A Theory of Informational Autocracy
45 Pages Posted: 26 Jul 2019 Last revised: 28 Oct 2019
Date Written: April 3, 2019
We develop an informational theory of modern autocracy. Dictators survive not by means of force or ideology but because they convince the public - rightly or wrongly - that they are competent. Citizens do not observe the dictator's type but infer it from signals in their living standards, state propaganda, and messages sent by an informed elite via independent media. If citizens conclude that the dictator is incompetent, they overthrow him in a revolution. The dictator can invest in making convincing state propaganda, censoring independent media, co- opting the elite, or equipping police to repress attempted uprisings but he must finance such spending at the expense of the public's consumption. We show that informational autocracies prevail over old-style, overtly violent dictatorships when the informed elite is sufficiently large but are replaced by democracies when elites are too numerous to be bribed or silenced.
Keywords: non-democracies, political economy, propaganda, censorship
JEL Classification: P16
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