Autocracy, Democracy, Risk, & Benefit

Autocracy, Democracy, Risk, & Benefit

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.
Democracies & Peace

Peace & Democracies

Democracies are less likely to go to war than autocracies. In recent years it has felt as though the United States is continually at war, continually bombing someone, and continually in an armed conflict somewhere in the world, but data do show that democracies are more peaceful than other forms of government. As the United States demonstrates, democracies are not entirely peaceful, but they are much less likely to be in an armed conflict at any time and it is rare to see two democracies fight against one another as opposed to fight against non-democracies.
Steven Pinker writes about this phenomenon in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature in order to show how and why the world is becoming a less violent place to live within. Describing the peaceful incentives for a democracy, Pinker writes, “democracies tend to avoid wars because the benefits of war go to a country’s leaders, whereas the costs are paid by its citizens.” Leaders who will not suffer the consequences as directly or as direly as their citizens are less likely to be hesitant to go to war. If their position and status are not dependent upon the support of the population who will suffer, then they have few disincentives to war. “But if the citizens are in charge,” writes Pinker, “they will think twice about wasting their own money and blood on a foolish foreign adventure.”
This concept seems to be playing out right now in Ukraine. Many people have suggested that Russia’s autocratic leader has had some sort of mental breakdown and that his decision to invade Ukraine is the result of an undiagnosed mental illness. What is more likely is that Putin didn’t expect to face many direct costs in this conflict himself. He may have known people would suffer, but thought he could win quickly and not pay any major consequences himself. He was not the one who would be on the front lines and in the corrupt Russian system, he did not have to worry about losing power.
In the United States and Europe, however, countries have been hesitant to get involved directly with the conflict. Directly challenging Russia could lead to a much larger conflict, and public leaders would certainly be ousted from office if they chose a path toward the next world war before making less aggressive actions to try to stem the tide of autocratic violence taking place in Ukraine. Democracies better reflect the experiences of the people, and as a result are less likely to pursue war or violence relative to autocracies.