As Kaddafi machine guns demonstrators, we are told these are acts of an insane man. We must be careful what we say or do because the criminally insane are erratic and unpredictable. Using such logic, the U.S. was among the last to call for his ouster. Examples of insanity are his public rants, the ordering of the bombing of Pan Am 103 (for which he thought he would never be caught), the ludicrous philosophizing in his Green book, the pitching of his tent in New Jersey, and his refusal to ride elevators. Other dictators are pictured in the same way: Iran’s ruling mullahs are religious fanatics; Stalin was a psychotic paranoid.
Insanity is the easiest explanation of dictatorial atrocities for Western minds to fathom. That “criminally insane” dictators follow a common pattern, transcending time and place, argues however that they share a common goal and use the same instruments and practices to achieve it. Just as we can explain business behavior through the profit motive, so can we understand and even predict dictatorial behavior by analyzing how they generate and use political power. If their actions consistently promote the paramount goal of power, their actions are completely “rational,” no matter how morally repugnant or obscene. Rational behavior can be analyzed; insane behavior cannot.
None of these dictators was offered power on a silver platter. They “had to earn it” as a famous brokerage house commercial used to say. Kaddafi gained power as a young military officer by skillfully outmaneuvering rivals and manipulating one tribe against another. Iran’s ruling mullahs won a fierce and bloody power struggle in which a large number of the ruling elite were assassinated. Stalin was the victor in one of the bloodiest succession struggles in history against better know and seemingly superior rivals. Kaddafi, Iran’s ruling mullahs, and Stalin won because they were better at accumulating and using power than their rivals. These were not accidental victories. They held on to power by skillfully playing one rival against the other and using ideology, propaganda, patronage, and religion to their advantage.
There is a growing theoretical literature that provides systematic insights into the behavior of dictators. It assumes, quite unobjectionably, that dictators aim to accumulate sufficient political power to hold on to power. They “produce” power by combining loyalty and repression (the carrot and the stick). They keep the secret police or army in check by appointing relatives or incriminated associates as its head and by removing intermediate links between operatives and the dictator. Some results are non-intuitive, such as the greater stability of dictatorships (due to the incumbent’s immense advantages) and the fact that a rational dictator will kill innocent people (a practice often used as proof of insanity).
Democratic rulers must offer platforms that please the median voter, thus the scramble to the middle in elections. Dictators can offer their platform and then “eliminate” (by jail, execution, disenfranchisement, or exile) those who disagree with it.
Public demonstrations reflect general disaffection with the dictator’s “platform.” The dictator can respond by “reforms” that move his platform closer to the public’s, by ramping up repression, or by a combination of the two. In general, public demonstrations threaten to weaken the dictator’s power below the threshold necessary to stay in power. The dictator must do something to prevent this from happening.
The response of “constrained” (Mubarak) and “unconstrained” (Iran and Kaddafi) rulers has been strikingly different in the Middle East. The former have unsuccessfully used limited repression, concessions and material rewards in a vain effort to boost their political power. The morally-unconstrained have used as much repression as necessary while offering targeted material incentives (such as increased army pay and according to recent reports handing out cash). This strategy will likely work in Iran but fail in Libya.
For unconstrained dictators such as Kaddafi, there are eventually diminishing returns to repression. At some point, more and more segments of the population understand that they themselves are at risk and withdraw their loyalty. As the loyalty of the neutral or even loyal population collapses, the regime falls below the threshold necessary to stay in power and the dictator is overthrown. This is Kaddafi’s likely impending fate.
Notes: Research conducted in the Hoover Institution Soviet State and Party Archives over the past decade has aimed at applying the theory of dictatorship to the Stalin period. For those interested in our results, see: Paul Gregory, Terror by Quota (Yale –Hoover, 2009), Paul Gregory and Norman Naimark (eds.), The Lost Politburo Transcripts (Yale-Hoover, 2008), Paul Gregory and Valery Lazarev eds., The Economics of Forced Labor: The Soviet Gulag (Hoover, 2003); and Eugenia Belova and Valery Lazarev, Funding Loyalty (Yale-Hoover, forthcoming). The theory of dictatorship has been developed, among others, by Ronald Wintrobe, Bruce Bueno de la Mesquita, James Robinson and Daron Ademoglu.