Dictatorships do not survive by repression alone. Rather, dictatorial rule is often explained as an “authoritarian bargain” by which citizens relinquish political rights for economic security. The applicability of the authoritarian bargain to decision-making in non-democratic states, however, has not been thoroughly examined.
We conceptualize this bargain as a simple, repeated game between a representative citizen and an autocrat who faces the threat of insurrection, and where economic benefits and political rights are simultaneously determined according to the opportunity costs the regime faces in providing these “goods.” Our model yields precise implications for the empirical patterns that are expected to exist. Tests of a system of equations with panel data comprising over 45 non-democratic states between 1984 and 1999 confirm the generality of the authoritarian-bargain thesis. The bargain, however, tends to break down in military or in highly-repressive dictatorships.