The Future of Freedom


By Wendy Melillo

Published Oct 1, 2008 8:01 AM

Left Behind: The Democratic Poor

A UCLA researcher finds that democracy doesn't necessarily help the poor. Free speech and open elections are noble goals, he contends, but feed them first.

By Sean Brenner

While some observers are pessimistic about democracy's ability to deliver freedom, research by one UCLA professor reached another surprising conclusion about democratic governments' ability to deliver food.

Michael Ross, associate professor of political science, analyzed the plight of the poor in 169 countries and found that the poorest citizens in democracies fare no differently in terms of health, education and child welfare than do their counterparts in non-democratic countries.

The findings, published in 2006 in the American Journal of Political Science, stirred some controversy — Ross notes that "political scientists in general are very pro-democracy" — but they also indicate ways in which future research can improve democracy. "We need to think about what's preventing democracies from functioning as well as they should," he explains.

"Poor people around the world are being squeezed very hard by the rise in food prices and fuel prices, and these trends are making the issue of global poverty exceptionally urgent today," Ross says. "I'm hoping my research can help spur us to think harder about how governments can better serve the needs of the poor at a time when the poor are under such stress."

Ross doesn't discount the benefits of democracy and freedom, but he suggests that addressing poverty — under any form of government — should be a higher priority than installing free speech and open elections. "People need to eat. As important as political freedom is, when we're speaking about the poorest of the poor, I'm more urgently worried about their ability to meet their basic economic needs."

So how would Ross like to see his findings influence U.S. foreign policy? "We need to encourage civil societies in these countries to pay closer attention to their governments' oil wealth," he says. "There is some exciting research now looking at whether greater transparency in government will lead to better social services. It's an exciting area, and it conceivably could make a difference."