We’ve spent a lot of time recently talking about Acemoglu and Robinson’s work—in particular, about autocrats. Now, we’ll try to turn our new understanding to constructive ends. The first scheme is for an international organization to facilitate abdication by organizing and enforcing retirement payments for dictators. The second scheme is for the ICC to offer abdication ‘credits’ that reduce the severity of criminal punishment for autocrats in the event of voluntary abdication.
We’ve been talking about autocrats lately. It’d be good if we could put our new understanding to use. In that spirit, here are a couple of constructive schemes.
(Acemoglu, Johnson, and Robinson 2005) describe the difficulties an autocracy faces in the voluntary relinquishment of power:
A similar problem plagues the reverse solution, whereby the dictator agrees to a voluntary transition to democracy in return for some transfers in the future to compensate him for the lost income and privileges. Those who will benefit from a transition to democracy would be willing to make such promises, but once the dictator relinquishes his political power, there is no guarantee that citizens would agree to tax themselves in order to make payments to this former dictator. Promises of compensation to a former dictator are typically not credible.
If, as proposed in the previous post, autocrats would prefer a guarantee of somewhat reduced income to a chance of somewhat greater income, this transition would be a Pareto improvement. The autocrat gets stability and in exchange the people suffer less expropriation/taxation. So indeed, the only problem is one of commitment.
We can solve this problem by moving ‘up a level’. The citizens of any particular country can’t credibly commit to honoring such an agreement. But if we turn the one-shot game into an repeated game by asking an international organization (e.g. the UN) to facilitate and enforce all such agreements, we create a new equilibrium. The UN (or another international org) would have an incentive to honor these agreements because their credibility when it comes to future such agreements relies on their past behavior.
To be slightly more concrete: The UN creates a new program, Retirement Early Autocrat Program (it got mangled in the translation from French). Every year, REAP diplomats go around to autocracies and convene autocrats and a sortition of citizens. At the conventions, they attempt to negotiate a deal—the autocrat peacefully retires in exchange for an income of $X in perpetuity. If the deal doesn’t go through, the REAPers leave and try again next year. If the deal is struck, REAPers take care of logistics (the autocrat should probably go into comfortable exile) and ensure the agreed upon payment is collected and delivered. If either party tries to renege on the agreement, the REAPers say, “No!”, and bring some enforcement mechanism to bear. They know that if they don’t, their whole program loses credibility and purpose.
Their are obvious political problems here. If a country refuses to honor their agreement, REAP is put in the position of sanctioning, occupying or otherwise penalizing a country with the intent of restoring a dictator to riches. This is politically unpalatable to say the least and so credible enforcement of this side of the bargain is difficult.
Workarounds include requiring prepayment (i.e. the country purchases an annuity for their dictator, presumably backed by REAP) and third parties subsidizing or entirely financing the agreement. It seems plausible that such agreements would often be less than the cost of military intervention which third parties are sometimes willing to undertake.
For example, direct war appropriations (a dramatic underestimate of the full cost) for the Iraq War total $819 billion to date (Crawford 2017). If Sadam Hussein had been expected to live to the ripe age of 96, this $819 billion would have purchased an annuity paying around $56 billion a year. In 2003, the total GDP of Iraq was around $30 billion (CIA 2004).