The Political Economy of the End of Tyranny

Will the recent uprisings succeed?


We live in interesting times. Long-standing autocracies in the Arab world are collapsing like overcooked soufflés. The urgent question is: What happens next? The collapse of authoritarian regimes is not all that unusual. Between 1945 and 2002, 316 authoritarian leaders across the globe fell from power through nonconstitutional means, according to a 2009 study [PDF] in the American Journal of Political Science by University of Illinois political scientist Milan Svolik. 

By nonconstitutional means, Svolik includes any exits that were not the result of natural death, a constitutionally mandated process like an election, a vote by a ruling body, or a hereditary succession. Of the 303 despots for whom Svolik could unambiguously ascertain how they lost political power, it turns out that only 32 tyrants were removed by a popular uprising. Another 30 left under public pressure to democratize, e.g., Chile's Augusto Pinochet. Twenty were assassinated, e.g., Egypt's Anwar Sadat, and only 16 were removed by foreign intervention, e.g., Panama's Manuel Noriega. The remaining 205 were ousted by other government members or by members of the security forces—that is to say, by classic coups d'etat. Uneasy indeed lies the head that wears the crown, general's cap, or keffiyeh.

Svolik develops a model of dictatorship in which autocrats achieve power initially as the first among equals in a ruling coalition. He argues that "a central problem of authoritarian governance is the problem of power sharing between the dictator and the ruling coalition." Constant jockeying for access to resources and authority among members of the coalition makes holding onto power unstable, so new dictators have an incentive to try to weaken members of the coalition that might challenge them by rewarding loyalists.

However, as Svolik's data show, this process of power consolidation provokes successful coups d'etat about two-thirds of the time. But the longer a dictator rules, the more secure his power. Svolik finds among tyrants who ruled for less than 10 years, 162 were removed by coups while only 31 died in office. On the other hand, among despots who ruled for 10 years or more, only 41 were removed by coup while 45 died in office. "Thus for dictators who survive in office for at least ten years, the odds of dying of natural causes rather than being removed by a coup improve from less than one in five to more than one in one!," notes Svolik. He also finds that the tenure of military dictators averages a bit over four years while single-party and personalist dictators average about 11 years in power. Why the difference? 

One dynamic is that personalist dictators destroy pre-existing social and political institutions, which eliminates rival centers where would-be opponents might organize and plot. A good case in point is Muammar Qaddafi, who has undermined the army that initially brought him to power. Instead he and his children have created alternative institutions that are dependent for resources directly from them. A good example is the Khamis brigade, a special military unit directly created and run by Qaddafi's son Khamis. Reports suggest that the Khamis brigade is actively trying to retake towns close to Tripoli now controlled by opponents to the Qaddafi regime. Similarly, the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin ruthlessly transformed that single-party state into a personalist dictatorship by means of periodic purges, so that all who remained in the government and military were directly beholden to his patronage. Stalin died in his bed.

Preventing coups is not the only problem faced by tyrants; the possibility of a popular uprising is also a threat. Economist Michael Spagat at the Royal Holloway College in the United Kingdom has developed a rational dictatorship model [PDF] which basically validates Italian philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli's advice to tyrants in The Prince that "it is far better to be feared than loved." The citizenry suffering under a tyranny is moved by hate and fear. Hate drives citizens toward attempting to overthrow the regime; fear deters such attempts.

However, the level of fear decays over time, so Spagat argues that the optimal strategy for a rational dictator is to periodically boost fear by initiating repressive cycles. The cyclical nature of rational repression can mislead outside observers. As Spagat notes, "Western powers often monitor the behavior of repressive regimes, often rewarding them during periods of relative liberality. However, if these lax periods are part of a natural cycle that tends toward reversal, such treatment is inappropriate." Spagat speculates that Western engagement with dictators might reduce their citizens' fear, which eventually provokes another wave of repression.

The history of the last 60 years is not just an unending series of coups and cyclical repression. The Freedom House Index of Freedom shows that a substantial number of countries have made the transition from dictatorship to political freedom during that time. Today, 87 out of the world's 194 countries are free. When will a country successfully make the transition from dictatorship to democracy?

MIT economist Daron Acemoglu and University of California, Berkeley, political scientist James Robinson addressed this question in an influential 2001 article in The American Economic Review. According to their model, the central problem is inequality and the redistribution of assets. The poor are politically powerless but pose a revolutionary threat to the rich. As revolutionary pressures rise, the rich often try to buy off the poor.

This bribery strategy is being pursued by many autocrats in the Arab World right now. King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia has promised to distribute $36 billion to his subjects. Deposed Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak tried to stay in power by raising the salaries of government workers by 15 percent. The same promises are now being made by the rulers of Bahrain and Oman. Even Qaddafi has promised to distribute $400 to each family and raise salaries for state employees as much as 150 percent.

But as Acemoglu and Robinson show, ruling elites have strong incentives to back out of promised redistribution once the revolutionary threat recedes. On the other hand, if the temporary redistribution is insufficient to stop an uprising, elites may have to make a credible commitment to future income redistribution. How? By giving the poor the right to vote. Acemoglu and Robinson assert, "We emphasize that in democratic societies the poor impose higher taxes on the rich than in nondemocratic societies. This makes the poor pro-democratic while simultaneously giving the rich an incentive to oppose democracy."

Acemoglu and Robinson note that a number of countries have been oscillating between periods of democracy and autocracy. What accounts for these oscillations, and, more importantly, what accounts for those countries that have transitioned into stable democracies? Basically, the rich temporarily extend the franchise to the poor, who then vote for radical reform, which in turn provokes the rich to support a coup ending the period of democracy. The vicious cycle is set up because the poor anticipate that the period of democratic redistribution will end with a coup. The higher the level of inequality in a society the more attractive are both revolutions and coups. "Therefore, societies with more initial inequality are more likely to switch between democracy and nondemocracy, and less likely to have a fully consolidated democracy," conclude Acemoglu and Robinson.

The model devised by Acemoglu and Robinson suggests that there are ways to break this cycle, e.g., asset redistribution and credible constitutional limits on taxation. Asset redistribution permanently changes the level of inequality. For example, land reform in Taiwan and South Korea likely set the stage for eventually consolidating democracy in those countries. Another form of asset redistribution that reduces inequalities is educating the poor so that their human capital increases relative to the wealth held by the rich. In addition, constitutionally limited taxes remove much of the incentive that the rich have to support a coup. Despite the claim that inequality is destabilizing, it should be noted that nine of the top 11 countries with the biggest gap between the rich and the poor are relatively stable high income democracies. Higher average incomes appear to counter revolutionary tendencies.

So after interpreting recent events through these models, what can the world expect? So far Tunisia, Egypt, and now Libya appear to be popular uprisings and not coups. Similar popular uprisings in the region are brewing in Oman, Bahrain, Yemen, Jordan, Morocco, and perhaps also soon in Saudi Arabia and Iran. It is likely that the attempts by autocrats to buy off people will fail; the revolutions will succeed, at least temporarily.

Given the level of inequality in most of those countries, the models suggest that the long-run prospects for consolidating democracy are dim. The popular uprisings might be hijacked by elites and essentially turned into coups. For example, a figure could emerge from the Egyptian military as a first among equals to run that country. One hopeful possibility is that democracy-boosting asset redistribution could take place if the region's oil revenues were allocated directly to citizens through a mechanism like the Alaska Permanent Fund.

Let's hope that the models prove wrong and that the people who are now bravely struggling to free themselves from terror and tyranny will soon permanently enjoy the blessings of liberty.

Reason's Science Correspondent Ronald Bailey is author of Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution (Prometheus Books).