Which technological advances have improved the working of autocracy?

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt:

“What have been the really major advances of the past 20 years?” is one of the most common debated questions in my circles. The smartphone is probably nominated most often, while Google, Facebook and fracking have their advocates too. Yet we hardly ever talk about one of the most important developments, perhaps because it raises uncomfortable political issues: the governance technologies and strategies of authoritarian regimes have become much more efficient

The big innovation in authoritarian governance has been this: subsequent autocratic leaders, most of all in China, have found ways of both liberalizing and staying in power. The good news is that people living under authoritarian governments have much, much better lives than before. The corresponding bad news is that autocracy works better than it used to and thus it is more popular and probably also more enduring. The notion that autocratic government would fade away, either in practice or as an ideological competitor to Western liberalism, simply isn’t tenable any more…

A second development was when authoritarian leaders realized that absolute prohibitions on free speech were counterproductive, and they learned how to manage an intermediate solution.  Allowing partial speech rights is useful as a safety valve, it allows major dissidents to be identified and monitored, and absolute speech prohibitions tended to wreck the economy and discourage foreign investment, leading to unpopularity of the government. At the same time, an autocratic government could come down hard on the truly threatening ideas when needed.

Scientific public opinion polling has been another advance in authoritarian states. In 1987, the Economic System Reform Institute of China conducted the first Chinese public opinion survey, a breakthrough event. Under Chairman Mao in contrast, the incentive was to report only the good news. In the 1990s, however, Chinese public opinion surveys boomed and also became much more scientific.

There is much more at the link, one of my more interesting columns as of late.


link goes to wrong article. try this. https://www.bloomberg.com/view/articles/2018-06-18/family-separation-goes-beyond-trump-s-immigration-plan

my bad, i thojught i was commenting on family seprartion column and cant delete. Please delete

I thought your post was a snarky zinger meant to suggest that a policy of separating children from their parents and putting them into holding facilities is in fact the “technological advance that improves the working of autocracy”.

An excellent article, one of your best.

I would like to see a follow up on how power is distributed in such societies. I.e. how does one become the head of the Chinese Communist Party? Who decides who replaces Putin? Power transitions have historically been difficult periods for autocracies. Is there a modern technological solution to this as well?

Strangely, the Chinese seem to have improved in this area too.

Have they? What makes you think that?

The transition between Mao and Deng Xiaoping worked out pretty well, after the Gang of Four were dealt with - nothing like jailing your opponents to help an autocrat consolidate power.

Then the transition from Deng to Jiang Zemin seems to have worked out.

The following transitions, to Hu Jintao and then to Xi Jinping also seem to have been fairly smooth.

If one wishes to argue that China had no autocrats between Mao and Xi, it is at least conceivable as a point.

Political scientists have been studying this for a few decades. Here are the syllabi of a two leading scholars of authoritarian politics for their graduate classes on the subject. Some familiarity with game theory and stats is required, but for the former nothing like a grad econ course:



Communist governments never seem to had any big problem with power transitions - when the general secretary dies, the Central Commission elects another; sometimes you have a collective direction, but sooner one of the members becomes predominant.

In China, most instability was when the power was in the hands of a leader supposedly incontestable (Cultural Revolution under Mao).

"An excellent article, one of your best."

Agreed. Great article Tyler.

From a utilitarian perspective, if a person is happier and more prosperous under an authoritarian regime like UAE or Singapore and society is more harmonious, it seems that democracy is way over-rated. Is the freedom to make fun of the leader of my country worth all the other crap that comes from a democracy like India or the US, where the masses are folled by easily debunked lies about trade deficits?

Aren't you supposed to add trains running on time, and the wonders of the autobahn? Or are we now glossing over the advantages of 1920s Italy and 1930s Germany, unlike the people of the time praising the virtues of a strong leader, who of course could not be mocked in public by those they ruled.

It would have to be a cost-benefit analysis unique to each individual. However if every country tighten up its borders as its seems to be these days, then this is once again another choice that states have taken away from individuals and we are forced to stay in suboptimal conditions.

You are free to leave your home, but must ask permission to enter another's. In many cases, the people of those other states have chosen to select who shall enter their state. This is not new, and reflects the evolved and adaptive tribal nature of human beings.

A majority of population has adapted materialistic purposes as their life's purpose. By using Capitalism and free markets the authoritarian regimes provide goods and services thus meeting majorities needs. People are coming from survival mindset and availability of goods is prime concern. But as this is given the next generation looks for higher purposes.

As these societies mature on materialism the need for civil rights, democracy and freedom becomes important to people to achieve transcendental purposes.
People in these regime have not learned to live with the natural fragmented society - all this chaos is suppressed - they do not develop institutions to mange push -pull of groups and the society stagnates.

It has happened before and leaders like Putin and Xi want to expand and easily drive resources of country into some type of world domination.

I hope you are correct, but Tyler makes a good point. Certainly the world has moved to a more Democratic average, but the pace of the change has drastically slowed in the past couple of decades.

From a utilitarian perspective, if a person is happier and more prosperous under an authoritarian regime like UAE or Singapore and society is more harmonious, it seems that democracy is way over-rated.

The benefits may be diffuse across the whole of society, but the pain tends to be highly concentrated in a small proportion of the population. Do you torture a girl over the whole year to make the rest of society wealthy and harmonious?

"Do you torture a girl over the whole year to make the rest of society wealthy and harmonious?"

Or throw her into a volcano, maybe?

Fracking seems to be a sideshow, although if you roll coal seam gas into that as well it becomes more important. But I can see how it would seem important in the US. The fall in the cost of renewable energy is more significant. Around 98 gigawatts of solar PV was installed last year with about 40% of that in China.

As for tech for autocracy, I'd say computer games have probably been a big help. Young people spending 4+ hours a day trying to level up their Druid is 4+ hours a day they aren't getting in the way of tanks. But whether this has more or less of a sedative effect on young males than relatively easy electronic access to pornography, I can't say.

Web based porn surely also belongs on the top civilizational advances list. It probably prevented a lot of STD including HIV.

Authoritarian countries generally have prohibitions against pornography, but making access to porn a little difficult and a little dangerous may actually divert some thrill seeking activity away from undermining the regime. It also allows for selective prosecution of the majority of young males if they are suspected of being up to something.

If many are spending 4+ hours a day trying to level up their Druid, then that demolishes Cowen's notion that Americans are too complacent unless Chinese are spending 5+ hours a day on this.

"A second development was when authoritarian leaders realized that absolute prohibitions on handguns were counterproductive, and they learned how to manage an intermediate solution. Allowing partial gun rights is useful as a safety valve, it allows major hunters to be identified and monitored, and absolute gun prohibitions tended to wreck the economy and discourage foreign investment, leading to unpopularity of the government. "

So it goes . . .

It just does not make any sense

Sounds odd. Authoritarian regimes range from heavily armed populations to almost entirely unarmed.

Many of this inovations are nor particularly new.

Partial free speech - many authoritarian regimes of the "old days" had opposition parties (strongly restricted and with an electoral fraud here and them), opposition newspapers (combined with censorship), etc.

"he big innovation in authoritarian governance has been this: subsequent autocratic leaders, most of all in China, have found ways of both liberalizing and staying in power. " - again, what this mean? If you are talking about liberalization in the private lives, combined with political repression, nothing new; dictators who ruthlessly repress the opposition while leaving the common citizens largely alone are very common (possible ur example: Saddam Hussein); your classical African or Middle Eastern (or Latin American, some decades ago) dictator usually rules a country were fireweapons are easily avaliable, a black market is open practiced at daylight (a "white market"?), the central government is almost absent outside the big cities, etc.

Has Cowen conceded the libertarian-authoritarian axis? Sure, in his column he states, "I, for one, only wish to live under a vibrant democracy." But that's after listing all of the advantages of autocracy, including public support through the use of "[s]cientific public opinion polling". That gets to the heart of the issue: what is "autocracy"? Is it a de jure dictatorship like China in which the government is lead by a single person or is it a de facto autocracy in which propaganda promoted by wealthy special interests combined with an easily manipulated public drive the agenda and policy of a government which on the surface has the appearance of a "vibrant democracy"? Cowen's column seems to me an argument that democracy can't compete with autocracy, not in today's global economy. As Peter Thiel has stated, monopoly is the path to business success; and monopoly requires the support of an autocracy. Monopoly and autocracy or two sides of the same coin.

" ... Peter Thiel has stated ... monopoly requires ... autocracy."

He said that?

Well, he certainly wrote this - 'Since 1920, the vast increase in welfare beneficiaries and the extension of the franchise to women — two constituencies that are notoriously tough for libertarians — have rendered the notion of “capitalist democracy” into an oxymoron.' ub Caro Unbound.

'ub' is 'in' if you use the secret QWERTY decoder ring.

Reading the article, I see the essential problem with it: in spite of a small reference to Singapure, Cowen is basically equating autocracy with communism; if you look instead to conservative authoritarian governments (or even some left-wing nationalist authoritarian governments), you will find a long tradition of governments that repress the opposition but don't interfere much with the day to day life of its subjects.

So that is it. Asian despotism must prevail, then. Civilization must surrender. Better yet, we must salute America's totalitarian allies such as Xi's China, Abe's Japan and Modi's India while they try to impose Satanism over all Mankind: https://foreignpolicy.com/2018/06/16/nobodys-protecting-indias-bravest-journalists/?utm_source=PostUp&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Editors%20Picks%206/18/18%20-%20WTCA&utm_keyword=Editor#39;s%20Picks%20OC

At least, Silicon Valley and Walmart get to make money...

I don't know. Brazil under the military was pretty civilized. The country worked a lot better too. A great deal of economic growth.

So not all autocratic rule is Asian.

"The country worked a lot better too. A great deal of economic growth."

Except for a deep recession dooming the regime in the 1980's and the country being dramatically poorer back then, you are right. Almost all social indices are better nowadays. And authoritarism is not the same as totalitarism. Monotheists were not hunted down and exterminated by heathens in Brazil. It is a routine affair in Red China and India. Brazil never fought a war of aggression unlike India, Red China and Japan.

Does the article explain how "partial speech rights" constitutes a "technological advance"? To me, this excerpt doesn't appear to say anything about technology.

China for instance has built one of the world’s most impressive economic growth miracles ever, with the Communist Party still firmly in power.

Is the present-day Chinese Communist Party the same Communist Party as it was in 1921? Americans seem to easily accept that there have been changes in both of their own major political parties throughout the years, why not the Chinese?

In fact, though TC wishes to live in a "vibrant democracy", no such thing has existed in the US for some time and the Democratic Party certainly isn't representative of democracy as generally defined.

The Chinese Commies wish to retain the positive aspects associated with their name while adapting to new and different circumstances. The New York Yankees are still the New York Yankees even though Aaron Hicks patrols center field instead of Mickey Mantle.

I think Tyler would agree that the Communist Party has changed to some degree. However, it's still an authoritarian one party state. China has improved on human rights, but it's still brutal from the world norm.

The ease with which authoritarian communist governments can flip to authoritarian capitalist governments should dispel the economic-centric vision of politics.
In other words, whether a nation has publicly owned factors of production or not seems to matter little in the final outcome.

China's an authoritarian one party state. The US is an authoritarian two party state. And the difference between the two parties is in the theatrical posturing for their respective bases.

The economy of my province is driven by two sources of income; one is money moved from authoritarian regimes by people who don't trust that it won't be taken. The other is the production of marijuana that has been sold to people who desire it even if it is illegal. (Legalization in US states has hurt the industry).

What is being described are systems where power is accrued but where the application of the power is counterproductive.

It is often overlooked that authoritarian regimes are actually very popular, at least at first.
This is how they gain power in the first place. There is always a class of people who are the oppressed, and another group who enjoy the benefits of that oppression.
And moreover, authoritarianism is fractal; The king rules over the state, the feudal lords rule over its divisions, all the way down to the father who is the absolute dictator of his home.

There are always plenty of people who would rather rule over a hovel than be a peer in a mansion.

Let me give you two names, just two names, of founders of authoritarian regimes that would disagree with you - Lenin and Mao.

Generally, it is Fascism that relies on what it presents as popularity when gaining power.

For once I actually agree with prior. Communism was never popular and never actually strove to be (hence the necessity to impose it by force).

That was a good article. As to how technological change might have impacted the productivity of western democracies, I think we have to look at the decline of gatekeepers, and the rise the idea that every bad comment is precious.

Especially as:

Only a quarter of U.S. adults in a recent survey could fully identify factual statements – as opposed to opinion – in news stories, the Pew Research Center found in a study released on Monday.


Participants were given five factual statements such as “spending on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid make up the largest portion of the U.S. federal budget,” and five opinion statements such as “democracy is the greatest form of government.” They were asked to identify which ones were factual and which were opinions.

Only 26 percent were able to correctly identify all five factual statements. On opinions, about 35 percent were able to correctly identify all five statements. Roughly a quarter got most or all wrong in identifying facts and opinions, the research showed.

We are increasingly governed by that sort of people.


I'm suddenly reminded of a recent story. I think we covered it here. There was a guy who thought people were following him. His family tried to get him help, counseling for years. He was unhappy. They were unhappy. He was convinced he was right. And then along came the internet. He connected to all the other people who were being followed too. He was happy. He stopped therapy. He'd found his place.

What if Trumpian populism is the same kind of thing .. the people who can't tell fact from opinion found each other on the internet ..

Realistically, it is likely both the Trumpians and the NeverTumpets who have found their places... both equally delusional though

I'm sure many Never Trumpers came to it the "easy way" but for many it was a dilemma. They were Republicans in the 25%, so to speak.

That actually hearkens back to a bad and particularly Republican problem. For the last 10 or 15 years being a reasoning Republican and sticking to your moral compass was a good way to be declared RINO and cast out.

You are consistently blind to your bias, but amusing ro read - as a case study in confirmation bias.

Do you notice that comments like that are always empty of content, empty of fact?

I got to assume you are in the losing quarter.

I mean from my standpoint all the weak comebacks are some form of "sure Trump is crazy but so is everybody else."

That is hardly a rational opinion and indeed it denies rationality itself.

I guess your claim could also be that identifying Trump as irrational is an irrational act.

That is some warped thinking too.

Does the explosion of knowledge since WWII give autocratic governments an advantage over democracy’s?

I doubt democracy would change much in China. As the article notes, the Communist Party is popular on most issues and would almost certainly be voted back into office in free elections. In fact, it would not be surprising if an elected Chinese government turned out to be less liberal and more authoritarian than the existing one—China’s population is still mostly uneducated and rural, and many people there still practically worship Mao.

Ultimately, China is only going to get more liberal if its people get more liberal. Economic growth will help this process, as it did in other Asian countries, but the main reason China has not liberalized as quickly as its neighbors is that it faces a more threatening foreign policy environment. South Korea and Taiwan democratized under a US umbrella that guaranteed free trade and protection from invasion. China lacks those guarantees, so people there will naturally rally around a stronger government that can protect them. For example, the recent US action against ZTE stirred up a big pro-government backlash in China.

"I recall the 1970s, when there were many fewer democracies and communism was still a major scourge. Apart from what at the time was called the free world, led by the U.S. and its closest allies, most countries were abysmally governed."

What came to my mind was the authoritarian governments of South Korea and Taiwan. To count them as democracies was absurd, but former was a US military backed regime, while the latter a well supported economy to fund its essentially military rule, after Nixon went to China.

The Asian nations developed a strong aversion to occupation, especially Korea, but China and others as well. What is remarkable is how well ROK and Japan have tolerated US military occupation. But less so as they become more democratic.

Coincidentally, I've been writing about similar topics recently.

In https://www.col-ex.org/posts/praise-principal-agent-problems/, I talk about principal-agent problems as a fundamental limit on autocracies but suggest that that improved technology is changing that limitation.

In https://www.col-ex.org/posts/inclusive-extractive-societies-each-structural-advantages/, I talk about some of the structural advantages autocracies have over inclusive societies.

In https://www.col-ex.org/posts/autocrats-accelerate-growth-cooperation/, I construct a game showing that autocrats can credibly commit to uphold key economic institutions, contrary to the claims of Acemoglu and Robinson.

Why is it that MR comments on Tyler's Bloomberg columns are vastly more numerous and better quality than those on the Bloomberg site?


I mean, self-selection.

The changes in governance described perfectly match the traditional Jeane Kirkpatrick description of the difference between totalitarianism and authoritarianism.

So, how different, really, are these modern authoritarian autocracies from the historic authoritarian autocracies in Taiwan, South Korea, and Singapore in the 1960s-1980s, which have all democratized since? Why should we expect them to be any more resistant, in the long term, to democratization? The move of autocracies from totalitarianism to authoritarianism does not itself actually imply that authoritarian autocracies are a long-term alternative to democracy.

It of course may seem like failure of democracy that so many of the post-Cold War nascent democracies have become authoritarian autocracies since. But that assumes that a direct totalitarian-democratic transition, without an authoritarian phase, is actually viable. Perhaps it is just that transitioning from totalitarianism to a viable democracy takes longer than people thought in the 1990s, based on examples distorted by foreign occupation (both the externally-imposed totalitarianism in Central Europe and the externally-imposed democracy in Japan/West Germany).

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