Economic Development, Mobility, and Political Discontent: An Experimental Test of Tocqueville’s Thesis in Pakistan

ANDREW HEALYKATRINA KOSEC and CECILIA HYUNJUNG MO

AMERICAN POLITICAL SCIENCE REVIEW, Volume 111, Issue 3

Abstract: 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.