, and James A. Robinson. "The colonial origins of comparative development: An empirical investigation." American economic review 91.5 (2001): 1369-1401. See also Dell, Melissa. "The persistent effects of Peru's mining mita." Econometrica 78.6 (2010): 1863-1903. ↩︎
Hollyer, James R., B. Peter Rosendorff, and James Raymond Vreeland. "Democracy and transparency." The Journal of Politics 73.4 (2011): 1191-1205. ↩︎
Economist. "Diseases Like Covid‐19 are Deadlier in Non‐democracies." The Economist (2020). ↩︎
Levy, Jack S. "Domestic politics and war." The Journal of Interdisciplinary History 18.4 (1988): 653-673. ↩︎
De Mesquita, Bruce Bueno, et al. "An institutional explanation of the democratic peace." American Political Science Review 93.4 (1999): 791-807. ↩︎
With regards to nuclear risks specifically, research indicates that dictators are especially likely to pursue nuclear proliferation (see Way, Christopher, and Jessica LP Weeks. "Making it personal: regime type and nuclear proliferation." American Journal of Political Science 58.3 (2014): 705-719.). ↩︎
Mansfield, Edward D., Helen V. Milner, and B. Peter Rosendorff. "Free to trade: Democracies, autocracies, and international trade." American Political Science Review 94.2 (2000): 305-321. ↩︎
Winters, L. Alan, Neil McCulloch, and Andrew McKay. "Trade liberalization and poverty: the evidence so far." Journal of economic literature 42.1 (2004): 72-115. ↩︎
Markoff, John. "Beyond the Great Democratic Wave." Waves of Democracy. Routledge, 2015. 160-176. ↩︎
Lawson, M. L., and S. B. Epstein. "Democracy promotion: an objective of US foreign assistance. Congressional Research Service Report." (2019). ↩︎
Ziaja, Sebastian. "More donors, more democracy." The Journal of Politics 82.2 (2020): 433-447. ↩︎
Krasner, Stephen D., and Jeremy M. Weinstein. "Improving governance from the outside in." Annual Review of Political Science 17 (2014): 123-145. ↩︎
Hyde, Susan D. "The observer effect in international politics: Evidence from a natural experiment." World Politics. 60 (2007): 37. See also Callen, Michael, and James D. Long. "Institutional corruption and election fraud: Evidence from a field experiment in Afghanistan." American Economic Review 105.1 (2015): 354-81. ↩︎
Heinrich, Tobias, and Matt W. Loftis. "Democracy aid and electoral accountability." Journal of Conflict Resolution 63.1 (2019): 139-166. ↩︎
Carnegie, Allison, and Nikolay Marinov. "Foreign aid, human rights, and democracy promotion: Evidence from a natural experiment." American Journal of Political Science 61.3 (2017): 671-683. ↩︎
Really interesting post--thanks for writing it.
I think there's a different line of argument, involving moral uncertainty and option value, that might also favor democracy promotion. The idea is that liberal democracies are best-suited to hosting the 'marketplaces of ideas' where it's likeliest that we'll eventually discover the right moral views (if such views exist at all).
For lots of reasons, we shouldn't be confident that we've already landed on the right moral views. Moreover, it'd be extremely bad for the longterm future if a big portion of humanity locked-in to extremely wrong moral views. So it's important to think about two questions: (1) How can we increase the odds that we eventually identify the right moral views? And (2) how can we decrease the odds that we permanently lock-in to the wrong moral views in the interim period?
With respect to (1): Liberal democracies protect freedom of inquiry and freedom of speech. These freedoms tend to promote the discovery of truth. So promoting liberal democracy will tend to promote the discovery of moral truths.
With respect to (2): Liberal democratic societies tend to allow for ideological pluralism--both in their formal laws and in their cultural norms. Pluralism works against the kind of conformity that could produce a dangerous ideological lock-in. So promoting liberal democracy might also help decrease the odds of a bad lock-in scenario. (Ideological pluralism might also generate a lot of option value by keeping our menu of possible moral views large.)
These arguments are only rough sketches, but, if fleshed out more carefully, I think they might also favor the position you advocate here.
I think this a really strong argument in favor of democracy promotion. Thank you for your comment!
Thanks for the post. I agree that the promotion of democratic institutions as an EA cause area is worth a closer look. I think you might find this EA Forum post by Ben Kuhn interesting: “"Why Nations Fail" and the long-termist view of global poverty.”
Though I'm skeptical. A lot of the benefits from democracy require liberal democracy. For example, both Iran and Russia are technically democracies, yet neither seems like a force for domestic welfare or international peace. In The Great Delusion, John Mearscheimer also casts some doubt on the democratic peace theory, pointing out that the US has toppled a number of democratically elected governments: “Iran in 1953, Guatemala in 1954, Brazil in 1964, and Chile in 1973.” He also references a 1994 paper, “Kant or Cant: The Myth of the Democratic Peace”:
I don’t know how strong these objections really are, but I would take the democratic peace theory with a grain of salt.
Then there is China. Acemoglu and Robinson argue that China’s model is unsustainable in the long run, that it will end up having to liberalize in order to maintain economic growth, but this is disputed. China seems to be quite unique in terms of competence among authoritarian countries. Human rights would definitely improve if China were to become a liberal democracy, but the effects on long-term growth seem less obvious.
One issue is that the evidence in this area is fairly weak. See Kuhn’s post for more details on that.
With respect to neglectedness and tractability, I think it is best to do an analysis on a country by country basis. Promoting democracy in China for example seems not to be very tractable, and also carries some downside risk (making China hostile to EA). The question of whether promoting democracy might be an EA cause probably depends on whether it is possible to find a single country where there exists any examples of neglected and tractable interventions.
I think it is possible to find such interventions. Kuhn speculates that sponsoring independent investigative media in Senegal might be effective. Maybe there are some specific effective interventions in pro-democracy aid or election monitoring. I would love to see more research into similar interventions.
Thank you so much for these thoughtful comments! A few responses:
While there are of course differences of opinion on this issue outside of the research community, the social science research literature universally considers Russia and Iran to be non-democratic (see for example, the Polity IV project or the recent Acemoglu et. al. 2019 Democracy dataset). These regimes might be considered "competitive authoritarian" regimes (see Way and Levitsky) or hybrid regimes/"anocracies"--the benefits of democracy stated in the article do not apply to these states. While liberal democracy is likely preferable for outcomes like democratic peace, other outcomes like higher spending on public goods are linked primarily to electoral democracy, rather than to liberal norms.
In terms of the democratic peace--it's true that not all scholars agree with the consensus about the democratic peace--though Mearsheimer is definitely an outlier to the extent of believing power politics to be the only thing that matters (i.e. he thinks Europe isn't at war because of US troops in Germany). Scholars that have traditionally emphasized power politics (like Robert Jervis) acknowledge that the current situation-- in which powerful countries in Europe/Japan/South Korea don't even contemplate war against one another--is unique historically and likely linked to democratic norms.
I agree on China--I think pro-democracy aid can be effective when a country is in transition, like a mixed regime (and when a country actually needs aid enough to be influenced). Conditional aid can boost the fragile institutions of new democracies and make democratic consolidation more likely ( a very important long term outcome).
Questions about the neglectedness and tractability of this area
But then you also write:
Do you say that because the democracy-promotion budget of the OPF and similar actors is much smaller than that of US government bodies? Or because you see the OPF and similar actors as also promoting US foreign policy interests?
Also, regarding tractability, you write:
Is the idea here always that pro-democracy foreign aid creates an incentive for regimes to make democratic reforms so that they get (or continue to get) that aid? Or is this sort of aid sometimes effective merely by helping prop up good institutions or things like that?
I ask because, if the benefits are always or primarily caused by the incentive effects, I'd worry about whether EA would really be able to throw enough money at this to even get noticed, when we're talking about national budgets.
What are you thoughts on that?
Thank you so much for this comment. The evidence from a bunch of good papers seems to suggest that it's about incentives to make democratic reforms. In terms of whether EA could contribute enough money---the Carnegie and Marinov paper I cite finds small but still noticeable improvements in democracy in response to relatively insignificant increases in conditional aid from the EU (for example, going from 20 million dollars in aid to 25 million).
I was also wondering about the ability of EA to meaningfully contribute to democracy promotion. Perhaps a less costly way than funding pro-democracy foreign aid and more feasible way than election monitoring may be the promotion of the idea that democracy is good for economic growth. There is a forthcoming paper in the American Political Science Review by Scott Abramson and Sergio Montero called ''Learning about Growth and Democracy'' showing that autocracies are more likely to become democratic at times when democracies outperform autocracies in economic growth (unfortunately the reverse also holds). This is primarily attributed to a learning effect among political leaders who look at other countries to see what the best institutional setup for economic growth is. One takeaway of the paper is that the best way to promote democracy is to encourage economic growth within democracies. Assuming (reasonably I would say) that EA cannot meaningfully alter the economic growth trajectories of democracies, another possible takeaway from the paper is that it may be helpful to promote the idea among potential leaders or relevant civil societies in autocracies or fragile democracies that democracy is helpful for economic growth.
Thanks for writing this! I found it quite interesting, and appreciated the clear engagement with the relevant academic literatures.
Some thoughts on the importance of this cause area
1. It seems like work to promote democracy could also be quite good from the perspective of reducing long-term risks from malevolent actors. And perhaps some interventions proposed in that post would also be good from the perspective of the other benefits of democracy. So there may be synergies between these two new/mini/sub cause areas.
I think most "longtermists" don't see increasing economic growth as especially valuable except in relation to how it affects where humanity "ends up" (e.g., via affecting existential risk, global catastrophic risk, or how wide our moral circles ultimately are). For example, Benjamin Todd from 80k writes:
I share that sort of view to some extent, though I think it's slightly overstated, given that I think speeding up development could affect how much of the universe we can ultimately reach (this is related to the astronomical waste argument).
In my draft series on Crucial questions for longtermists, I include the question "How does speeding up development affect the expected value of the future?", some sub-questions, and a collection of sources related to these questions. You or other readers might find those sources interesting.
(By the way, I've now added links to this post from that series, under the question "What are the best actions for speeding up development? How good are they?" and under the topic "Importance of, and best approaches to, improving institutions and/or decision-making".)
3. I have a vague sense that EAs engaging in democracy promotion, especially under an explicitly EA banner, might have downsides such as making the Chinese government averse to EA, which would seem plausibly quite bad for other issues (e.g., ability to coordinate on AI safety or to help foster animal welfare communities in China).
I'd also obviously feel quite uncomfortable about not discussing any pro-democracy efforts for fear of upsetting non-democratic regimes. And all cause areas will face some downsides. But this does seem like something perhaps worth bearing in mind when deciding how much to prioritise this cause area against other cause areas that also plausibly deserve our resources anyway.
Thanks for this comment Michael--I think you make a great point about risks from malevolent actors. In terms of the longermist economic growth aspect, I was thinking more along the lines of institutional quality in the 1600's explaining a lot of the more recent economic growth trajectories, with substantial consequences for global poverty.
Oh, yes, something I forgot to mention explicitly was that it sounded like you were talking primarily about timescales of centuries, which I don’t think is typically what longtermists are focused on. I think the typical view among longtermists is something like the following: "If things go well, humanity - or whatever we become - could last for such an incredibly long time that even a very small tweak to our trajectory, which lasts a substantial portion of that time, will ultimately matter a huge deal.* And it can matter much more than a larger 'boost' that would ultimately 'wash out' on the scale of years, decades, or centuries."
This isn't to say that economic growth isn't important for longtermists, but rather that, if it is important to longtermists, that may be primarily because of its effects on other aspects of our trajectory. E.g., existential risk. (And it's currently not totally clear whether it's good or bad for x-risk, though I think the evidence leans somewhat towards it being good; see e.g. Existential Risk and Economic Growth. Other sources are linked to from my crucial questions series.)
Though growth could also matter more "directly", because a faster spread to the stars may reduce the ultimate astronomical waste. (There are also longtermists who may not care about astronomical waste, such as suffering-focused longtermists.)
In any case, the way you made the argument felt more "medium-termist" than "longtermist" to me. I share that feeling partly because it may provide useful info regarding how persuasive other longtermists would find that argument, and whether they feel it's really a "longtermist" argument.
*If you want to be mathy, you can think of this as the area between two slightly different curves ultimately being very large, if we travel a far enough distance along the x axis.
I think the democracy-growth connection is more nuanced than suggested here. Most of the biggest growth accelerations have occurred in autocracies. In terms of total welfare produced, most of the gains in human welfare have been driven by huge growth episodes in autocracies after 1950.
"democracies do not necessarily outperform autocracies in a growth acceleration episode, though
they are likely to prevent large growth collapses. We also highlight the importance of
the type of autocracy in understanding the effects of regime type on growth. When
we disaggregate the type of autocracy, we find that party-based autocracies
outperform democracies in growth acceleration episodes, though they do not limit the
fall in the magnitude in growth deceleration episodes in comparison to democracies.
Our findings have implications for both for the previous literature on the relationship
between democracy and growth as well as the literature on democratic transitions.
They suggest that, while democracy may indeed lead to higher per capita incomes in
the long run (as has been found by Acemoglu et al. 2014) or reduce the volatility of
growth in the short run (as has been found by Mobarak, 2005), developing countries
with democratic regimes are less likely to observe the rapid growth acceleration
episodes that have been observed for certain types of autocracies, though they are
less likely to suffer from the growth collapses that are prevalent in many autocracies.
Further, our findings indicate that the transitions to democracy that we observe with increasing frequency in many parts of the developing world may not necessarily lead to rapid economic development, if the transition is from party-based autocracies to democracies. For the international development policy community, this suggests that it matters what type of autocracy is in place in a given country when pushing for democratic transition in that country."
Thank you for this comment--I think one advantage of the Acemoglu et. al. (2019) paper published in the Journal of Political Economy (https://economics.mit.edu/files/16686) is that it accounts for the economic crises that generally precede transitions to democracy--democracies initially grow slowly as they emerge out of depressions, and then grow faster as they invest in capital, education and health. One reason existing studies had found mixed effects is that they hadn't properly accounted for these dynamics. I think there are also strong second-order effects on global growth of democracy because democracies impose lower tariffs on other countries--especially on other democracies--and democracies rarely if ever fight each other. Peace and trade are likely to enhance global growth--though these externalities may be difficult to properly measure.
I haven't read any of the papers cited here, nor am I especially well-versed in relevant areas of economics. But my initial reaction to "Most of the biggest growth accelerations have occurred in autocracies" is that that sounds like a correlation that's relatively unlikely to be explained by autocracy causing more growth, and relatively unlikely to conflict with the idea that democracy causes better growth (with all other factors held constant).
In particular, I've heard it argued that "catch-up" growth is substantially easier than "cutting-edge" growth. If that's true, then that might suggest autocracies might have experienced growth accelerations more often than democracies not because being an autocracy causes a higher chance of having a growth acceleration, but rather because:
A related or perhaps identical possibility is that autocracies may sometimes implement policies that actively harm their economies in major ways, such that merely removing those policies could cause rapid growth. (I have in mind the transition from Mao's policies to Deng Xiaoping's policies, though I don't know much about that transition, really.)
This is all rather speculative. I'd be interested to hear thoughts on this from someone with more knowledge of the area.
I think this is unlikely. EAs disproportionately come from wealthy democratic nations and those who have reason to resist democratic reform will have an easy time painting EA participation in democracy promotion as a slightly more covert version of foreign-state-sponsored attempts at political reform. Further, EAs are also disproportionately from former colonizing states that have historically dominated other states, and I don't think that correlation will be ignored.
This is not to say I necessarily think it is the case that EA attempts at democracy promotion would in fact be covert extensions of existing efforts that have negative connotations, only that I think it will be possible to argue and convince people that they are, making this not an actual advantage.
I basically agree with this, and was going to say something similar.
Though it does seem likely that EA organisations would be somewhat less likely to be perceived as biased or self-interested than US government agencies would be. And this post suggests that the US government is "Perhaps the largest single source of spending on global democracy promotion". So it seems to me like: