PEOPLE POWER: Two academics use game theory to explain why democracy is so hard to

The Economist

Copyright The Economist
Nov 24th 2005
> IN 1381, a mob of angry Essex peasants revolted against the poll tax,
> and marched on London, destroying tax registers and records as they
> went. The Essex men wanted an end to their serfdom and the right to
> rent land at fourpence an acre. King Richard II, just 14 years old,
> bowed to their demands and the mob dispersed, although not before
> invading the Tower of London, trespassing on the royal bedchambers,
and killing the Archbishop of Canterbury.
> The conflict between mutinous masses and self-preserving elites is
> theme of this ambitious, even audacious, book by Daron Acemoglu, of
> Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and James Robinson, of Harvard
> University. Their aim is to figure out when such struggles result in
> democracy, and when that democracy endures. The peasants’ revolt of
> 1381 was not such a case. Once the uprising had ebbed, the young
> monarch reneged on his promises to the Essex men, rounded up the
> surviving ringleaders and had them executed.
> As this sorry episode shows, people power is fleeting; sullen
> discontent flares only rarely and briefly into forceful dissent. This
> is obviously a problem for rebels, who find it hard to sustain a
> revolt. But, as this book points out, it also poses a conundrum for
> elites who might want to appease them.
> It is a king’s or dictator’s prerogative to change his mind. As the
> sovereign, he can overrule everyone, including himself. Thus after an
> insurrection peters out, the sovereign cannot hold himself to any
> concessions he might have made when the rebels were at his bedroom
> door. Dissidents should anticipate this. If they do not want to meet
> the same fate as the Essex men of 1381, they should not settle for
> ruler’s sops, but push instead for outright revolution while they
> can.
> This dilemma sets up the book’s main thesis: democracy is a solution
> the elite’s commitment problem. By agreeing to a peaceful extension
> the franchise, the elites institutionalise their concessions, and the
> masses lock in their power before it drifts away. Institutions, such
> universal suffrage, are harder to overturn than policies, such as
> of fourpence an acre. It is easy, all too easy, for the elite to
> on a promise to the people; rather harder for it to mount a coup
> against them.
> Uncircumscribed authority can be a handicap. It makes it impossible
> the sovereign to make a lasting concession even if he wants to. Such
> paradoxes are familiar to students of game theory, a subdiscipline of
> economics on which the authors draw heavily. Game theory sheds light
> strategic encounters, in which each player’s move must take account
> the others’; it is a good way to explore the machinations and
> manoeuvres of politics.
> The authors hope to convert readers to their method as well as their
> argument. The pace of the book suffers from this laudable pedagogical
> purpose. They tell the reader what they are going to say, say it,
> tell the reader they’ve said it. Their technical apparatus, like
> scaffolding, is no doubt a great help in building their theory. But
> awful lot of scaffolding is left out on show, which is a great help
> anyone teaching this book, but a distraction for those who just want
> admire the edifice.
> And there is much to admire. True to their title, Messrs Acemoglu and
> Robinson offer a unified theory of both democracy and its opposite.
> Some Latin American countries have swung between the two with
> metronomic regularity. Argentines won universal male suffrage as
> as 1912, but lost it to a coup in 1930. Democracy was restored in
> overthrown in 1955, re-introduced in 1973, subverted in 1976 and
> cemented, one hopes, in 1983.
> In the authors’ eyes, the demise of democracy is a near mirror image
> the fall of dictatorship. Anxious incumbents try to buy off the
> military, much as Richard II sought to placate the Essex men. Chile’s
> Salvador Allende, for example, raised army pay and benefits. But in
> long run, a democracy cannot commit itself to serve the interests of
> anyone but the swing voters. The military elite know this, and take
> their chances when they can. Allende was duly deposed in 1973.
> The book takes its title from “The Social Origins of Dictatorship and
> Democracy” by Barrington Moore, an American sociologist who died last
> month. The conclusion of that treatise has been summed up as: “No
> bourgeoisie, no democracy.” Messrs Acemoglu and Robinson agree that
> middle class can be a midwife for democratic rule, not least because
> the elite is more willing to cede power to merchants than to the mob.
> They also agree with Moore that agrarian societies tend towards
> authoritarianism. Land is easier to expropriate than capital; and
> peasants are easier to repress than factory workers. Thus feudal
> fear democracy more than capitalists do; and have an easier time
> suppressing it.
> Such bold generalisations and pithy dictums have fallen out of
> since Moore wrote his classic in 1966. One more recent scholar
> no fewer than 27 different factors that are said to promote
> This book is entirely free of such intellectual indecision. The
> are brutal wielders of Occam’s razor, and the 27 factors have been
> chopped down to a coherent handful. This may leave a lot out, but
> historians bemoan as simplistic, economists tend to celebrate as
> parsimonious. According to two scholars cited in this book, even to
> look for a general theory of democratic reform requires great
> Happily, Messrs Acemoglu and Robinson have temerity in spades.
> Economic Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy. By Daron Acemoglu
> James A. Robinson. Cambridge University Press; 540 pages; $35 and
> See this article with graphics and related items at

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