Saturday, April 30, 2011


I know this blog has turned into the dictatorship channel recently (that's what I'm teaching at the moment; look out for it to turn into a "history of political thought" blog in a few months). But the internets are full of great writing, much of it thankfully about other subjects:

This and more also found in my Google Reader shared items feed.  

Qaddafi's Chickens

[In 1977] the Libyan leader suggested that in order to achieve self-sufficiency every Libyan family had to raise chickens in the home. The cages and birds were imported and, for an obligatory fee of fifty-seven Libyan dinars ($150 at the 1977 exchange rate), were distributed by the government to Libyans. To many city dwellers in small apartments raising chickens in their kitchens was a difficult if not impossible affair. The result was that many ate the birds and found other uses for the cages.
...General Qaddafi's declaration that Libya must achieve food self-sufficiency was justification enough for his aid[e]s to institute that controversial plan of raising chickens in the home. The Libyan leader found the idea novel enough to encourage its implementation. On another occasion the General commented on the high cost of new automobiles. Soon after, the government agency entrusted with importing and selling cars to the public began to import only used cars and ironically sold them at new car prices. The policy was reversed only after a great number of people complained. He remarked about the proliferation of Western musical instruments in the country. The result was the gathering and burning of musical instruments. While driving through an area in the suburbs of the city [of] Benghazi  he wondered whether the area would be suitable for agriculture. Within a month all residential buildings in that area were demolished. 
...On the whole Qaddafi is rarely precise about the type of policy he desires and prefers to see the potential policy implemented before he intervenes and modifies it. Even The Green Book is general enough to permit different interpretation and experimentation by the revolutionary committees. Ultimately, however, all policies need the blessing of General Qaddafi. (Mansour O. El-Kikhia, Libya's Qaddafi, p. 106).
This looks like a variant of the signalling process that contributed to the great famine in China. Qaddafi gets a harebrained idea that presents a profit opportunity for his ruling coalition (note the $150 mandatory fee, which seems rather high for 1977, payable, one supposes, into the pockets of the well connected). The idea is therefore vigorously implemented, despite its evident absurdity, and just as quickly discontinued once profits diminish. Similarly with other policies: every weird idea that passes through Qaddafi's lips apparently presented both an opportunity for signalling support and (with the possible exception of the burning of musical instruments) for profit, at least for those with ties to the ruling elite in Libyan society. (Which, judging from El-Khikia's book, published in 1997, was extremely narrow; indeed, the book's appendix basically lists every one of its members at the time).

Many of these policies were "justified" by the "ideology" of the "Green Book." I suppose there are people out there, other than Qaddafi, who take the Green Book seriously. I've even briefly skimmed a good article carefully examining Rousseau's influence on Qaddafi's thought. But unlike the case of Marxist ideas in communist countries, it is abundantly clear from El-Kikhia's book that this "ideology" has primarily, if not exclusively, served as a signalling medium. There are few real ideologues in Libya, only careerists. Belief is mostly irrelevant, since the ideology is incoherent and impossibly vague, and its interpretation depends entirely on Qaddafi's whims. Its only real use is as an instrument of control: Qaddafi gets to decide which performances by competing factions within the revolutionary committees count as sufficiently loyal, which seems to encourage an escalation of zeal (especially in the absence of rewards for slowing down the implementation of absurd ideas). And he can test these policies by gauging which implementations are popular and which ones aren't - i.e., which interpretations of his words can generate oppositional collective action and which ones cannot - without committing himself to any particular interpretation of the policy (since he is the sole authority for their interpretation).

But how do you arrive at this point? El-Kikhia tells a story of institutional destruction: Qaddafi suspends all laws leaving only his dicta and their interpretations by a fluid network of committees (none of which is ever certain of Qaddafi's favor) as the only means of coordinating collective action within the "state." (He apparently suspended the laws in 1974. I couldn't quite believe it, but apparently there is nothing quite like law in the Libya described by El-Kikhia - no real courts for the settlement of disputes according to norms, though I suppose this may have changed since 1997. In fact, I'm not sure it makes sense to speak of a Libyan state in the full Weberian sense of the word, at least given what I've read in this book). Yet this only deepens the puzzle: for Qaddafi didn't start as the kind of ruler who could "suspend" all laws, or whose every passing fancy precipitated a cascade of costly signalling on the part of people wishing to benefit materially from his rule. He had to work towards this point - taking power away from his partners within the Revolutionary Command Council that seized power in 1969, stacking the institutions of the state with family and tribal loyalists, and keeping them all guessing by purging them at irregular intervals. And even then, he still had to deal with coup attempts.

A recent paper by Milan Svolik ("Power Sharing and Leadership Dynamics in Authoritarian Regimes," AJPS 53:2, 2009, pp. 477-494) suggests some possibilities. The key insight exploited by Svolik is that members of a ruling coalition (always necessary for control of the state) delegate some power to the dictator to coordinate activity for their mutual benefit (e.g., extracting revenues and sharing them), but the dictator can augment this power by means of actions that are not always observable by the coalition. (In delegating power, after all, the coalition surrenders some control over information). In order to prevent this, the coalition can threaten a coup, but the threat is never wholly credible because failed coups are very costly (you can easily be killed, or in the best case scenario exiled to Outer Mongolia), and members of the coalition can never be sure of what actions the dictator has taken (or failed to take) in response to the threat: dictators lie easily, and can hide inconvenient information. Svolik derives two possible scenarios from these ideas: one in which dictators are constantly threatened, and easily removed by coups (the vast majority of cases: most dictators do not survive their first five years in office) because the coalition is (rightly) suspicious of any moves by leaders to amass power, and one in which they basically last forever (like Qaddafi), barring external intervention or other "exogenous" shocks, like popular revolutions (which are very rare: of 303 dictators lasting more than one day in office and removed by "nonconstitutional" means Svolik examines, 205 were removed in a coup d'etat, and only 32 in a popular uprising, with 30 more stepping down by popular pressure to democratize. Other leaders died in their sleep or were succeeded by "constitutional" means like hereditary succession; these are not counted among the 303 noted here).

I suspect that one of the means by which dictators can amass power vis a vis a ruling coalition is to encourage (consciously? unconsciously? does it matter?) the use of "ideologies" (the name is too grand: signalling languages, perhaps?) whose interpretation they can personally monopolize or near-monopolize as means of coordinating collective action, in lieu of existing norms and institutions, whose interpretation may be more easily controlled by members of powerful elites. The process may start small, with ideas that draw on popular aspirations or customs, and take hold in particular institutional niches. Qaddafi starts with Nasserism and Arab nationalism, which had wide appeal, but Nasserism proves unwieldy, and its interpretation not easily monopolizable. (For one thing, Nasserism in Libya involved the creation of a political party that could draw on other sources of authority for the interpretation of the norms that were to guide collective action, and hence enabled members of the ruling coalition to credibly threaten Qaddafi). But this initial move was not obviously threatening to members of the coalition in Libya, who may have been genuinely attracted to pan-Arabism and Nasserism. But by using Nasserism to disrupt the older institutional order of the monarchy (which was, after all, nothing but forms of coordinated action in light of shared expectations) Qaddafi narrowed the range of people who could authoritatively interpret norms and ideas that could guide coordinated collective action. This gave him an opening to disrupt Nasserism in turn with the "popular committees," which could be more easily used to "weed out those who did not conform to his thinking" (El-Kikhia, p. 54), since the interpretation of the norms guiding collective action there was more easily monopolized by him, even as this development could be presented as a sort of "evolution" or "deepening" of the revolution.

With each step, there is a narrowing of the plausible interpreters of the "signals" that can serve to coordinate collective action, until (with the revolutionary and later the "cleansing" committees) we reach a sort of maximum monopoly on the interpretation of norms and expectations for organizing collective action. (Only Qaddafi can tell what is and what isn't in accord with the norm, and only Qaddafi is believed among interpreters of the norm).

I'm not sure this argument is entirely clear, or right for that matter. So use with care.

[Update 4/30/11: fixed some small grammar problems]

Friday, April 22, 2011

More on Inequality, Democracy, and Dictatorship: Is there a “Natural Rate of Inequality”?

(Continues the discussion in this post, with more graphs, more data, more theory, and more verbiage. Mostly exploratory, considering further research. Statistician General’s warning: all statistical analyses in this post should be taken with large heapings of salt, since they have not been produced by a trained and licensed statistician and do not provide appropriate guidance regarding the uncertainty of any estimates. If you don’t mind a spot of quantitative social science from someone who was not trained in these dark arts but who is overly excited about learning to produce pretty graphs, go on.).

In an earlier post, I discussed some recent models of the relationship between inequality, political regime types, and democratization (e.g., Acemoglu and Robinson or Boix). The basic ideas in these models are pretty simple, even simplistic. In democracies, governments are (ideally, at least) responsive to the interests of the majority of the population, and in particular to the interests of the “median” voter (the voter in the middle of the distribution of income among voters), whereas in dictatorships governments are more responsive to the interests of smaller – sometimes much smaller – groups. To the extent that dictators are responsive to the interests of constituencies where the median income is higher than the median income in society (the typical case), we should expect that dictatorships will tend to redistribute less (to lower income groups) and have higher levels of income inequality than democracies, other things being equal (and other things are not always equal!). Moreover, these models indicate, the higher the level of inequality, the higher the degree of social conflict over the level of redistribution and ultimately over the type of regime, since “one off” redistribution in the face of occasional protest or other contentious action is not sufficiently “credible.” Hence we should expect that in the long run, democracy should be unsustainable at very high levels of inequality, and the only stable regime outcomes should be forms of dictatorship: “leftist” dictatorships where the poor (or rather, people claiming to act in their name) expropriate the rich, and “rightist” dictatorships where richer elites restrain redistributive demands by non-elites through coercive means. Finally, we should observe more regime change at higher rather than lower levels of inequality, more stable regimes at lower rather than higher levels of inequality, and more transitions to stable democracy at middle levels of inequality.

Using data on inequality from the University of Texas Inequality Project (1960-1996) plus data from the World Bank (which I didn’t use in my previous post but extends the UTIP data to 2008 for some countries), and data on political regimes by Cheibub, Gandhi, and Vreeland (1956-2008), we can see that some of these theoretical expectations appear to be reasonably well validated.[1] Here is a plot of the distribution of inequality, as measured by the gini index, in democracies and dictatorships (reproducing the first plot in my earlier post, but with World Bank inequality data added):
The median gini for democracies is 38.6; the median gini for dictatorships is 45.6. (means 40.1 and 44, respectively, with N= 3,321 observations between 1963 to 2008; similar patterns appear if we look only at particular periods, like the post cold war era). If we could add the vast majority of non-democratic systems in human history, the pattern would be even more obvious; as Lindert, Milanovic, and Williamson have argued, ancient non-democratic societies (i.e., the vast majority of all ancient agricultural societies) were at the “inequality possibility frontier” – elites extracted the maximum surplus from society.

But as I mentioned in my earlier post, it is obvious that the distribution of inequality in both democracies and dictatorships is very wide: lots of democracies have high gini values, and lots of dictatorships have low gini values. We do not see two clearly defined “peaks” in the distribution; rather, the distribution of inequality in both democracies and dictatorships appears to be “bimodal” – with distinct high inequality and low inequality peaks.

This is relatively easy to explain in the case of dictatorships: most of the dictatorships with low inequality appear to be communist countries, though there are fewer of these – exactly what we would expect from the theoretical models. (It is, after all, easier to organize a coup than a social revolution). Here’s a picture of the distribution of inequality in dictatorships only, split among communist and non-communist dictatorships:
The communist dictatorships are clustered narrowly at a low level of measured inequality (median gini 28.9; more on the “measured” bit in a minute), while the non-communist dictatorships have a somewhat broader distribution centered around a larger level of inequality (median gini 45.9).

The bimodal distribution of inequality in democracies is harder to explain; like dictatorships, democracies appear to have both a low inequality and a high inequality equilibrium. Why?

One factor that might seem to matter is simply the length of time a democratic regime has been in existence: redistribution capable of affecting the level of inequality in a society seems to take time. Here’s a plot of the distribution of inequality in democracies, split between those democracies that have endured for less than 10 years and those democracies that have endured for more than 10 years:

Younger democracies appear to have larger levels of inequality (median gini for established democracies: 36.2; median gini for new democracies: 44.4). In fact, while democracies appear to become more equal with time, dictatorships appear to become less equal:
And while it seems that democracies become more equal as they become richer, dictatorships appear to remain as unequal as before:
I won’t put too much stress on these graphs; the patterns in individual countries do not always or even often bear out the apparent overall pattern, and it is possible that this is just an artefact of the sparseness of the inequality datasets and the general badness of the data from dictatorships. Most “old” democracies in the dataset start at low levels measured inequality but appear to increase their level of inequality over time (e.g., the USA, France), whereas most “new” democracies start at high levels of inequality and appear to decrease these levels of inequality over time. Since there are more “new” democracies than “old” democracies here, it is possible that we are merely seeing is a kind of cohort effect, though one that is consistent with the basic theory: new democracies start at high levels of inequality, and many don’t last long (because of opposition to redistribution by elites), which skews the right hand panel so that it looks as if democracies become less unequal over time. Most dictatorships transition to democracy at a gini of around 45 (which is high for democracies), but that’s because that’s the median gini for dictatorships; similarly, most democracies transition to dictatorship at a gini of around 45 (perhaps because most new democracies are less stable, and they transition to dictatorship before engaging in significant redistribution?).

Moreover, it is obvious that democracies do become quite unequal sometimes. The USA is an obvious case. Here it is interesting to note that the USA is not a new democracy and is clearly quite rich, so (given the previous graphs) we would predict inequality to go down, but it seems to have been on an upward trend even looking at the long run (not just at the last decade):
(Similar patterns are visible in many rich democracies – France, for example). More on why this might be the case in a minute. But let’s think of different possibilities for why democracies might (or might not) decrease inequality. Consider what happened in Poland after the collapse of communism (similar trends are visible in Hungary, Bulgaria, and other communist countries that transitioned to democracy):
In this case, it seems that the transition to communism triggered the wholesale conversion of political access (the main inequality in these societies) into monetary assets, leading to a higher equilibrium level of measured income inequality. Measured income inequality was actually misleading about the distribution of power in communist countries; just because they were “equal” societies in income terms did not mean they were “equal” societies in the things that income can buy elsewhere, and when the basis of the regime changed, the “true” inequality in society reasserted itself in income terms, though it still remained relatively low in comparative terms. (An alternative story: perhaps with the to a market economy, people in Poland and other communist countries had the opportunity to trade off more income against increased inequality, and they took it. This is also plausible, but not my focus here; it is less plausible in places where wholesale conversion of communist apparatchiks to well-connected biznesmeni took place, as in Russia).
Sometimes democracy is, in a sense, too successful at an earlier time in redistributing income, prompting a reaction from elites. Consider Chile:
Inequality decreases fast until the 1973 coup, partly because of redistributive policies pushed by the left, at which point it increases again greatly. The interpretation is obvious: the elite could not stomach so much redistribution, and returns Chile to a higher level of inequality by coercive means. (The military Junta led by Pinochet made this point rather explicitly: their mission was to destroy communism and its leftist sympathizers in Chile. So they arrested and sometimes killed the leaders of leftist parties and coercively defanged or banned labor unions). After the transition to democracy in the late 1980s, inequality seems to stabilize at a higher level: the new democratic governments are constrained in the amount of redistribution they can undertake, both constitutionally and prudentially, and at any rate, the structure of Chilean society changes – labour unions have less power, elite assets are more mobile, etc. So elites are willing to transition to democracy, without fearing Allende-style redistribution. It’s like Chile’s long-term “natural” rate of inequality – the rate that is consistent with the maintenance of a democratic regime is somewhere around a gini of 45.

South Korea presents yet another possibility:
This pattern is also nicely consistent with the basic theory, though in a different way. Here we have a right-wing dictatorship facing a communist neighbour that presented a credible but far more redistributive model. (After the Korean War and until the mid 70s, most people thought the North was doing better than the South). In these circumstances, democracy was too threatening to elites: it was too easy to imagine a communist takeover by electoral means. It was still necessary to defuse the threat of social revolution through some redistributive measures (there were some fairly extensive land reforms, if I am remembering correctly), but not through institutionalized democracy, which was too risky. Promises of redistribution were made credible by the communist threat to the north, and in fact carried out to some extent. Eventually, however, inequality decreased sufficiently and the Northern model became sufficiently unattractive that democracy became much less costly to elites, leading to a transition in the late 1980s. Inequality again appears to stabilize after the transition.

A fourth pattern is found in Thailand:
(The highlighted points are years of successful coups; there were more unsuccessful ones, and the 2006 coup is not shown – no gini data for that year). We might interpret this as follows. Democracy is introduced in the late seventies (though resisted, as shown by coups in 1976) and is immediately associated with a decline in inequality, presumably through redistributive policies, but remains plagued with coups (more unsuccessful ones not shown), mostly supported by the elite. Yet the elites do not have enough power to sustain a military regime indefinitely; military coups merely postpone the resumption of redistributive politics. (I don’t know of Thailand inequality data for 2006 and after, but it would be interested to see what it looks like).   

The individual patterns are not always so clear. In fact, in most cases where there is data, no pattern is readily discernible: the aggregate pattern is clear, but the level of inequality in individual countries sometimes appears to fluctuate without any apparent connection to regime type. In some countries, transitions to democracy occur as inequality is going down (the South Korean pattern), in others, as it is going up; and in others the trend appears flat, at least given the available data. In some cases, periods of dictatorship are associated with increases in inequality, in others with decreases in inequality, and similarly for periods of democracy.

I suppose someone with knowledge of individual country histories could make sense of any given country pattern, and someone with better statistical skills could design an appropriate measure of whether inequality goes up or down, on average, during democratic or dictatorial periods. My best guess is that you would need to do a fixed effects model – controlling both for factors that affect the level of inequality at a global scale, and for country-specific factors that affect the level of inequality in a specific country. For example, inequality appears to have increased in many countries in the world in the last decade, presumably due to changes in the global economy – but more in some countries than others, presumably due to particularities of each country, including the influence of the political regime. So we would need to distinguish those global effects that are not subject to political control from the effects of political regime on inequality. Fiddling around a bit with something along these lines (using some advice provided by Eric Crampton, though all errors are mine), I cannot find any specific pattern when controlling for obvious things; if anything, democracy seems to increase inequality over time relative to dictatorship when using a full time series model (though it may be that I am not very good at interpreting the coefficients I’m getting, or that I’m mispecifying the thing somehow; for example, maybe one needs specific kinds of lags, etc. If you have expertise and would like to collaborate on figuring this out, please let me know.).

But what does come out of that fiddling as an important factor determining the level of inequality over time is the number of previous transitions to authoritarianism, which we might interpret as a proxy for the power of the elite to prevent redistribution. In various simple regressions, an additional transition to authoritarianism seems to increase the level of inequality by a unit in the gini index, and democracies with higher numbers of transitions to authoritarianism in the past seem to exhibit higher long-term levels of inequality. Consider this scatterplot:
When looking at the average gini of democracies that have existed for more than ten years, we see that democracies with fewer transitions to authoritarianism in the 58 year span (1962-2008) of the dataset seem to be scattered all over the place, though the upper range is less populated. But inequality clearly increases with previous transitions to authoritarianism, and the range of “permissible” inequality seems to narrow – with more transitions to authoritarianism, the narrow the range of inequality and the higher the mean. (The pattern is visible when looking not just at the mean gini of democracies existing for more than 10 years, but also at the mean gini of all democracies).  

How can we understand this? Here’s one possibility, and (finally) the justification for the title of this post. With fewer experiences of dictatorship in the recent past, democracies can enact a wide range of redistributive policies, depending on beliefs about luck and hard work, “ideological investment” by various interested parties, reasonable arguments, the organizational ability of various actors like labor unions and business associations, the visibility of wealth and the economic structure of society, etc. Such policies have a wide range of consequences, and so inequality may fluctuate quite drastically over time in established democracies, though it will in general experience some downward pressure relative to dictatorships. Perhaps there are “arms races” in which organizational and ideological innovations by representatives of the “left” (labor unions and particular forms of contentious politics like strikes, Marxism, etc.) are in time neutralized by organizational innovations by representatives of the “right” (think-tanks and particular business organizations, legal ways of constraining the power of unions, “neoliberal” ideas, etc.) and vice-versa, so that in the long run, inequality follows a trend determined by structural factors in the economy: the long-run “natural rate of inequality” for the society, kind of like what economists sometimes refer to as the “natural rate of unemployment.” Something like this has perhaps happened in the USA (at least if we credit people like Hacker and Pierson), where “right-wing” actors developed organizational and ideological innovations to counter the organizational and ideological tools of the “left;” but in the long run, what we should see, short of a change in regime, is a reversion to the mean trend, itself determined by economic factors that are not easily susceptible of political control.

 In some societies, however, some of these redistributive policies prove intolerable to elites, who then stage coups. When the society returns to democratic rule, representatives of non-elites know something about the ability of elites to credibly commit to extreme measures in the face of redistributive policies, so the range of distributive outcomes that appears acceptable to all narrows. (Something like this appears to have happened in Chile, for example, where successive “left” governments have “learned” from the past not to engage in certain kinds of redistributive policies). The more successful coups there are in a society, the narrower this range. Over time, you see the development of a bimodal distribution of inequality in democracies: societies where people have learned about the “red lines” that ought not to be crossed have a higher long-run level of inequality given the structure of their economy.

As noted earlier, take all of this analysis with a grain of salt; this is more exploratory than anything else, and I am certainly not a properly trained statistician. I am just curious, and considering further research on these topics. (Collaboration possibilities are also welcome).

[1] Data on inequality is patchy and often of poor quality. The UTIP dataset is basically the best there is for cross country comparisons over time (going back as far as 1963 for some countries); the World Bank adds some more data points, especially after 1996 (when the UTIP data ends). I mentioned in a previous post why I like the Cheibub, Gandhi, and Vreeland dataset on political regimes so much - in particular, it operationalizes a clear and theoretically justified distinction between democracies and non-democracies - but more perhaps later.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Playing the bones

In Leningrad, I met a man, no longer young, named Kolya Vasyn. He was a genuine dissident in the Brezhnev years, but his dissidence consisted of his worship not of Jefferson or Mill, but of Chuck Berry, Keith Richards, and, above all, John Lennon. ... He told me that when he first started listening to rock and roll, it was impossible to get records and it was before the era when audio cassettes were easy to find. "We had friends who worked in medical clinics and they would steal used X rays," Kolya said. "Someone would have a primitive record-making machine and you would copy the music by cutting the grooves in the material of the X rays. So you'd be listening to a Fats Domino tune that was coming right off of the X ray of someone's long-forgotten broken hip. They called that 'on the bones'." (David Remnick, Lenin's Tomb, pp. 335-336).
I wonder if these records still exist somewhere? (Though perhaps the anecdote was simply too good to check, I know).

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Careerists and Ideologues in China's Great Leap Famine

From the department of perverse incentives, a new APSR paper by James Kai-Sing Kung and Shuo Chen ["The Tragedy of the Nomenklatura: Career Incentives and Political Radicalism during China's Great Leap Famine," vol 105, pp. 27-45]:

A salient feature of China's Great Leap Famine is that political radicalism varied enormously across provinces. Using excessive grain procurement as a pertinent measure, we find that such variations were patterned systematically on the political career incentives of Communist Party officials rather than the conventionally assumed ideology or personal idiosyncrasies. Political rank alone can explain 16.83% of the excess death rate: the excess procurement ratio of provinces governed by alternate members of the Central Committee was about 3% higher than in provinces governed by full members, or there was an approximate 1.11% increase in the excess death rate. The stronger career incentives of alternate members can be explained by the distinctly greater privileges, status, and power conferred only on the rank of full members of the Central Committee and the “entry barriers” to the Politburo that full members faced.

This seems to me to tie into the “signalling” theme of the last post on cults of personality (which proved surprisingly popular). The problem here appears from the point of view of the people who want access to power and privilege: how can they signal sufficient commitment to the leadership so that they are rewarded with power and privileges?

Here is what Kung and Chen argue happened in China. In the hierarchy of the CCP, the three highest levels are politburo members, full members of the central committee, and alternate members of the central committee. The politburo is tiny – about 20 people. (This is, we might say, the highest level of the “winning coalition”). In Mao’s time, most of them were founding members of the CCP, had gone through the Long March, or had otherwise participated extensively in guerrilla activities before 1949. Generally speaking, it was thus very difficult for anyone who did not have these experiences to enter the politburo at the time. But it was possible to move from alternate membership to full membership in the Central Committee, a larger body of about 300 or so people (the exact size of the Central Committee has varied over time); and this move brought substantial material and status benefits – more offices, opportunities for patronage, etc. Yet in order to move from alternate to full membership, one had to give sufficient indications of commitment and reliability. In this case, Mao indicated that rewards would come to those who signalled credible radicalism, and credible radicalism could only be signalled by excessive grain procurement, leading to famine.

The Great Leap provided these party officials [alternate members of the Central Committee] with a rare, extraordinary opportunity to respond to Mao’s unambiguous signal that radical behavior would be duly rewarded. The evidence clearly shows that even after controlling for the idiosyncrasies of individual provincial leaders and variations in local conditions, the alternate members were, as a group, indeed more likely to act radically. Our findings thus substantially challenge the reigning assumption that ideology is the main source of bureaucratic radicalism in totalitarian regimes. (P. 43)

But since these full members could not move any further up the hierarchy (the only people who could enter the Politburo at the time were those who had been important in guerrilla warfare or had been through the Long March), once they reached the top they became less ideological:

The idea that career incentives matter is further bolstered by the provocatively counterintuitive finding that radicalism declined among those bureaucrats who, although still having room to move further up the career ladder [to the politburo], nonetheless lacked the necessary “prerevolutionary credentials” to do so, at which point most apparently became satisfied careerists rather than revolutionary zealots. (P. 43).

An interesting question is how a dictatorship moves from the signalling equilibrium where crazy radicalism is rewarded to the signalling equilibrium where other things (e.g., “measured economic performance”) are rewarded, as China has moved. Indeed, it seems to be a common though not universal pattern in communist (and perhaps other) dictatorships: a period of radical policy, with high levels of repression and ideological “investment” (Mao, Stalin, Ulbricht) is often followed by a period characterized by lower levels of ideological fervor, less “proactive” repression, and more emphasis on the provision of material benefits for both the “selectorate” (members of the party) and the rest of the population (Deng, Khrushchev, Honecker). (These material benefits need not consist in economic growth per se – it may be just an emphasis on economic security for the majority of the population and further material privileges for the party, as in East Germany). Totalitarian dictatorships seem to turn into careerist hierarchies concerned with preserving the material privileges of its elites and preventing revolution from below through economic “bribes.” Why?

Kung and Chen seem to think that this simply depends on the character of the dictator: the key difference between Mao’s China and modern China is that Mao was crazy and his successors were not, to put the point bluntly. (I’m putting words in their mouths, but the basic point is simply that Mao was ideologically committed to a crazy vision of communism while his successors, starting with Deng, were more committed to a pragmatic model of economic development). The consequence is that the system remains susceptible to economic disaster, even though it is doing well today:

[I]n the absence of political checks and balances on the dictator, he can easily misuse the same career incentives that have been employed to promote economic growth [in the post-Mao period] under the same conditions of centralized personnel control by the nomenklatura and economic decentralization, leading in this case to economic disaster. (P. 43)

But this seems unsatisfactory to me, though there is probably some truth in the idea. Here are a couple of alternative theories (or rather, sketches of theories). First, following an interesting argument by Kurt Weyland (2008, gated link), one might think that dictators, like all leaders (but even more so: they are an “epistemic bottleneck”), are cognitively constrained; they simply implement whatever policy is seen to be “effective” in their milieu given their objectives (which may include building up the status of the country in the international arena, an objective that we may assume both Mao as well as later Chinese leaders held, and which involves pursuing policies that they believe strengthen the economy). In other words, they emulate those [countries, leaders] they trust, but do not really know what will work (in fact, nobody really does); this accounts for the fact that policies get adopted as “models” and transferred from one country to another sometimes rather quickly. In the 50s, radical agricultural collectivization and other such policies were thought to be “effective” among  Chinese communist leaders (as they had been thought to be effective among Soviet leaders slightly earlier); later they became discredited, but “market-based” policies became popular. As long as relatively good policies are thought to be “effective” in the dictator’s milieu, centralized  dictatorships with the sort of personnel policies that China has will do relatively well, as the dictator (or tiny ruling group) can effectively reward supporters for the implementation of the policy. But if disastrous policies again become popular in the ruling group’s milieu, then the dictatorship will do badly.

But perhaps what happens is that in demanding credible signals of commitment from the upper levels of the hierarchy, the dictator necessarily gets the unprincipled careerists. (This would not come as a surprise to Machiavelli, among other theorists of autocracy: beware of flatterers). Imagine you have a population of principled and unprincipled upper-level party members. The principled party members mostly agree with the dictator, but not 100%; because they are principled, they have their own interpretation of whatever doctrine they all claim to espouse. And they are unwilling to compromise; they have, as we say, “principles.” By contrast, the careerists are willing to say and do anything for the sake of advancement. When the dictator demands radical policy, the people without principled commitments jump at the opportunity, whereas the principled members of the hierarchy get disproportionately punished for demurring or having independent thoughts. (The Bukharins get purged, for example). Over time, the upper level of the hierarchy fills up with careerists. But when the dictator dies, the careerists prefer not to have to do so much counterproductive signalling, and they are now in a position to select the next dictator. So they tend to go for people who are likely to protect their material interests rather than true ideologues, and as a side effect the dictatorship lowers the level of repression and becomes more focused on providing economic goods for both the party organization and the rest of the population. (Also, insofar as they lower the level of repression, they now need to provide material benefits in order to avoid challenges from outside the party organization).

I’m not sure this is right; I would imagine that one would have to first establish whether or not totalitarian dictatorships (high ideological investment, high proactive repression) do reliably turn into post-totalitarian or authoritarian dictatorships (low ideological investment, low proactive repression, a focus on material “bribes”). If it is right, I suspect that this sort of success eventually runs out: without political competition or ideological commitment, the state (or the party) decays into a pure patronage organization staffed by careerists. This seems to have happened in the Soviet Union, though there the problem was compounded by the reliance on central planning (which is to corruption as clouds are to rain); could it also happen in China?

[Update 4/4/11: Added Kung and Shen's title, corrected some obvious typos].