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Do country leaders matter? What science has to say.

But like Macron, Trump too, promises economic growth. Although he tries to achieve it with protectionism, such as by imposing trade tariffs. So, the media is quick to capitalize on the controversy. The Guardian, for example, writes that “[t]he world’s closer to a full-scale trade war than at any time since the 1930s, with the US, China and the EU all involved.” The whole article gives Trump full credit as the mastermind of this policy who holds the power over how the economy works.

But how much effect really Trump or Macron alone have on the economy? There’s no way to say long-term. Yet, one way to find this out is to see if leaders historically affect the outcome of national economies.

And in fact, people have done this, scientifically. Benjamin F. Janes and Benjamin A. Olken find evidence leaders matter, but with a twist.

We find evidence that the death of leaders in autocratic regimes leads to changes in growth while the death of leaders in democratic regimes does not.

As already alluded to, the duo checks if the death by accident or natural cause of world leaders leads to economic change. The Penn World Table, a free dataset the folks at the University of California and University of Groningen take care of, contains the real GDP of 182 countries between 1950 and 2014.

Janes and Olken use an older version of this collection (2005), although I’d be happy to see an update. It holds 130 countries, while covering all the nations that existed before 1990, including 1294 leaderships.

Combing across these leaderships, the researchers find that where institutions are weak, leaders matter the most. So, institutions constrain the power of leaders.

In a complementary paper, Janes and Olken, find that in weak states, assassinations of autocrats, provides a push to democratization. While the effect continues 10 years later. They looked at all the assassinations attempts from 1875 to 2004, finding 59 that killed the leader.

The findings suggests “agency at the top,” with autocratic national leaders as important forces in restraining or promoting democratic change.


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