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Origins of Early Democracy

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  14 January 2020

New York University
New York University
*Ali T. Ahmed, Wilf Family Department of Politics, New York University,
David Stasavage, Wilf Family Department of Politics, New York University,


The idea that rulers must seek consent before making policy is key to democracy. We suggest that this practice evolved independently in a large fraction of human societies where executives ruled jointly with councils. We argue that council governance was more likely to emerge when information asymmetries made it harder for rulers to extract revenue, and we illustrate this with a theoretical model. Giving the population a role in governance became one means of overcoming the information problem. We test this hypothesis by examining the correlation between localized variation in agricultural suitability and the presence of council governance in the Standard Cross Cultural Sample. As a further step, we suggest that executives facing substantial information asymmetries could also have an alternative route for resource extraction—develop a bureaucracy to measure variation in productivity. Further empirical results suggest that rule by bureaucracy could substitute for shared rule with a council.

Research Article
Copyright © American Political Science Association 2020 

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We would like to thank Anne Degrave, Sheri Berman, James Fenske, John Ferejohn, Jeff Frieden, Anna Grzymala-Busse, Lewis Kornhauser, Pablo Querubin, Cyrus Samii, Mike Smith, Stephanie Zonszein, the editor (Ingo Rohlfing), three anonymous reviewers, and seminar participants at Columbia, George Mason, Harvard, McGill, NYU-Law, Texas A&M, and UCSD. Replication files are available at the American Political Science Review Dataverse:



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