A new study shows that democracy and prosperity are inextricably linked.

With autocratic states like China and Russia looking poised for economic recovery, it’s often hard to make the case for ideals such as democracy and rule of law. To some, like Martin Jacques, author of When China Rules, autocrats seem destined to rule the world economy.

A columnist for the Guardian, Jacques predicted that by 2050 China will easily surpass America economically, militarily and politically. The belief in the power of autocracy even extends to such leading American capitalists as Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, who have nothing but high praise for what Gates enthusiastically describes as a “brand-new form of capitalism.”

Fortunately a new study released Monday by my colleagues at the Legatum Institute refutes the notion that the road to worldly riches lies in autocracy and repression. In a careful study of everything from economic opportunity, education and health to security, freedom of expression and societal contentment, the Legatum “Prosperity Index” makes a powerful case for the long-term benefits of democracy, free speech and the rule of law.

Some of this stems from how Legatum measures prosperity. The survey takes into account both wealth and well-being, and finds that the most prosperous nations in the world are not necessarily those that just have a high GDP, but that also have happy, healthy, free citizens.

The top of the list, which ranks 104 countries, is dominated by flourishing democracies. The only exception in the top 20 is No. 18’s Hong Kong, which ranks first in economic fundamentals and continues to be ruled, if not quite democratically, under a far more permissive system than the rest of mainland China. The next semi-autocratic state on the list is Singapore, at No. 23–another Confucian-style autocracy with great economic and human capital fundamentals.

This linking of democracy and prosperity with well-being is by far the most significant aspect of the study. But what else determines the success of nations in the modern world?

1. Small democracies do best.

The denizens of the Greek city-states or their Renaissance counterparts would have recognized something of themselves in the small, well-managed countries that dominate the top of the list. The top five, Finland, Switzerland, Sweden, Denmark and Norway–as well as the Netherlands at No. 8–certainly fit this description. These countries rank highly on the quality of life measurements, and, not surprisingly, their main cities also tend to dominate the most-livable-cities lists. With the exception of Switzerland and the Netherlands, these places do not perform as well in terms of basic economics, scoring between 10th and 18th. Although some might ascribe these rankings to successful social democratic policies, virtually all these mini-states have instated significant market-oriented reforms in recent years.

Other top players Australia (No. 6) and Canada (No. 7) are far larger than their European rivals. And though their citizens are not as socially coddled as in Scandinavia, they enjoy strong democratic institutions, high levels of social well-being and good governance and education.

And in purely economic terms Australia and Canada boast better economic fundamentals than the Scandinavian countries. One reason may be their enormous stockpiles of natural resources, now in high demand from countries like China and India. These countries also benefit by a large and often skilled migration from these and other Asian countries.

2. Among the mega-countries, the U.S. is still way ahead

Don’t cry for me, America. In terms of the large countries, both in population and size, no one comes close to the No. 9-ranked U.S. Indeed there’s not another country with over 100 million people on the list until you get to Japan at No. 16.

Like all big countries, America is a complicated place, with distinct areas of strength as well as disturbing weaknesses. The U.S. leads all countries in entrepreneurship and innovation and ranks second in the stability of its democratic institutions–the Swiss are No. 1. Less than optimal health and safety rankings, however, push America from the top. Its economic fundamentals are also sub-prime, ranking only 14th, which isn’t surprising in light of persistent current account and now government deficits.

Despite its problems, the U.S. still outperforms its other large rivals, not only Japan but also the U.K. (No. 12), Germany (No. 14) and France (No. 17). Yet judged within the ranks, all four of these economies have to be considered successful in terms of delivering prosperity and a reasonably high quality of life to their citizens.

3. Breaking down the BRICs

The Index’s most fascinating findings can be found a bit further down. The focus of the world’s economy has been shifting to countries that have been–and in some cases remain–governed by Communist, military or single-party dictatorships.

Democracy’s efficacy can be seen clearly in success enjoyed by the former European Communist states–the Czech Republic, Poland, Latvia, Estonia, Slovakia and Hungary–all of which land in the first third of the ratings. Similarly, Taiwan (ranked 24th) and South Korea (26th), long ruled by military-dominated dictatorships, show how democratization and rising prosperity can flourish together.

This pattern can also be seen among the “big boys” of the economic upstarts–the so-called BRIC countries. Here the leaders of the pack are both functioning democracies, Brazil (No. 41) and India (No. 45). These rapidly growing economies are kept out of the top tier by significant shortcomings in vital fields such as education, health and public safety.

The other two BRIC powers, China and Russia, neither of which can be considered anything close to open societies, lag behind. Russia’s mineral wealth gets it a respectable 39th in economic fundamentals, but a lack of democracy, personal freedom and personal safety–as well as poor governance and corruption–drags it down to a paltry 69th. China, ranked a disappointing No. 75, also performs admirably on economic fundamentals, clocking in at No. 29, but is hammered for glaring shortfalls in democracy, personal freedom and governance as well as health and education.

4. Autocracy may seem to pay, but not in the long run

Throughout modern history, autocracy has proved effective in sparking fast growth, but a pervasive democratic deficit, poor governance and lack of personal freedom seem likely to constrain long-term progress. For one thing, the ruling elite in the dictatorship is under no strong compulsion to adjust to the needs of its population. Short of forestalling outright rebellion, nest-feathering tends to gain the upper hand.

As you get to the bottom of the list, the price of dictatorship rises higher still. In this nether-region, there is nary a democratic state. Some of the low-ranking Third World countries are obvious–like Cameroon (No. 100) or Yemen (No. 101)–but some potentially rich but despotically ruled nations do poorly as well.

Take, for example, No. 94 Iran, a country with enormous natural resources, a well-educated population and a rich cultural heritage. A reasonably enlightened Iran would likely sit in the top third of the list instead of skipping toward the bottom.

Even the bottom-ranked country, Zimbabwe, left its colonial period with a thriving agriculture sector and great mineral wealth. Here again despotic rule has shown itself an adept destroyer of economic promise.

In these times of acute self-doubt not only in America but across the democratic world, the Legatum ratings validate the idea that if democracy is not the inevitable wave of the future it represents by far the most efficient way to manage a society. In the end, democracy and prosperity prove not two distinct elements, but, in fact, inextricably linked to each other.

– Joel Kotkin is a distinguished presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University. He is executive editor of newgeography.com and writes the weekly New Geographer column for Forbes. He is working on a study on upward mobility in global cities for the London-based Legatum Institute. His next book, The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050, will be published by Penguin early next year.