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Prepare developed democracies for long-run economic slowdowns

Prepare developed democracies for long-run economic slowdowns

Developed democracies proliferated over the past two centuries during an unprecedented era of economic growth, which may be ending. Macroeconomic forecasts predict slowing growth throughout the twenty-first century for structural reasons such as ageing populations, shifts from goods to services, slowing innovation, and debt. Long-run effects of COVID-19 and climate change could further slow growth. Some sustainability scientists assert that slower growth, stagnation or de-growth is an envi-ronmental imperative, especially in developed countries. Whether slow growth is inevitable or planned, we argue that devel-oped democracies should prepare for additional fiscal and social stress, some of which is already apparent. We call for a ‘guided civic revival’, including government and civic efforts aimed at reducing inequality, socially integrating diverse populations and building shared identities, increasing economic opportunity for youth, improving return on investment in taxation and public spending, strengthening formal democratic institutions and investing to improve non-economic drivers of subjective well-being.

Modern liberal democracies—with broad economic and political freedom and stability—predominate in today’s developed world, but they are a historical anomaly. Before the Industrial Revolutions, there was both little per-capita gross domestic product (GDP) growth and little democracy (Fig. 1a). Since the Industrial Revolutions, most countries have escaped the ‘Malthusian trap’—where land productivity growth led to growth in population but not affluence1—and global affluence has increased by more than a factor of ten1,2. This unprecedented global growth has temporally coincided with the global proliferation of democracy (Fig. 1a). In the early nineteenth century, less than 1% of the world’s population lived in a democracy, compared with about 55% today3. There is some evidence of bidirectional causality: on average (with some exceptions), open, democratic institutions promote growth4–6, and long-run growth and affluence promote the formation of democratic institutions7,8…

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