Can autocracy promote literacy? evidence from a cultural alignment success story

What can the XXth century Portuguese experience teach us about the interaction between political regimes and literacy attainment?

Here’s a recent paper on this topic by Jaime Reis and myself. The CEPR version is gated, but you can find a free access version here. Here’s the abstract:

“Do countries with less democratic forms of government necessarily have lower literacy rates as a consequence? Using a random sample of 4,600+ individuals from military archives in Portugal, we show that 20-year old males were twice as likely to end up literate under an authoritarian regime than under a democratic one. Our results are robust to controlling for a host of factors including economic growth, the disease environment, and regional fixed effects. We argue for a political economy and cultural explanation for the success of the authoritarian regime in promoting basic education.”

In a sense, this is a paper in the spirit of Edmund Burke’s argument that social change needs to be gradual, and cannot be changed by top-down design overnight.

To contextualize the paper further, note that Portugal during the first half of the XXth century was very poor. In 1910 it had a GDP per capita of international GK $1228, compared with 4,611 for England, and hence closer to that of Côte d’Ivoire today (1,195 in 2010). Even as late as 1950 Portugal, at IGK $2,086, was behind Mozambique today (with IGK $1876 in 2010), and was clearly poorer than Cape Verde today its last avaliable data year, 2008 (IGK $2,735). Source: the 2013 Maddison Project. (I haven’t updated these numbers using the new MPD but the general pattern won’t have changed much).



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