Science

Does Disease Cause Autocracy?

New studies say reducing infection rates promotes liberalization.

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Greater wealth strongly correlates with property rights, the rule of law, education, the liberation of women, a free press, and social tolerance. The enduring puzzle for political scientists is how the social processes that produce freedom and wealth get started in the first place.

Many political theorists have linked liberal democracy to the rise of wealth and the establishment of a large middle class. "Growing resources are conducive to the rise of emancipative values that emphasize self-expression," write political scientists Ronald Inglehart of the University of Michigan and Christian Welzel of Jacobs University in their contribution to the 2009 book Democratization, "and these values are conducive to the collective actions that lead to democratization."

That same year, a group of researchers led by the Harvard economist Jeffrey Sachs noted in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B that a billion people live on less than a dollar per day and "are roughly as poor today as their ancestors were thousands of years ago." Sachs and his colleagues suggest that heavy disease burdens create persistent poverty traps from which poor people cannot extricate themselves. High disease rates lower their economic productivity so they can't afford to improve sanitation and medical care, which in turn leaves them vulnerable to more disease.

In a 2008 article for Biological Reviews, two University of New Mexico biologists buttressed the disease thesis with their "parasite hypothesis of democratization." The researchers, Randy Thornhill and Corey Fincher, argue that disease not only keeps people poor but makes them illiberal. Thornhill and Fincher tested this hypothesis "using publicly available data measuring democratization, collectivism, individualism, gender egalitarianism, property rights, sexual restrictiveness, and parasite prevalence across many countries of the world." The lower the disease burden, they found, the more likely a society is to be liberal.

Thornhill and Fincher argue that the risk of infectious disease affects elites' willingness to share power and resources, the general social acceptance of hierarchical authority, and the population's openness to innovation. Their central idea is that ethnocentrism and out-group avoidance function as a kind of behavioral immune system. Just as individuals have immune systems that fight pathogens, groups of people evolve with local parasites and develop some resistance to them. People who are not members of one's group may carry new diseases to which the group has not developed defenses. "Thus," Thornhill and Fincher write, "xenophobia, as a defensive adaptation against parasites to which there is an absence of local adaptation, is expected to be most pronounced in regions of high parasite stress."

In another study, published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B in June 2008, Thornhill and Fincher found that where disease prevalence has been historically high, cultures tend toward collectivist values such as ethnocentrism and conformity—because, they argue, these inward-looking cultural values inhibit the transmission of diseases. The pair examined prevalence data for 22 diseases, looking for correlations with various cultural values, including democratization, property rights, gender equality, and sexual liberalization. Where disease prevalence remains high, they found, autocracy reigns, property rights are weak, women have fewer rights, and sexual behavior is restricted. 

It is well-known that disease prevalence falls the further one gets away from the equator. Hence it is not surprising, Thornhill and Fincher say, that the development of modern democratic institutions began in high-latitude Western Europe and North America. In 1820 Britain's average life expectancy of 40 years was the highest in Europe; France's was 37 years and Germany's was 32. (Britons and American colonists had more available calories per capita, which boosted their ability to fight off disease.)

Thornhill and Fincher believe that more recent advances in medicine and public health are implicated in the post-1950s wave of liberalization that swept over the United States and Western Europe. The advent of penicillin, the arrival of polio vaccines, the elimination of malaria, the chlorination of drinking water, and the reduction in food-borne illnesses all combined to dramatically reduce disease. The authors suggest that if people experience few infections as they grow up, they perceive strangers and novel ways of life as safe; tolerance and the embrace of social, economic, and technological innovation follow. They note that areas of the world in which disease rates remain high have not experienced such liberalization.

A new study, published in the May 27 issue of Science, lends a bit of additional support to Thornhill and Fincher's theory. Researchers led by University of Maryland psychologist Michele Gelfand looked at the "differences between cultures that are tight (have many strong norms and a low tolerance for deviant behavior) versus loose (have weak social norms and a high tolerance for deviant behavior)." Gelfand and her colleagues considered a wider range of possible threats, including not just disease prevalence but population density, resource scarcity, and territorial conflicts. They found that adversity correlates with higher levels of social conformity, autocratic rule, religiousness, and controls on the media. Of the 33 countries in Gelfand's survey, Pakistan scored highest on tightness (12.3 points); the loosest was Ukraine (1.6 points). The United States scored a pretty loose 5.1 points.

If Sachs, Thornhill, Fincher, and  Gelfand are right, reducing a country's disease burdens should promote the rise of liberal institutions. "If the parasite hypothesis of democratization is supported by additional research," Thornhill and Fincher write, "humanitarian efforts to reduce human rights violations and to increase human liberties and democracy in general will be most effective if focused on the most fundamental causal level of infectious disease reduction." 

Unfortunately, the ethnocentrism that may have emerged as a protection against diseases sometimes gets in the way of eradicating health threats. In 2003, for example, the Global Polio Initiative's vaccination campaign was derailed by a boycott in northern Nigeria after some Muslim religious and political leaders endorsed rumors that oral polio vaccine was an American conspiracy to spread HIV and cause infertility. During the boycott, polio became resurgent and spread to 15 other countries. Polio still has not been eradicated globally.

In any event, as life expectancy across the globe has increased, liberal institutions have spread. The human rights group Freedom House reports that since 1972 the percentage of free countries has risen from 29 percent to 45 percent. During that same time, average global life expectancy has risen from 58 to 70 years. If these studies are right, they bode well for the future of humanity. Biomedical and sanitation innovations developed by countries that are already relatively rich and free likely will continue to spill over to poor autocratic countries, setting off a virtuous circle in which health produces wealth, which eventually promotes liberty. 

Science Correspondent Ronald Bailey is the author of Liberation Biology (Prometheus).

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  1. I think they’re mistaking cause for effect here. Societies have always dealt with disease. Societies have not always had free and robust economies along with an educated population.
    It’s more likely that ignorance and shitty economies create the unsanitary conditions necessary for disease to thrive in certain societies.

    1. Sy is exactly right. I was thinking the same thing as I read the article. Unsanitary conditions lead to rampant disease and both are symptoms of ignorance. This so callled research is bullshit.

      1. I think cultural and religious norms play a huge part.
        If there’s a cultural stigma against “foreign medicine”, as was the case with a lot of ancient Chinese and Arabic medicine making its way into medieval Europe, and regular bathing and washing is out of the cultural norm, disease is going to be rampant.

        1. This is true. People were intuitively cleanliness-seeking, but in some cases dogmas against cleanliness were imported and imposed on then. In other words, when they were ignorant, they were cleaner; they were schooled away from cleanliness.

      2. No, I don’t think you’re right. Unsanitary conditions are not a product of ignorance; people who know next to nothing, even animals, avoid them if they can.

        1. That would explain the quick end virtually painless ending of the bubonic plague, right?

          Avoiding something isn’t the same as understanding how that something originates and how to thoroughly prevent spreading of it.

          1. Actually, plague had an incidence which varied with social class because the aristocracy had the ability to avoid the dirty conditions of the city and did.

    2. Yeah, it’s the same dumb bastards with AGW. Bailey just doesn’t understand the cart/horse concept.

    3. The point is the societies which did flourih were in environments less prone to chronic disease… there’s a book called ” guns steel and germs” NY Jared diamond… that goes into great detail on my certain societies flourished…its much more complicated then this one issue here..

  2. “xenophobia, as a defensive adaptation against parasites to which there is an absence of local adaptation, is expected to be most pronounced in regions of high parasite stress.”

    I’m not really understanding this, but I think I don’t like it.

    1. It’s pretty simple: In a closed circle of society, you don’t get infections transmitted from outside. And the smaller the in-group, the less infectious disease. So it made sense to shun outsiders.

  3. Just as individuals have immune systems that fight pathogens, groups of people evolve with local parasites and develop some resistance to them.

    Now if only society could develop resistance to the great parasite called government.

    1. Shit government>Shit culture>Shit Economy>Shit hole.

  4. The article’s first 2 paragraphs seem to get everything backwards. People don’t get rich, then free.

    People who are free get wealthy.

    1. And the last line should probably read:
      , setting off a virtuous cycle in which liberty produces wealth, which eventually promotes health.

  5. Sachs and his colleagues suggest that heavy disease burdens create persistent poverty traps from which poor people cannot extricate themselves. High disease rates lower their economic productivity so they can’t afford to improve sanitation and medical care, which in turn leaves them vulnerable to more disease.

    Bullshit. If this were true, invariably, then NOBODY would have lifted himself or herself from poverty, EVER.

    1. We’d be gamboling about field and forest, dying of disease!

      Seriously, though, I think he’s saying there’s a threshold above which the disease burden makes it next-to-impossible to progress. This makes sense. If you live in a malarial swamp, you’re going to be hard-pressed to to get as far as the guy who lives in a forest with no mosquitoes. Your natural resources may be roughly equivalent, but the time spent dealing with disease destroys productive activity. Think of it as broken windows for primitives.

      1. Yes – That is probably why civilizations first emerged on the edges of deserts. But he still puts the wealth cart in front of the freedom horse.

      2. Not necessarily. Hate to channel the White Indian here, but a lot of Central American civilizations sprang up in some of the worst breeding grounds for pathogens: Rainforests. True, they may not have had “medicine” by today’s standards, but they sure as hell developed resistances to the local shit.
        But then again, if a society wants to engage in wide-spread commerce, they better prepare for the inevitable exchange of disease. In which case, those civilizations sure as hell weren’t.

      3. Colder climates have a lot to do with why certain societies flourished… there’s the disease issue mentioned here, but colder climates also forced humans to adapt to to their surroundings by learning to build stable housing and make warm clothes… it also required humans in colder climates to figure out how to have enough food to make it through the year…

        If you live in the jungle you can manage to survive by eating what is found immediately around you, and you don’t need special housing or clothes to stay warm and alive in order to reproduce..

    2. Oh, the chicken-egg problem, eh? This is beaten by random variation and segregation and reproduction of the successful. There would always be a few who were richer than the others, and they could afford to create even more wealth, etc. It’s like theories of development of life from non-life; it seems like it could never happen, but obviously it must have.

      1. Yup, chicken-egg, feedback loop.

  6. It is not beyond conjecture that the whole renaissance was sparked in large part by the plague. The death of full 1/3 of the European population NOT due to war left a great deal of practical inheritance (even regardless of local laws concerning such). In an ironic twist one could say disease “helped” people become wealthy. In my view in that case disease showed that even Peers were human and ‘don’t touch my shit’ applied to even the common man.

    1. a shorter CB point, when you can exercise rights over your property you tend to care for it better…hence less disease. The plauge demonstrated that everyone had the same, equal, starting property.

    2. I love the idea of mass-murdering 1/3 of the population as a form of economic stimulus. Barack, we must unleash the smallpox to restore America and build a thriving economy. My calculations show the stimulus will be most effective if deployed over the South and interior West regions. And this time let’s make sure we make the stimulus big enough.

      1. Holy shit don’t give that fucktard any ideas. Seriously.

      2. It worked with the Indians!

      3. It’s only effective in an agrarian economy with a shortage of land relative to the population.

  7. Britons and American colonists

    Americans weren’t colonists in 1820.

    Other than that, interesting article. This correlates with the idea that people in less disease prone areas can grow larger, better brains because their bodies aren’t using all the energy fighting off disease.

    1. Americans are agricultural city-statist colonists even today!

    2. The names right. You are confused about the cart/horse positions also.

      1. …should read name’s right.

  8. Science Correspondent Ronald Bailey
    Ahhhaaaa!

  9. Probably the greatest advance in public health was the building of sanitary sewer and fresh water systems – both of which came to societies with the money to implement that infrastructure.
    As so many here have remarked: this study seems to have it backward.

  10. Correlation isn’t causation. I’m a little surprised Ron, one of the best science journalists in the profession, didn’t emphasize this more. You can’t experiment on entire countries with a double-blind test, but we’ve come as close as possible with East/West Berlin, North/South Korea, and many others. The disease hypothesis is little more than armchair bloviating and wishful thinking. Even I wish it was true. (Antibiotic bombs, anyone?) But except for the collection of metadata, I see no advancement of knowledge in this. Disease and ignorance are bad. Who knew?

  11. Correlation, not causation. At least not complete causation. Societies become more liberal as living conditions improve across the board. Less competition for resources within a society make its members more accepting of outsiders, who are perceived to be less threatening. Disease rates are only one area where improvement results in increased liberalization.

  12. You can’t experiment on entire countries with a double-blind test, but we’ve come as close as possible with East/West Berlin, North/South Korea, and many others. The disease hypothesis is little more than armchair bloviating and wishful thinking.
    http://www.aimengcrystal.com

  13. The advent of penicillin, the arrival of polio vaccines, the elimination of malaria, the chlorination of drinking water,

  14. eral democracy to the rise of wealth and the establishment

  15. live on less than a dollar per day and “are roughly as poor today

  16. Thanks for post. s?ve, mantolama fiyatlar?, ?s? yal?t?m?
    | mantolama | | s?ve modelleri |

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