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How to understand, and deal with dictatorship: an economist's view


This paper explains in simple English some of the main ideas about autocracy first developed elsewhere (e.g., in my book, The Political Economy of Dictatorship (Cambridge University Press, 1998). I use rational choice theory to explain the behavior of dictatorships and develop policy toward them. Issues discussed in this paper include: How do successful regimes stay in power? What determines the repressiveness of a regime? Which type of regime redistributes more, dictatorship or democracy? Can dictatorships be good for economic growth and efficiency? The starting point of my analysis is The Dictator's Dilemma-the insecurity every dictator necessarily experiences about how much support he really has. Because of this, the dictator finds that the tool of repression is not enough to maintain his regime, and successful dictators typically rule with the loyal support of at least some groups of subjects (while repressing others). The levels of repression and support and the nature of the groups that give their support (labor, business, ethnic group, etc.) determine the character of the dictatorship. Among other results discussed, I show that some types of dictators – tinpots and timocrats – respond to an improvement in economic performance by lowering repression, while others – totalitarians and tyrants – respond by raising it. Finally I discuss optimal policy by the democracies toward dictatorships and I show that a single standard-aid or trade with a progressively tightening human rights constraint- is desirable if aid or trade with dictatorships of any type is to lower, not raise, repression.

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Submitted: February 1999 / Accepted: 10 November 1999

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Wintrobe, R. How to understand, and deal with dictatorship: an economist's view. Econ Gov 2, 35–58 (2001).

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  • Key words: dictatorship, autocracy, power
  • JEL classification: O1, H0, K2