How Tyranny Paved the Way to Wealth and Democracy: the Democratic Transition in Ancient Greece

Robert K. Fleck (Montana State University)
F. Andrew Hanssen (Clemson University)

Abstract: When a ruling elite is unable to commit to future growth-promoting policies, it may cede political power to a broader segment of the public, as in North and Weingast (1989). Alternatively, as we show in this paper, commitment may be achieved by moving in the opposite direction: installing a single authoritarian ruler who favors growth-promoting policies. Although this narrows the distribution of power in the short run, it may – as our model illustrates – be a step toward, not away from, democracy. We apply the model to ancient Greece. Many of the famously democratic poleis (city-states) of Greece’s Classical period were ruled by tyrants in the earlier Archaic period. The tyrannies of Archaic Greece were transitory institutions, generally lasting only a few decades, with strong similarities across poleis in the factors that led to their appearance and the types of policies enacted. Using a unique data set, we examine the relationships between the potential for economic growth, Archaic period tyranny, and Classical period democracy. We conclude that a high potential for economic growth led to a pro-growth political institution (the tyrant) that led in turn to increased wealth and, eventually, to democracy. These findings are consistent with critical junctures theory – the institutional path determines both wealth and democracy.

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