Famine mortality is preventable by government action and yet some famines kill. Amartya Sen has famously stated that no famine with significant excess mortality has ever occurred in a democracy. Yet, critics have argued that some countries have experienced famine mortality despite democratic governance and that Sen’s hypothesis cannot account for the conditions under which even autocracies may prevent famine mortality. We develop a political theory of famine mortality, which suggests that it can be entirely politically rational for a political support maximizing government, democratic or not, to remain inactive in the face of severe famine threat. Differences in famine mortality are due to differences in the policies democracies and autocracies adopt in responding to this political trade-off. Autocracies are more likely to compensate only affected elite members by targeted transfers, leaving other affected individuals outside the elite vulnerable to the potentially mortal impact of famine. Democracies, however, need to employ policies with quasi-public good characteristics due to the larger number of affected individuals with political influence. We derive the testable hypotheses that famine mortality is possible in democracies, but likely to be lower than in autocracies. Moreover, a larger share of people being affected by famine relative to population size together with large quantities of international food aid being available will lower mortality in both regime types, but more so in democracies. Our hypotheses find empirical support in a cross-country time-series analysis of famine mortality in non-developed countries over the period 1972 to 2000
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