How often do you pick up trash along the street when you are out for a walk? If you are like most people, you probably see trash, think that someone should do something about it, and keep on walking. If you were to pick up the trash you and everyone else would benefit, but you alone pay the price of removing the trash. It may be unpleasant to pick up someone else’s water bottle. It may be expensive to pick up a TV along the side of the road and recycle it. Even though these costs are small, they are real and when a single individual pays the costs, the fact that the benefit extends not just to the individual but to other people doesn’t make up for those individual costs. The fact that others will benefit in some ways makes the individual costs harder to go through with.
The little example of the cost and benefit of picking up trash extends to larger contexts, like disposing of an autocrat. To explain how democracies have helped people become more peaceful in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker shows how democracies can overcome the individual cost problem that I demonstrated. Pinker writes, “in a dictatorship, the autocrat and his henchmen have a strong incentive to stay in power, but no individual citizen has an incentive to depose him, because the rebel would assume all the risks of the dictator’s reprisals while the benefits of democracy would flow diffusely to everyone in the country.”
A transition to democracy, away from an autocracy, can be difficult and violent, but once you get there, society can be much more peaceful. Opposing an autocrat, as Pinker notes is dangerous. Everyone may despise the ruler and believe that things would be better without them, but taking action on their own is difficult. The costs of overthrowing the ruler are potentially life or death, making it hard for any single individual to oppose the autocrat.
But once you get past an autocrat, once enough people have joined together and once a country has democratized, peace can be more achievable. In a democracy, ousting bad leaders is easier and doesn’t have as many individual costs. The benefits are still there for everyone, but the individual costs have been reduced or eliminated, making peaceful transitions more likely. Violence within democracies comes at a cost to the individual, shifting dramatically from the arrangement in an autocracy. Ultimately, the risk and reward imbalance that individuals face is part of what helps keep autocrats in power, just as it keeps trash along the side of the road.