Insecure Autocrats – Thoughts on BdM2S2 APSR Paper (1999)

This is the third time that I read this piece. For the first time, I have to (secretly) admit that I skimmed the abstract and intro and of course, muddled through the class. I read it again a year later, trying to understand the whole model but lost in the end, as I did not realize that they treated the outcome of war as ‘public goods.’ I reread it this weekend for my security seminar next Wednesday and still, their explanations of war as ‘public policy’ are not explicit enough to me (as a non-native speaker, I guess). But this is not my focus.

Despite no need to add more compliments on this paper, I am particularly impressed with  (1) regime types are treated as a continuum rather than a dichotomy; (2) the model incorporates international and domestic (both the public and a challenger) levels in a way that more twists can be built upon. This is what they’ve been doing and what I am trying to do here.

According to their model, an autocrat is secure as long as they offer enough private goods to his current winning coalition (WC), but sometimes, autocrats are challenged or ousted not by the existing WC but by an outside challenger with an entirely new WC (e.g. a civil leader replaced by army, civil war, etc). Under autocracies, a challenger does not have to draw support from the incumbent’s existing WC. Instead, she can form a different WC from the rest of selectorate at the same time, which is easier to achieve in autocracies, given a large selectorate and the requirement of a small WC.

If the above is true, an autocrat with bad public policies would face more risks of challenge than a democrat in the same situation. How so? With all else being equal, a challenger in democracies should find it more difficult to mobilize enough people for a larger WC. But why do autocrats seem to remain in office longer in general despite their poor performances? My guesses are: (1) not every autocrats do poorly and some are able to survive with competitive economic records; (2) despite bad policies, they stay in office as they invest far more resources in suppressing political opposition that democrats. In other word, autocrats stay in office longer because they are more insecure and vigilant at potential challenges.

Back to my main point, the model ignores autocrats’ concerns of challenges outside of his own WC and hence underestimates the degrees to which autocrats care about war outcomes. Unfavorable outcomes of war will reduce the amount of public good people receive and make the challenger’s promise of private goods relatively more attractive. Again, if the selectorate includes a million people and a WC only requires 100, for example, a challenger should be able to mobilize another group of 100 people or even more very easily. All these, I suppose, must be anticipated by the autocrat. To reduce the risks of challenges, the autocrat should try hard to win as well.

But why, empirically, do we tend to see autocrats defeated or followed from the model, why do autocrats fail to invest as many resources to war as they would? One possible explanation is that autocrats may already have to put much energy into suppressing potential/real domestic oppositions during the war (see here). Therefore, autocrats are more likely to be defeated, not because they feel more secure and care less about the outcome of war, but because they feel less secure and have to devote more resources to suppress domestic challenges, which usually come before the war ends. I’d like to see (1) how many of the defeated autocracies experienced domestic unrest during wars; (2) how many of the autocrat winners enjoyed domestic stability during wars.

Up to this point, I do realize that I need to read through their 2001 book…

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