Academic Sources: Guriev and Treisman on Information and Authoritarian Rule



Paul Krugman labels some of his blogs “wonkish,” and this falls into that category. But there has been a resurgence in the study of authoritarian systems in political science (see some of the other Academic Sources posts below). Sergei Guriev (Sci Po, Paris) and Dan Treisman (UCLA) have a paper based on a formal mathematical model of the role of information in dictatorial systems. It is not light reading, but they do a good job of conveying the insights (including here at Vox) and those insights are germane to the debate over the stability or instability of the North Korean political system.

The first sentence of the paper asks “How do dictators hold onto power?” Their answer is that coercion and violence matter, and have mattered in the past in particular; think of Stalin’s terror in extremis. But increasingly, we see systems in which the control of information not only plays a central role but can substitute in whole or part for repression. Think, for example, of how media control and constant spin have allowed Putin to combine policies with adverse effects for the Russian economy with soaring levels of public support. We don’t have North Korean polls, but outsiders probably underestimate the effectiveness of the Kim propaganda machine as well.

The Guriev-Treisman paper is built on a signaling model. Citizens prefer to be ruled by competent leaders who deliver economic growth and thus personal well-being. However, publics don’t necessarily know the competence of the ruler. Good performance might be the result of pure chance and only the dictator and a small informed elite know how policy is actually made. Citizens can only draw inferences from two sources: what they actually experience; and what they are told by the government and—if it exists—an independent media. In the model, this media is assumed to convey the actual information held by the informed elite.

If a significant majority of the population believes that the ruler is incompetent, the odds of an uprising from below increase. As they write, “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.”

Certain things flow from this game-theoretic set-up:

  • Propaganda can be seen as an effort on the part of the ruler to convince the public of his competence.
  • Autocracies can survive without employing much coercion if they can successfully manipulate beliefs. In fact, the model suggests that using violence may even signal weakness because of the implication that information can no longer be effectively manipulated.
  • In such signaling games, it is hard for publics to tell whether the ruler is competent or not, because both competent and incompetent rulers will distribute positive messages. But Guriev and Treisman show that if economic shocks are not too large, even an incompetent ruler might be able to fool enough of the public to maintain support.
  • An interesting empirical observation follows: that during more substantial economic shocks, the propaganda effort should ramp up.
  • Nonetheless, such shocks obviously have informational effect. In the wake of fiascos like the 2009 currency conversion, we would thus expect both repression and information control to ramp up, which we did in fact see.

I am reminded of Lincoln’s famous dictum: “You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.” Guriev and Treisman do not fully play out the international implications of the model, assuming (in contrast to North Korea) at least a relatively open information environment. Clearly, a sharp increase in valid information about the leader’s actual competence should have adverse effects for control. But as they suggest, this could simply mean a reversion to repression.

This all may be simply repeating what we already intuit. But Guriev and Treisman have formalized it, giving the propositions a sharper edge. The paper is an interesting contribution that is likely to spur follow-on theoretical and empirical work.

Other Academic Sources Posts

This series is designed to showcase academic social science work broadly relevant to the Korean peninsula even if not directly on it. Nominations are always welcome.

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