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Evolution, empowerment and emancipation: How societies ascend the utility ladder of freedoms


  • Christian Welzel

    () (Center for the Study of Democracy, Leuphana University, Scharnhorststr.)

  • Ronald Inglehart

    () (Higher School of Economics)


This article presents a new theory of development that unifies disparate insights into a single framework, focusing on human empowerment—a process that emancipates people from domination. Human empowerment sets in when mass-scale technological progress widens ordinary people’s ‘action resources.’ As this happens, life turns from a source of threats into a source of opportunities, and societies climb the utility ladder of freedoms: universal freedoms become instrumental to taking advantage of what a more promising life offers. Accordingly, people adopt ‘emancipative values’ that emphasize universal freedoms. As the utility and value of freedoms rise, ‘civic entitlements’ that guarantee these become undeniable at some point. Human empowerment thus proceeds as the sequential growth in the utility, value and guarantee of freedoms (sequence thesis). Because universal freedoms are a reciprocal good that flourishes through mutual recognition, the utility ladder of freedoms is a social ladder: people climb it in alliance with like-minded others who share similar utilities (solidarity thesis). Historically speaking, human empowerment on a mass scale started only recently because civilization matured late where natural conditions bestow an initial utility on freedoms that has been absent elsewhere (initiation thesis). However, globalization is breaking human empowerment free from its confinement to the initially favourable conditions (contagion thesis). Together, these theses form an evolutionary theory of emancipation. After unfolding this theory, the article presents evidence in support of its major propositions.

Suggested Citation

  • Christian Welzel & Ronald Inglehart, 2013. "Evolution, empowerment and emancipation: How societies ascend the utility ladder of freedoms," HSE Working papers WP BRP 29/SOC/2013, National Research University Higher School of Economics.
  • Handle: RePEc:hig:wpaper:29/soc/2013

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Jess Benhabib & Alejandro Corvalen & Mark M. Spiegel, 2011. "Reestablishing the income-democracy nexus," Working Paper Series 2011-09, Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco.
    2. Bockstette, Valerie & Chanda, Areendam & Putterman, Louis, 2002. "States and Markets: The Advantage of an Early Start," Journal of Economic Growth, Springer, vol. 7(4), pages 347-369, December.
    3. John Luke Gallup & Jeffrey D. Sachs, 2000. "Agriculture, Climate, and Technology: Why are the Tropics Falling Behind?," American Journal of Agricultural Economics, Agricultural and Applied Economics Association, vol. 82(3), pages 731-737.
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    1. repec:wsi:jdexxx:v:22:y:2017:i:02:n:s1084946717500108 is not listed on IDEAS

    More about this item


    action resources - civic entitlements - civilization process - cool-water condition - democratization - economic development - emancipation theory - emancipative values - human empowerment - social evolution - technological progress - utility ladder of freedoms;

    JEL classification:

    • E11 - Macroeconomics and Monetary Economics - - General Aggregative Models - - - Marxian; Sraffian; Kaleckian

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