Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Stalin Option

When it comes to the international uproar about human rights abuses in places like Syria, there's something I've been wondering about for ages: Why does it work so often?

For sure, there are many places in the world that doggedly resist any and all attempts by the international community to shame them into reforming. There's North Korea, Birma, Belarus and even China (PRC). But for every one of those, there's a Tunisia, an Egypt or a South Africa. Now, for sure all those countries were extremely unstable before the regime collapsed, but that only shifts the question: Why would the leadership allow the situation to get out of hand like that in the first place? Why not go for "the Stalin option" at the slightest sign of resistance? What is it that makes dictators reluctant to engage in the kind of massive bloodshed that that entails?

One of my all-time favourite models is Mancur Olson's theory of rational dictatorship (JSTOR link). He argued that rational dictators maximise the present value of their theft. It follows that the amount the dictator steals in the present period depends on whether he expects to still be around in the next period. The more stable the dictator's regime, the more his rational self-interest requires him to maximise economic growth even if this comes at the expense of short-term stealing. It follows, wrote Olson, that it can be in the people's best interest to leave their dictator alone, at least until a succession crisis makes the regime unstable anyway.

Let's think about dictators along these lines. Surely their number 1 interest is to avoid getting killed. Second to that, and closely related, is to avoid losing power. If the correlation between losing power and getting killed were sufficiently low, we can imagine a scenario where it is rational to allow yourself to be thrown out. However, that does not seem to be the case in actual fact. Idi Amin might have lived happily ever after, but many deposed dictators don't. In those circumstances, and assuming a sufficiently high disutility from dying, the rational dictator values continued power above everything else. Put differently, the rational dictator crushes his country in whatever way is necessary to avoid being overthrown, no matter how badly that affects his ability to steal his people's money. Better to be the living dictator of a dirt-poor country than the dead dictator of something more prosperous.

Of course, not all leaders have the Stalin Option in their arsenal, but then, not all leaders are dictators. A dictator tends to become a dictator in one of two ways: On the one hand, there are dictators who came to power by force. On the other hand, there are those who inherited it, usually from their father. There, too, somewhere down the line the founder of the dynasty came to force by power. Behind every great fortune lies a great crime. So if a dictator - properly so called - does not have the Stalin Option in his arsenal, the Option certainly used to exist at some point, but it was lost.

So how does one lose The Big Gun? It seems like mighty careless thing to allow to happen. To start with the latter category, it is possible that the son has less authority than the father. If that is true to the extent that he is unable to apply the Stalin Option, his inheritance is essentially a poisoned apple. The history of the Roman Empire is full of imperial pretenders who only accepted the purple because to decline it would mean certain death. Instead, they elected to fight so they might have a small chance of not being killed by the incumbent. Heirs of dictators might face a similar situation, the only difference being that for them it is easier to flee abroad and live happily ever after. In the small time between the father's death and the son officially accepting the crown, this is certainly a viable option. (And even before, the son might indicate to his father that he is not interested.) So why would someone accept an inheritance that will get him killed? Until his older brother died in 1994, Bashar al-Assad was an eye doctor in Britain!

Regardless of whether the dictator has used the Stalin Option before himself or has simply inherited it, he can lose it through carelessness, by growing weak and forgiving in his old age. But surely this carelessness is a gradual process, uninfluenced by sudden outrage in response to atrocities? The international community is certainly able to slowly and gradually encapsulate a dictatorial regime in a web of international commitments. That's why they let China and Russia into the WTO. (Well, also so that they could do this.) Such commitments can persuade the dictator to dress up his pretend-democracy with pretend-elections, a pretend-parliament and pretend-human rights more than he perhaps should. But what kind of a dumbass dictator lets any of that get in the way of applying the Stalin Option?

The only possible answer is that all this make-believe can start to take on a life of its own. Dictatorship relies on a complex network of stag hunt games. Unlike the related Prisoners' Dilemma, the Stag Hunt is a game that is extremely vulnerable to actors' expectations about one another. It is rational for all players to cooperate as long as they expect everybody else to. (In the Prisoners' Dilemma, cooperation can only be rational if the game is repeated.) As long as everybody expects that everybody else will obey the dictator no matter what, the dictator's power is untouched. But once the dictator starts implementing make-believe democratic reforms, these beliefs can disappear, and with it the dictator's power. This is true even if nothing has actually changed about the dictator's actual intentions or the actual legal constraints that he is subject to, if any. If sufficiently many people think the pretend-democratic institutions are real, they are real.

But is this what happened in Syria? I don't think so. I'm no expert, but I am not aware of any reforms in that country, make-believe or otherwise. Instead, the difference between today and 30 years ago seems to be entirely one of international visibility. It is no longer possible to kill 40.000 people without the rest of the world noticing. And this is what the protesters seem to be banking on: their expectations about the rest of the world have changed. Given these expectations, it is rational for them to resist much more forcefully than they otherwise would. But why does Assad care? He can easily prove them wrong, simply by sending in some air force bombers.

The fact that he hasn't yet can mean one of three things: either his inheritance is poisoned and he was wrong to accept it, or he is a softie unfit for the job, or the Stalin Option was never quite as unilateral as I made it seem. Perhaps it, too, needs at least a little bit of support from the inner circle. And perhaps the (rational) resistance from the people has made them (rationally) reluctant to support anything quite so drastic. In that case, Assad should find himself a better inner circle sooner rather than later. Then again, maybe it is better for everyone if he doesn't.

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