Published online by Cambridge University Press: 29 June 2017
We consider the thesis of Alexis de Tocqueville (1856) that economic development and increased mobility may generate political discontent not present in more stagnant economies. For many citizens, as they become aware of the potential for improved living standards, their aspirations may increase faster than actual living standards. Expanded opportunity may then paradoxically result in dissatisfaction with government rather than greater confidence. We develop a formal model to capture Tocqueville’s (1856) verbal theory and test its predictions using a 2012–2013 face-to-face survey experiment conducted in Pakistan. The experiment utilizes established treatments to subtly manipulate either a participant’s perceptions of her own economic well-being, her perceptions of society-wide mobility, or both. As predicted by the theory, political discontent rises when declining personal well-being coincides with high mobility to create unrealized aspirations. The results thus identify the conditions under which expanded economic opportunity can lead to political unrest.
We thank the dedicated team at Innovative Development Strategies (IDS), who in collaboration with the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), carried out the extensive data collection activities for our Pakistan Rural Household Panel Survey (RHPS). We are grateful to the Hoover Institution at Stanford University for their support while this research was being conducted. We also thank Alemayehu Seyoum Taffesse and Tanguy Bernard for providing us with the survey questions relating to aspirations from the IFPRI Ethiopia Rural Household Survey, which helped inform our survey questions on aspirations in the Pakistan RHPS. We gratefully acknowledge insightful comments and guidance from Adam Meirowitz, Emily Nacol, Danielle Resnick, Rick K. Wilson, Alan Wiseman, and Elizabeth Zechmeister, as well as the discussants and participants at the 2016 annual meeting of the Behavioral Models of Politics at University of Pittsburgh, the Midwest Political Science Association, and the Southern Political Science Association. All remaining errors are our own.