The Tocqueville Paradox: When Does Reform Provoke Rebellion?

40 Pages Posted: 16 Jul 2018  

Evgeny Finkel

Johns Hopkins SAIS

Scott Gehlbach

University of Wisconsin-Madison

Date Written: June 25, 2018


We analyze a model of reform and rebellion to explore Alexis de Tocqueville's conjecture that reform provokes political unrest. Our theory emphasizes the role of reform in determining expressive motivations to rebel through two forms of reference dependence: reform reduces grievances to the extent that its implementation improves on the status quo, but it also raises expectations that contribute to grievances when reform is implemented by local agents with a stake in the status quo. When reform is predominantly locally implemented and state capacity is weak, a more ambitious reform leads to greater concessions by local elites; nonetheless, the equilibrium probability of rebellion also increases. This tradeoff is robust to assuming that citizens are motivated by instrumental as well as expressive concerns and to the presence of strategic complementarities across localities. We illustrate our results 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? (June 25, 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 Wisconsin-Madison ( email )

1050 Bascom Mall
Madison, WI 53706
United States
608-263-2391 (Phone)

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