How incompetent dictators survive

How incompetent dictators survive

My March 9 column, where I summarized a paper which explains why some countries end up being controlled by their nation’s worst or least-qualified citizens, got a lot of comments from readers. Several asked me why incompetent politicians would not be voted out.

The authors of that paper, Francesco Caselli and Massimo Morelli, showed how incompetent politicians make running for office less attractive for competent ones, which could be seen as a political version of Gresham’s Law. They also argue bad governments sow the seeds of future bad governments by influencing the rewards for upcoming policymakers. But they do not really explain how an incompetent politician could stay in power for more than a decade.

The answer comes from a new paper by Sergei Guriev and Daniel Treisman, who developed an informational theory of “new forms of dictatorship based on manipulating information rather than mass violence.” In “How Modern Dictators Survive: Cooptation, Censorship, Propaganda and Repression,” they begin by arguing these new autocracies have some common characteristics.

They “often simulate democracy” by “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.” “Their leaders often enjoy genuine popularity,” with state propaganda aiming to “boost the dictator’s ratings” while “political opponents are harassed and defamed, charged with fabricated crimes.”

The key assumption of this framework is that a dictator’s competence is not observed. Citizens infer it from their living standards, state propaganda or messages sent by the media. As long as the economy does not contract significantly, an incompetent dictator can survive without resorting to too much propaganda or control of the press. The public will wrongly relate the performance of the economy to his competence.

In the case of a major economic downturn, however, he will have to spend resources on propaganda and co-optation or repression of the media as well as other sources of communication. Violence is used only as a last resort because it signals to the opposition that the regime is vulnerable.

All this is pretty intuitive, and the authors give examples from several countries. But it still doesn’t answer the question posed by my readers, because Turkey is not a dictatorship but an advanced democracy. I was therefore “appalled” when Guriev and Treisman highlighted in their paper, to support their model, that “as Turkey’s growth rate fell from 7.8 percent in 2010 to 0.8 percent in 2012, the number of journalists in jail increased from four to 49.”

You should therefore not see the sentencing of two cartoonists for insulting President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, or more generally the rising pressure on the press and increasingly rotten state of the media during the past three years of low growth, as evidence supporting their framework - and not because their growth figures are incorrect. After all, in the report “Democracy at Risk,” which was released on March 27, the International Press Institute (IPI) concluded defamation lawsuits and arrests targeting journalists were threatening Turkish democracy.

If Erdoğan’s advisers read this column, they should urge him to open a defamation suit against Guriev and Treisman - so that if they ever come to Turkey for a conference or something, they can pay for their slander.