Deposition schemes

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.

Retirement plans

The problem

(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.

A solution

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.

Political feasibility

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 year1. In 2003, the total GDP of Iraq was around $30 billion (CIA 2004).

If Muammar Gaddafi had been expected to live to 95, the $1.1 billion incurred by the US during the intervention in Libya (maybe a third of the total spending by all foreign powers) would have purchased an annuity paying out a more modest $81 million per year (Zenko 2011).

Even this approach of third-party funding has political problems. It smacks of the dreaded Appeasement and so might be disfavored when compared to military intervention even if a bargain.

Trust your gut

Outside of political feasibility, is this scheme plausible? I admit that I don’t expect there’s a price at which each and every autocrat can be bought. There are non-pecuniary perks to power. But I also find it somewhat unlikely that no autocrat can be bought.

Unintended consequences

One drawback to this approach is that in addition to incentivizing abdication, it might incentivize individuals to seek autocratic power in the first place. This is a hard trade-off to escape. My only mitigation is behavioral economics and psychology seem to suggest that people underweight temporally distant and doubtful consequences when compared to immediate consequences. That means this scheme is likely more effective at encouraging abdication (the retirement plan is immediate) than encouraging the ascent to power (the retirement plan is distant and doubtful).

Many others sing the praises of making safe retirement a possibility for autocrats. For example:

[A] hardline approach is too simplistic, and may prolong crises by discouraging autocratic leaders from leaving office lest they face prosecution. […] [P]resenting autocrats with a face-saving alternative to clinging to power might even save lives, because they would then have “less reason to be severely oppressive”. (Partridge 2011)

Dictators try to hang on until the bitter end because they love power and wealth […]. Unquestionably, though, there have been instances in which tyrants have resisted relinquishing the reins of power simply for lack of a reasonably safe haven to protect them from retaliation by those they have oppressed.


What happens when a dictator finds it hard to leave because he has no place to go? One result is increased repression, as ever harsher steps prove necessary to crush or harass impatient local opponents.


Given the limits of diplomacy, persuasion and foreign intervention, the world community should establish a formal machinery for facilitating the voluntary retirement of dictators. (Fidell 1986)

The proposal advanced here only differs in that it also proposes funding such retirements to provide a positive incentive for abdication.

Justice and incentives

Discussions in this area like those cited above and like (Bosco 2017) often end up talking about the perverse impact of the International Criminal Court. In trying to ensure that autocrats are held accountable for atrocities, the ICC may actually encourage autocrats to cling to power. When in power, autocrats are relatively hard to prosecute. When out of power, they’re likely easier to prosecute.

A tension is then established between a deontological commitment to justice and providing autocrats with the right incentives. I think this conflict can mostly be dissolved by offering ‘credit’ for abdication. If the ICC would sentence a forcibly deposed autocrat with sentence X for their actions, that autocrat should receive sentence X - A in the case of voluntary abdication. Now, the autocrat is generally discouraged from committing atrocities and generally encouraged to abdicate. The only problem is if the credit cancels out the punishment entirely so that the autocrat gets some ‘freebie’ atrocities. The size of the credit should be carefully calibrated to account for this.


Obviously, obviously, If you are the leader of a nation state or a powerful international organization, you shouldn’t just take any of this at face value. These are complex matters involving issues (beyond those already mentioned) of interventionism, parochialism, hubris, unintended consequences, etc.

Acemoglu, Daron, Simon Johnson, and James A Robinson. 2005. “Institutions as a Fundamental Cause of Long-Run Growth.” Handbook of Economic Growth 1. Elsevier: 385–472.

Bosco, David. 2017. “How International Justice Makes It Harder for Dictators to Step down.” The Washington Post, January.

CIA. 2004. “DCI Special Advisor Report on Iraq’s Wmd.”

Crawford, Neta C. 2017. “United States Budgetary Costs of Post-9/11 Wars Through Fy2018.” Watson Institute, Brown University.

Fidell, Eugene. 1986. “DUVALIERS and Marcoses Need an Elba.” The New York Times, February.

Partridge, Matthew. 2011. “Is It Better to Let Dictators Retire in Peace?” New Statesman, February.

Zenko, Micah. 2011. “What Does Libya Cost the United States?”

  1. Obviously, you can’t actually purchase an annuity of this size, but the idea of an actual, formal annuity is just for illustrative purposes.↩︎