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Mapped: The World’s Oldest Democracies

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Mapped: The World's Oldest Democracies

Mapped: The World’s Oldest Democracies

Which country today is the world’s oldest democracy?

It’s a loaded question ⁠— as you’ll see, there is plenty of nuance involved in the answer.

Depending on how you define things, there are many jurisdictions that can lay claim to this coveted title. Let’s dive into some of these technicalities, and then we can provide context for how we’ve defined democracy in today’s particular chart.

Laying the Claim

If you’re looking for the very first instance of democracy, credit is often attributed to Ancient Athens. It’s there the term originated, based on the Greek words demos (“common people”) and kratos (“strength”). In the 6th century BC, the city-state allowed all landowners to speak at the legislative assembly, blazing a path that would be followed by democracies in the future.

However, Ancient Athens wasn’t really a country in the modern sense. It’s also not around anymore, so that certainly disqualifies the oldest continuous democratic country today.

Iceland and the Isle of Man both have interesting claims to democracy. Each has a parliamentary body that is over 1,000 years old, making them the longest standing democratic institutions in the world. But Iceland only got its independence in 1944 from Denmark — and while it is self-governing, the Isle of Man is not a country.

Of course, when we’re talking about democracy today, we’re really talking about universal suffrage. New Zealand may have the best claim here — by 1893, the self-governing colony allowed all women and ethnicities to vote in elections.

A Common Set of Criteria

While many civilizations, institutions, and societies have a rightful claim to contributing to democracy (including many we did not mention above), measuring the world’s oldest democracies today requires following a common set of criteria.

In today’s chart, we used data from Boix, C., Miller, M., & Rosato, S. (2013, 2018), which looks at the age of democratic regimes for 219 countries since the year 1800. Countries are classified as democracies if they meet the following conditions:

  1. Executive:
    The executive is directly or indirectly elected in popular elections and is responsible either directly to voters or to a legislature.
  2. Legislature:
    The legislature (or the executive if elected directly) is chosen in free and fair elections.
  3. Voting:
    A majority of adult men has the right to vote.
  4. Democracies also have to be continuous in order to count. Although France has important democratic origins, the country is currently on its fifth republic since the French Revolution, thanks to Napoleon, Vichy France, and other instances where things went sideways.

    While the above criteria isn’t perfect, it does create a stable playing field to assess when countries adopted democratic systems in principle. (However, the exclusion of certain populations, notably women and specific ethnicities, in being given the right to vote, or to be elected to legislative assemblies, is another story).

    The Oldest Democracies, by Number of Years

    Using the above criteria, here is a list of the world’s 25 oldest democracies:

    RankCountryAge of Democracy (Years)
    #1🇺🇸 United States219*
    #2🇨🇭 Switzerland171
    #3🇳🇿 New Zealand162
    #4🇨🇦 Canada152
    #5🇬🇧 United Kingdom134
    #6🇱🇺 Luxembourg129
    #7🇧🇪 Belgium125
    #8🇳🇱 Netherlands122
    #9🇳🇴 Norway119
    #10🇦🇺 Australia118
    #11🇩🇰 Denmark118
    #12🇸🇪 Sweden108
    #13🇫🇮 Finland102
    #14🇮🇸 Iceland101
    #15🇮🇪 Ireland97
    #16🇸🇲 San Marino74
    #17🇦🇹 Austria73
    #18🇫🇷 France73
    #19🇮🇹 Italy73
    #20🇮🇱 Israel71
    #21🇨🇷 Costa Rica70
    #22🇮🇳 India69
    #23🇯🇵 Japan67
    #24🇨🇴 Colombia61
    #25🇯🇲 Jamaica57

    * The data goes back to 1800, so U.S. democracy can be considered at least 219 years old.

    Using this specific criteria, there is only one country with continuous democracy for more than 200 years (The United States), and fourteen countries with democracies older than a century.

    As you’ll notice in the data, many countries became democracies after World War II. The Japanese Empire, for example, was occupied by Allied Forces and then dissolved. It then regained sovereignty afterwards, emerging as a newly democratic regime.

    Final notes: The data here goes back to 1800, and we have adjusted it to be current as of 2019. One change we made was to Tunisia, which is listed as the 24th oldest democracy in the data. Based on our due diligence on the subject, we felt it was appropriate to leave it off the list, given that most experts see the country as only achieving the status in 2014 in the post-Arab Spring era.

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Basic Income Experiments Around the World

Amid the pandemic, the idea of Universal Basic Income has been gaining steam with policymakers. Where has it been tried, and has it worked?

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Basic Income Experiments Around the World

What if everyone received monthly payments to make life easier and encourage greater economic activity? That’s the exact premise behind Universal Basic Income (UBI).

The idea of UBI as a means to both combat poverty and improve economic prospects has been around for decades. With the COVID-19 pandemic wreaking havoc on economies worldwide, momentum behind the idea has seen a resurgence among certain groups.

Of course, the money to fund basic income programs has to come from somewhere. UBI relies heavily on government budgets or direct funding to cover the regular payments.

As policymakers examine this trade-off between government spending and the potential benefits, there is a growing pool of data to draw inferences from. In fact, basic income has been piloted and experimented on all around the world—but with a mixed bag of results.

What Makes Basic Income Universal?

UBI operates by giving people the means to meet basic necessities with a regular stipend. In theory, this leaves them free to spend their money and resources on economic goods, or searching for better employment options.

Before examining the programs, it’s important to make a distinction between basic income and universal basic income.

attributes of ubi programs

With these parameters in mind, and thanks to data from the Stanford Basic Income Lab, we’ve mapped 48 basic income programs that demonstrate multiple features of UBI and are regularly cited in basic income policy.

Some mapped programs are past experiments used to evaluate basic income. Others are ongoing or new pilots, including recently launched programs in Germany and Spain.

Recently, Canada joined the list as countries considering UBI as a top policy priority in a post-COVID world. But as past experiments show, ideas around basic income can be implemented in many different ways.

Basic Income Programs Took Many Forms

Basic income pilots have seen many iterations across the globe. Many paid out in U.S. dollars, while others chose to stick with local currencies (marked by an asterisk for estimated USD value).

ProgramLocationRecipientsPayment FrequencyAmount ($US/yr)Dates
Abundant Birth ProjectSan Francisco, U.S.100Monthly$12,000-$18,000TBD
Alaska Permanent Fund DividendAlaska, U.S.667,047Annually$1,000-$2,0001982-Present
B-MINCOMEBarcelona, Spain1,000Monthly$1,392-$23,324*2017-2019
Baby's First YearsNew York, U.S.1,000Monthly$240-$3,9962017-2022
Baby's First YearsNew Orleans, U.S.1,000Monthly$240-$3,9962017-2022
Baby's First YearsOmaha, U.S.1,000Monthly$240-$3,9962017-2022
Baby's First YearsTwin Cities, U.S.1,000Monthly$240-$3,9962017-2022
Basic Income for FarmersGyeonggi Province, South Korea430,000Annually$509*TBD
Basic Income Grant (BIG) PilotOmitara, Namibia930Monthly$163*2008-2009
Basic Income ProjectNot Disclosed3,000Monthly$600-$12,0002019-Present
Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians Casino Revenue FundJackson County and area, NC, U.S.15,414Biannually$7,000-$12,0001996-Present
Eight Pilot ProjectBusibi, Uganda150Monthly$110-$219*2017-2019
Evaluation of the Citizens' Basic Income ProgramMaricá, Brazil42,000Monthly$360*2019-Present
Finland Basic Income ExperimentFinland2,000Monthly$7,793*2017-2018
Gary Income Maintenance ExperimentsGary, U.S.1,782Monthly$3,300-$4,3001971-1974
Give DirectlyWestern Kenya20,847Monthly or Lump Sum$2742017-2030
Give DirectlySaiya County, Kenya10,500Lump Sum$3332014-2017
Give DirectlyRarieda District, Kenya503Monthly or Lump Sum$405-$1,5252011-2013
Human Development FundMongolia2,700,000Monthly$1872010-2012
Ingreso Mí­nimo VitalSpain850,000Monthly$6,535-$14,358*2020-Present
Iran Cash Transfer ProgrammeIran75,000,000Monthly$482010-Present
Madhya Pradesh Unconditional Cash Transfers ProjectMadhya Pradesh, India5,547Monthly$26-$77*2011-2012
Magnolia Mother's TrustJackson, MS, U.S.80Monthly$12,0002019-Present
Manitoba Basic Annual Income ExperimentWinnipeg, Canada1,677Monthly$3,842-$5,864*1975-1978
Manitoba Basic Annual Income ExperimentDauphin, Canada586Monthly$3,842-$5,864*1975-1978
My Basic IncomeGermany120Monthly$17,160*2020-2023
New Jersey Income Maintenance ExperimentJersey City, U.S.1,357BiweeklyVaried1968-1972
New Jersey Income Maintenance ExperimentPaterson, NJ, U.S.1,357BiweeklyVaried1968-1972
New Jersey Income Maintenance ExperimentPassaic, NJ, U.S.1,357BiweeklyVaried1968-1972
New Jersey Income Maintenance ExperimentTrenton, NJ, U.S.1,357BiweeklyVaried1968-1972
New Jersey Income Maintenance ExperimentScranton, PA, U.S.1,357BiweeklyVaried1968-1972
Ontario Basic Income PilotHamilton and area, Canada2,748Monthly$13,112-$18,930* (-50% income)2017-2018
Ontario Basic Income PilotThunder Bay and area, Canada1,908Monthly$13,112-$18,930* (-50% income)2017-2018
Ontario Basic Income PilotLindsay, Canada1,844Monthly$13,112-$18,930* (-50% income)2017-2018
Preserving Our DiversitySanta Monica, U.S.250Monthly$7,836-$8,9642017-Present
Quatinga VelhoQuatinga, Mogi das Cruces, Brazil67Monthly$197*2008-2014
Rural Income Maintenance ExperimentDuplin County, NC, U.S.810MonthlyVaried (NIT)1970-1972
Rural Income Maintenance ExperimentIowa, U.S.810MonthlyVaried (NIT)1970-1972
Scheme $6,000Hong Kong, China4,000,000Annually$771*2011-2012
Seattle-Denver Income Maintenance ExperimentSeattle, U.S.2,042Monthly$3,800-$5,6001971-1982
Seattle-Denver Income Maintenance ExperimentDenver, U.S.2,758Monthly$3,800-$5,6001971-1982
Stockton Economic Empowerment DemonstrationStockton, U.S.125Monthly$6,0002019-Present
TBDNewark, U.S.TBDMonthlyTBDTBD
Transition-Age Youth Basic Income Pilot ProgramSanta Clara, CA, U.S.72Monthly$12,0002020-2021
Wealth Partaking SchemeMacau, China700,600Annually$750-$1,1502008-Present
Youth Basic Income ProgramGyeonggi Province, South Korea125,000Quarterly$848*2018-Present
Citizen's Basic Income PilotScotlandTBDMonthlyTBDTBD
People's Prosperity Guaranteed Income Demonstration PilotSt. Paul, U.S.150Monthly$6,0002020-2022

Many of the programs meet the classical requirements of UBI. Of the 48 basic income programs tallied above, 75% paid out monthly, and 60% were paid out to individuals.

However, for various reasons, not all of these programs follow UBI requirements. For example, 38% of the basic income programs were paid out to households instead of individuals, and many programs have paid out in lump sums or over varying time frames.

Interestingly, the need for better understanding of basic income has resulted in many divergences between programs. Some programs were only targeted at specific groups like South Korea’s Basic Income for Farmers program, while others like the Baby’s First Years program in the U.S. have been experimenting with different dollar amounts in order to evaluate efficiency.

Other experiments based payments made off of the total income of recipients. For example, in the U.S., the Rural Income and New Jersey Income Maintenance Experiments paid out using a negative income tax (return) on earnings, while recipients of Canada’s Ontario Basic Income Pilot received fixed amounts minus 50% of their earned income.

Varying Programs with Varied Results

So is basic income the real deal or a pipe dream? The results are still unclear.

Some, like the initial pilots for Uganda’s Eight program, were found to result in significant multipliers on economic activity and well-being. Other programs, however, returned mixed results that made further experimentation difficult. Finland’s highly-touted pilot program decreased stress levels of recipients across the board, but didn’t positively impact work activity.

The biggest difficulty has been in keeping programs going and securing funding. Ontario’s three-year projects were prematurely cancelled in 2018 before they could be completed and assessed, and the next stages of Finland’s program are in limbo.

Likewise in the U.S., start-up incubator Y Combinator has been planning a $60M basic income study program, but can’t proceed until funding is secured.

A Post-COVID Future for UBI?

In light of COVID-19, basic income has once again taken center stage.

Many countries have already implemented payment schemes or boosted unemployment benefits in reaction to the pandemic. Others like Spain have used that momentum to launch fully-fledged basic income pilots.

It’s still too early to tell if UBI will live up to expectations or if the idea will fizzle out, but as new experiments and policy programs take shape, a growing amount of data will become available for policymakers to evaluate.

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Visualizing the State of Democracy, by Country

Has the world become more or less free? To find out, this graphic highlights the changing state of democracy in 167 countries since 2006.

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Visualizing the State of Democracy, by Country

View the full-sized interactive version of this infographic by clicking here

From Norway to North Korea, governing systems differ around the world. But has the world become more or less free in the past decade?

This visualization from Preethi Lodha demonstrates how democracy levels of 167 countries have changed since 2006. The original data comes from the Democracy Index, which is compiled annually by the Economist Intelligence Unit.

Four Levels of Democracy

First, it’s important to understand the classifications made by the Democracy Index.

Based on answers to 60 questions across a nation’s electoral process, civil liberties, government functions, political participation and political culture, countries are assigned a range of scores in the Democracy Index.

Based on these scores, a nation automatically falls into one of the following four types of governance. Here’s which category fits the bill, depending on the range of scores:

Governance TypeDescriptionExampleDemocracy Index Score
Authoritarian RegimeNations which exhibit frequent
infringements of civil liberties,
unfair elections, and rampant censorship.
🇨🇳 China
🇰🇵 North Korea
🇦🇪 UAE
0.0-3.99
Hybrid RegimeNations with regular electoral
fraud, corruption, and low
political participation,
and suppressed opposition.
🇰🇪 Kenya
🇵🇰 Pakistan
🇹🇷 Turkey
4.0-5.99
Flawed DemocracyNations with fair elections,
underdeveloped political
participation and culture,
with minor issues in civil liberty
and government functions.
🇧🇷 Brazil
🇮🇳 India
🇺🇸 U.S.
6.0-7.99
Full DemocracyNations where political freedoms
are respected with limited
problems, governmental
checks and balances,
and diverse media exist.
🇦🇺 Australia
🇨🇦 Canada
🇳🇴 Norway
8.0-10.0

One thing that stands out is that many hybrid regimes and flawed democracies are also considered high potential emerging markets, but are held back by their political instability.

Notable Improvements

In recent times, public demonstrations have been a major cause behind increases in Democracy Index scores and changes in governance classifications.

Algeria moved from authoritarian to hybrid regime in 2019, the only country in the Arab region to do so in the index. This came after sustained protests against the previous president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika—who had served for 20 years.

Chile experienced similar turmoil, for the better. After a spike in the scale of middle class unrest over inequality and unfair policies in late 2019, the political participation moved it up from a flawed to full democracy.

Sliding Countries

The U.S. has one of the oldest democracies in the world. However, it was downgraded from a full to a flawed democracy as of the 2016 index, a status that had been “teetering” since before then, according to the report that year.

Venezuela dropped into an authoritarian regime in 2017, and it doesn’t seem to be improving anytime soon. The state was found to use the COVID-19 pandemic as an excuse to crack down on any dissent against the government.

Global Change in Democracy Levels

All in all, the average global democracy score worldwide emerged at 5.48 in 2019, although it’s clear that certain countries pull this value towards the opposite extremes.

North Korea, an authoritarian regime with a 1.08 score, has remained consistently one of the lowest ranked countries in the index. Meanwhile, its alphabetical successor Norway steadily keeps up its high score streak, with 9.87 being the best example of a full democracy in 2019.

Here’s how many countries made up each system of governance over the years, and the global Democracy Index score for that year.

YearAuthoritarianHybrid Flawed DemocracyFull DemocracyScore
2006553353265.52
2008523552285.55
2010573153265.46
2011543553255.49
2012523753255.52
2013514051255.53
2014523952245.55
2015523659205.55
2016514057195.52
2017523957195.48
2018533955205.48
2019543754225.48

Authoritarian regimes peaked in 2010 with 57 countries, whereas the full democracy category peaked in 2008 with 28 countries.

Since 2006, the average global score has slid from 5.52 to 5.48, and the total of countries categorized under full democracy decreased from 26 to 22.

Does this signal an increasingly divided world? And will the global pandemic—which is already delaying elections—have a further pronounced effect on backsliding these democracy scores?

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