82nd International Atlantic Economic Conference

October 13 - 16, 2016 | Washington, USA

Autocracy and the public - threats of mass revolts and policy control in dictatorships

Friday, October 14, 2016: 9:00 AM
Thomas Apolte, Ph.D. , Center for Interdisciplinary Economics, University of Muenster, Muenster, Germany
Threats of mass revolts would effectively constrain a dictator's public policy if it were not for the collective-action problem. Mass revolts nevertheless happen, but there is no established explanation for them, nor do we have a clear understanding about their implications for policy control in dictatorships. In order to enhance our understanding in this field, we link a simple threshold model of expressive behavior to an agency theory in order to explain how mass revolts may impact on a winning coalition's incentives to keep supporting an incumbent dictator. Having observed public policy and updated the latter’s belief on the type of the government, the winning coalition's members may exploit the incident of a mass revolt for escaping a loyalty trap that otherwise prevented them from switching to disloyalty.

The model distinguishes the unintended side effect of expressive behavior of members of the general public from the deliberately exerted power of a winning coalition. The latter alone is the one that decides on ousting an incumbent in light of its observation of public unrest and in light of its updated belief in the character of the incumbent. As a result, there are two filters between the degree of relative deprivation of the general public on the one hand and an overthrow of a dictator on the other: the stochastic element in the outbreak of public unrest and the interest of the winning coalition in ousting the incumbent.

Our approach has a rich set of empirical implications that are discussed in the paper. The most important is that public unrest raises the probability of enforced regime changes but that the threat thereof is, if any, only weakly instrumental with respect to an efficient and effective control of public policy by the general public in an autocracy.