The Tocqueville Paradox: When Does Reform Provoke Rebellion?

42 Pages Posted: 16 Jul 2018 Last revised: 5 Nov 2018

See all articles by Evgeny Finkel

Evgeny Finkel

Johns Hopkins SAIS

Scott Gehlbach

University of Chicago

Date Written: November 4, 2018


We develop a model of reform and rebellion to explore Alexis de Tocqueville's conjecture that reform provokes political unrest. Our theory emphasizes that reform often must be implemented by local actors with a stake in the status quo. In this setting, the promise of reform represents an implicit contract against which subsequent implementation is measured: when implementation falls short of the promise, citizens are aggrieved and more likely to rebel. In equilibrium, when reform is predominantly under local control, a more ambitious reform encourages greater implementation; nonetheless, the equilibrium probability of rebellion also increases. We illustrate our argument with a discussion of Russia's Emancipation Reform of 1861.

Keywords: reform, rebellion, reference dependence, Imperial Russia

JEL Classification: D74, N13, P48

Suggested Citation

Finkel, Evgeny and Gehlbach, Scott, The Tocqueville Paradox: When Does Reform Provoke Rebellion? (November 4, 2018). Available at SSRN: or

Evgeny Finkel

Johns Hopkins SAIS ( email )

1740 Massachusetts Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20036-1984
United States

Scott Gehlbach (Contact Author)

University of Chicago ( email )

1101 East 58th Street
Chicago, IL 60637
United States

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