Recipe for Autocratic Success

Tuesday, May 12th, 2009

The recipe for autocratic success, Bruce Bueno de Mesquita says, is to embrace economic growth while postponing democracy — by providing the public goods vital to economic growth while holding back the coordination goods vital to seizing political power:

Examples of this strategy abound, including these cases during the past three years. China has periodically blocked access to Google’s English-language news service and recently forced Microsoft to block words such as freedom and democracy on the Microsoft software used by bloggers. Those moves were only the latest in a long line of Chinese restrictions on Internet-related activity, running the gamut from creating a special Internet police unit to limiting the number of Internet gateways into China. In Russia, meanwhile, President Vladimir Putin has placed all national television networks under strict government control. In October 2003, he engineered the arrest of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, one of his most prominent critics; a highly visible prosecution followed.

In Venezuela, President Hugo Chávez pushed through a new law in December 2004 allowing him to ban news reports of violent protests or of government crackdowns and to suspend the broadcasting licenses of media outlets that violate any of a long list of broadly phrased regulations. And in Vietnam, the government has imposed strict controls on religious organizations and branded the leaders of unauthorized religious groups (including Roman Catholics, Mennonites, and some Buddhists) as subversives.

Each of these cases has involved the restriction of what might be called coordination goods — that is, those public goods that critically affect the ability of political opponents to coordinate but that have relatively little impact on economic growth. Coordination goods are distinct from more-general public goods — transportation, health care, primary education, and national defense — which, when restricted, have a substantial impact on both public opinion and economic growth.

Historically, oppressive governments seeking to crack down on those pushing for democratic change have suppressed both types of goods — undermining their economies in the process. This was the dominant pattern in much of Asia and Africa until the 1980s, and it remains the case today in many of the poorest states, such as Myanmar and Zimbabwe. Recently, however, governments in Russia, China, Vietnam, and elsewhere have discovered that, by focusing their restrictions on coordination goods only, they can continue to provide those services necessary for economic progress and short-circuit the pressure for the political change such progress typically promotes.

Of course, the availability of most public goods has some impact on the ability of opposition groups to organize and coordinate. But four types of goods play a fundamental role in such activities: political rights, more-general human rights, press freedom, and accessible higher education.

The first of these goods, political rights, includes free speech and the rights to organize and demonstrate peacefully. Although political rights are largely negative, in that they limit state interference rather than require state action, they sometimes require governments to take a variety of steps to enforce them, especially when they involve minority groups’ voicing opinions that are unpopular with the majority.

As for more-general human rights, these include freedom from arbitrary arrest and the related protection of habeas corpus; the right to nondiscrimination based on religion, race, ethnicity, and sex; freedom from physical abuse; and the right to travel, both domestically and abroad.

A diverse and largely unregulated press (and other forms of media) is also vital to effective political opposition because it enables information to be disseminated that can bring diverse groups together around common interests. Like political rights, the right to a free press is a largely negative one because it generally requires the government not to interfere. It may also require affirmative steps, however, such as granting licenses to radio and TV frequencies, guaranteeing public access to those and other media, and translating official documents into regional languages.

Finally, broad access to higher education and graduate training is vital if citizens are to develop the skills to communicate, organize, and develop a political presence. Advanced education also helps create a large pool of potential opposition leaders, thereby increasing the supply of rivals to the incumbent government.

Some authoritarian governments claim that they deny access to higher education (and other coordination goods) because of their exorbitant costs. In reality, coordination goods are not generally more expensive than other public goods and are far cheaper than some, such as national defense or transportation. When governments choose to restrict them, therefore, it is to increase the political costs of coordination, not to save money. In fact, some coordination goods actually cost more to suppress than to allow — as when governments expend resources cracking down on opposition movements or jam free media outlets and produce their own propaganda.

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