Protestant ethic and the spirit of democracy?

This article explores Protestantism’s inadvertent, historic role in dispersing elite power and spurring democracy. Economic and political elites typically hoard resources and perpetuate class distinction. Conversionary Protestants undermined this social reproduction because they wanted everyone to read the Bible in their own language, decide individually what to believe, and create religious organizations outside state control. Thus, they consistently initiated mass education, mass printing and civil society and spurred competitors to copy. Resultant power dispersion altered elite incentives and increased the probability of stable democratic transitions.

I test my historical arguments statistically via the spread of Protestant and Catholic missionaries. Protestant missions account for about half the variation in non-European democracy and remove the influence of variables that dominate current research. These findings challenge scholars to reformulate theories about cultural vs. structure, and about the rise of democracy.

That is Woodberry of UT Austin in a rather provocative paper that will soon hit the printing press. The paper is a reminder of how much we still don’t know about the mechanisms that produce democracy and limited government – and by extension general institutional development.

You can find a copy here.

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