The changing dictatorships
Dictatorships are not what they used to be. The totalitarian tyrants of the past – such as Hitler, Stalin, Mao, or Pol Pot – employed terror, indoctrination, and isolation to monopolise power. Although less ideological, many 20th-century military regimes also relied on mass violence to intimidate dissidents. Pinochet’s agents, for instance, are thought to have tortured and killed tens of thousands of Chileans (Roht-Arriaza 2005).
However, in recent decades new types of authoritarianism have emerged that seem better adapted to a world of open borders, global media, and knowledge-based economies. From the Peru of Alberto Fujimori to the Hungary of Viktor Orban, illiberal regimes have managed to consolidate power without fencing off their countries or resorting to mass murder. Some bloody military regimes and totalitarian states remain – such as Syria and North Korea – but the balance has shifted.
The new autocracies often simulate democracy, holding elections that the incumbents almost always win, bribing and censoring the private press rather than abolishing it, and replacing comprehensive political ideologies with an amorphous resentment of the West (Gandhi 2008, Levitsky and Way 2010). Their leaders often enjoy genuine popularity – at least after eliminating any plausible rivals. State propaganda aims not to ‘engineer human souls’ but to boost the dictator’s ratings. Political opponents are harassed and defamed, charged with fabricated crimes, and encouraged to emigrate, rather than being murdered en masse.
Dictatorships and information
In a recent paper, we argue that the distinctive feature of such new dictatorships is a preoccupation with information (Guriev and Treisman 2015). Although they do use violence at times, they maintain power less by terrorising victims than by manipulating beliefs. Of course, surveillance and propaganda were important to the old-style dictatorships, too. But violence came first. “Words are fine things, but muskets are even better,” Mussolini quipped. Compare that to the confession of Fujimori’s security chief, Vladimir Montesinos: “The addiction to information is like an addiction to drugs”. Killing members of the elite struck Montesinos as foolish: “Remember why Pinochet had his problems. We will not be so clumsy” (McMillan and Zoido 2004).
We study the logic of a dictatorship in which the leader survives by manipulating information. Our key assumption is that citizens care about effective government and economic prosperity; first and foremost, they want to select a competent rather than incompetent ruler. However, the general public does not know the competence of the ruler; only the dictator himself and members of an ‘informed elite’ observe this directly. Ordinary citizens make what inferences they can, based on their living standards – which depend in part on the leader’s competence – and on messages sent by the state and independent media. The latter carry reports on the leader’s quality sent by the informed elite. If a sufficient number of citizens come to believe their ruler is incompetent, they revolt and overthrow him.
The challenge for an incompetent dictator is, then, to fool the public into thinking he is competent. He chooses from among a repertoire of tools – propaganda, repression of protests, co-optation of the elite, and censorship of their messages. All such tools cost money, which must come from taxing the citizens, depressing their living standards, and indirectly lowering their estimate of the dictator’s competence. Hence the trade-off.
Certain findings emerge from the logic of this game.
- First, we show how modern autocracies can survive while employing relatively little violence against the public.
Repression is not necessary if mass beliefs can be manipulated sufficiently. Dictators win a confidence game rather than an armed combat. Indeed, since in our model repression is only used if equilibria based on non-violent methods no longer exist, violence can signal to opposition forces that the regime is vulnerable.
- Second, since members of the informed elite must coordinate among themselves on whether to sell out to the regime, two alternative equilibria often exist under identical circumstances – one based on a co-opted elite, the other based on a censored private media.
Since both bribing the elite and censoring the media are ways of preventing the sending of embarrassing messages, they serve as substitutes. Propaganda, by contrast, complements all the other tools.
Propaganda and a leader’s competency
Why does anyone believe such propaganda? Given the dictator’s obvious incentive to lie, this is a perennial puzzle of authoritarian regimes. We offer an answer. We think of propaganda as consisting of claims by the ruler that he is competent. Of course, genuinely competent rulers also make such claims. However, backing them up with convincing evidence is costlier for the incompetent dictators – who have to manufacture such evidence – than for their competent counterparts, who can simply reveal their true characteristics. Since faking the evidence is costly, incompetent dictators sometimes choose to spend their resources on other things. It follows that the public, observing credible claims that the ruler is competent, rationally increases its estimate that he really is.
Moreover, if incompetent dictators survive, they may over time acquire a reputation for competence, as a result of Bayesian updating by the citizens. Such reputations can withstand temporary economic downturns if these are not too large. This helps to explain why some clearly inept authoritarian leaders nevertheless hold on to power – and even popularity – for extended periods (cf. Hugo Chavez). While a major economic crisis results in their overthrow, more gradual deteriorations may fail to tarnish their reputations significantly.
A final implication is that regimes that focus on censorship and propaganda may boost relative spending on these as the economy crashes. As Turkey’s growth rate fell from 7.8% in 2010 to 0.8% in 2012, the number of journalists in jail increased from four to 49. Declines in press freedom were also witnessed after the Global Crisis in countries such as Hungary and Russia. Conversely, although this may be changing now, in both Singapore and China during the recent decades of rapid growth, the regime’s information control strategy shifted from one of more overt intimidation to one that often used economic incentives and legal penalties to encourage self-censorship (Esarey 2005, Rodan 1998).
The kind of information-based dictatorship we identify is more compatible with a modernised setting than with the rural underpinnings of totalitarianism in Asia or the traditional societies in which monarchs retain legitimacy. Yet, modernisation ultimately undermines the informational equilibria on which such dictators rely. As education and information spread to broader segments of the population, it becomes harder to control how this informed elite communicates with the masses. This may be a key mechanism explaining the long-noted tendency for richer countries to open up politically.
Esarey, A (2005), “Cornering the market: state strategies for controlling China's commercial media”, Asian Perspective 29(4): 37-83.
Gandhi, J (2008), Political Institutions under Dictatorship, New York: Cambridge University Press.
Guriev, S and D Treisman (2015), “How Modern Dictators Survive: Cooptation, Censorship, Propaganda, and Repression”, CEPR Discussion Paper, DP10454.
Levitsky, S, and L A Way (2010), Competitive authoritarianism: hybrid regimes after the cold war, New York: Cambridge University Press.
McMillan, J, and P Zoido (2004), “How to subvert democracy: Montesinos in Peru”, Journal of Economic Perspectives 18(4): 69-92.
Rodan, G (1998), “The Internet and political control in Singapore”, Political Science Quarterly 113(1): 63-89.
Roht-Arriaza, N (2005), The Pinochet Effect: Transnational Justice in the Age of Human Rights, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.