I am sure there has been some more serious work on this but I am toying with the idea that Government generally and public policy in particular is for the most part a reflection of social ethos. Where government’s in policy and in structure differ is in their “response function.” Are they swift or slow to respond to respond to changing ethos? Do they respond in violent fits and starts or in calm reform, etc.
In its most radical of forms this would say that the average treatment effect of absolute dictatorship or direct democracy on the lives of the typical citizen is zero. Dictatorships have a different response function than democracies and this leads to wider variance, but not to different average outcomes over the long run.
In addition, the consistent differences between life under the two forms of government represent selection effects rather than treatment effects. Societies with rapidly changing ethos will tend to “snap” more rigid forms of government.
Rapid growth in technology, particularly transportation and communication technology will tend to create more ethotic churn. Rigid governments in these places will snap. Since, democracies tend to be less rigid there will be – at least in the short term – an evolution towards democracy.
Thus when we observe the world we see that rich, pluralistic countries are democratic. We may mistakenly believe that democracy then leads to wealth and pluralism. However, it is that democracy is more “evolutionarily fit” to withstand the ethotic churn associated with wealth and pluralism.
I don’t know where this fits in the canon of political theory and if its all been said before, and better.
To the extent there is something here though, there are some implications.
For example, focusing on the regimes and policy in a government in order to change the lives of the people over which the government rules is extremely limited in its effectiveness. At most you can change the response function. This might have some important short term implications but because (a) governments over the long run are a veil and (b) governments must be “evolutionarily fit” to survive, these strategies cannot make a huge difference.
Real differences come from changing the ethos. In a practical sense this means religious or quasi-religious movements. The fact that religion does the heavy lifting in a society and that church and state have rarely been separated in history, also explains some of the over focus on government itself.
In this reading Communism, to the extent it had as large of an effect as it did, did so not because it was a new form of government but because it had the structure of a religious movement. People came to Communism as they would come Christianity or Islam.
This is why Marxism emerged as the strain of communist/socialist thought that was able to have such sweeping effects. Marxism was much more amenable to becoming a quasi-religion.