College of Humanities and Social Sciences

The Political Economy of Autocracy: Insights From Economic Theory, Analytical History and the Experimental Laboratory

Jason Arentz

Major Professor: Charles K. Rowley, PhD, Department of Economics

Committee Members: Omar Al-Ubaydli, John Paden

Enterprise Hall, #318
October 17, 2011, 10:00 AM to 07:00 AM


This dissertation coordinates multiple methodologies and lines of research with the goal of understanding power and autocracy.  I present here results and insights from theory, experiments, and analytical history. 

In my first chapter, I construct a public choice model of autocracy inspired by the seminal contributions of Gordon Tullock (1980) and most especially by Ronald Wintrobe (1998).  By focusing attention primarily on autocratic expenditures – the actual variables of choice – I uncover internal equilibria that differ, sometimes significantly, from those uncovered by Ronald Wintrobe’s four models.  I also identify and resolve a few relevant ambiguities.  The comparative statics regarding autocratic responses to external economic shocks for the most part qualitatively conform to those identified by Ronald Wintrobe, with the important exception of the tinpot-dictatorship model.  This paper should add to the seminal work of Ronald Wintrobe to provide a powerful theoretical basis for empirical research into the behavior of autocratic regimes.

My second chapter presents the first direct laboratory test of selectorate theory. Selectorate theory uses the relative size of the minimum winning coalition to predict the behavior of autocrats and other political leaders, based on the logic of political survival.  To test this theory, I designed an experiment with two treatments that differed only in the institutional variable of minimum winning coalition size. I report here two main results. First, consistent with the theory, smaller minimum winning coalition systems lead to greater kleptocracy and regime longevity.  Second, contrary to the theory, I find no evidence that leaders increased public goods spending when the minimum winning coalition size increased. Since public goods helped secure support from out-group selectors, participant “leaders” viewed public goods as insurance against coalition defectors. However, when minimum coalitions were large, competition from the challenger was fiercer, so the “insurance”, like kleptocracy, was a luxury they could not afford.

In chapter three, I introduce selectorate heterogeneity into the model.  By doing so, I am able to endogenize the size of the minimum winning coalition on the basis of the distribution of power.  Therefore, while a small coalition from the population might exert authority over the majority, it must specifically contain the most powerful individuals to do so.  I find that if the assumption of uniform payments is maintained, then the autocrat will prefer the wining coalition with the smallest number of members.  If uniformity is relaxed, then the autocrat can manage with many different compositions.  However, if information and transaction costs are salient, then the dictator will choose compositions with fewer members.  This expansion to the standard selectorate model renders the theory closer to real world examples, and therefore more useful as a tool for critical case studies.

In chapter four I apply the theories to case studies in Stalinist USSR, from 1921 to 1956.  I find that both theoretical frameworks provide useful tools for deepening our understanding of the key moments under consideration.  I find that the dominant factors are the increasing level of productive capacity available to Stalin, and the increasing concentration of his minimum winning coalition.  Stalin’s personality aligned closely with the utility functions used by the theories.  However, the historic implementation of repression and loyalty required more careful consideration and exploration.  I find that Stalin’s power grew continuously through his reign, becoming tyrannical around 1931 at the onset of the Holodomor, and tipping into totalitarianism in the late thirties with the Great Purge.

My fifth chapter repeats the process for case studies in Maoist China.  Again, access to productive capacity dominated Mao’s political cycle.  His power grew after the founding of the People Republic of China until he was surprised by the catastrophic failure of the Great Leap Forward, late in 1959.  His power fell pari passu with the nation’s wealth, but did not return immediately with its recovery.  He instead returned to totalitarian authority along with a massive change in the selectorate and winning coalition during his Cultural Revolution in 1969. 

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