Civil Liberties

Kill Joy

Sic semper tyrannis

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Living under the bootheel of a dictatorship? An academic study suggests that taking a potshot at your oppressor might lead to greater democracy.

In "Hit or Miss?: The Effect of Assassinations on Institutions and War," a working paper published last year by the National Bureau for Economic Research and several other institutions, economists Ben Olken of Harvard and Ben Jones of Northwestern look at 298 attempted and 59 successful assassinations of both autocratic and democratic leaders between 1875 and 2004. They find that "on average, successful assassinations of autocrats produce sustained moves toward democracy." Indeed, "transitions to democracy…are 13 percentage points more likely following the assassination of an autocrat than following a failed attempt on an autocrat." Furthermore, the "effect [of political assassination] is sustained ten years later." A failed attempt produced a statistically insignificant decrease of one percentage point in the possibility of a successful democratic shift.

Attempts on the lives of democratic leaders, Olken and Jones found, are associated with little political change. "Democratic institutions," they conclude, "thus appear robust to the assassination of leaders, while autocratic regimes are not."