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The Logic of Authoritarian Bargains

Anders Olofsgård, Raj M. Desai, and Tarik M. Yousef


How do authoritarian regimes stay in power? Repression – the classic answer– is not enough, because repression also creates the ‘‘dictator’s dilemma’’ by which citizens feign support for the ruler even as they collude to rebel, increasing the degree of insecurity a dictator faces (Tullock, 1987; Wintrobe, 2007). More likely, some form of redistribution to citizens is necessary to secure and maintain their loyalty. Dictatorial regimes are therefore said to rely on an ‘‘authoritarian bargain,’’ or an implicit arrangement between ruling elites and citizens whereby citizens relinquish political influence in exchange for public spending.

Much of the rationale explaining the persistence of such bargains has been induced from regional or case studies of policy making in dictatorships and of authoritarian withdrawal. In addition, econometric studies of public spending or of democratization in dictatorial regimes examine the two sides of the ‘‘bargain’’ separately. By contrast, we aim to develop a framework that may be used to test the generality of the claim that political influence and public spending are substitutes in non-democratic states across these countries and over time.

We proceed in two steps. We first develop a simple model of an authoritarian bargain based on the presumption that non-democratic rulers secure regime support through the allocation of two substitutable ‘‘goods’’ to the public: economic transfers and the ability to influence policy making. The former consists of explicit and implicit transfers, subsidies, protections, and regulations that guarantee profits, employment, or consumption above what would otherwise prevail. The latter consists of partial political liberalization or of expanding citizen participation in governmental decisionmaking,
leading to policy choices that are closer to citizen preferences. The central purpose of the model is not to highlight a single causal mechanism. Rather, it is to identify, based on certain a priori principles, a set of relationships between variables that then form the basis for our empirical specification.

In a second step, we test some implications of this model. Using crossnational, time-series data from 80 non-democratic states between 1975 and 1999 we test a system of equations with welfare expenditures and political rights on the left-hand side and a set of covariates derived from the theoretical model. The results are generally consistent with the predictions of the model and identify certain factors that influence welfare expenditures and political rights in the same direction, as well as those factors that influence them in opposite directions. We also find that this bargain tends to break down in military and highly repressive dictatorships.

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