Putin: The Difficult Life of a Dictator
The war in Ukraine illustrates how difficult it is to be an autocrat on top of a command-and-control system. Vladimir Putin’s control-and-command apparatus is not as pure as that of the former USSR, if only because of the presence of oligarchs who have pecuniary incentives to run money-making businesses; yet, their main incentive is to stay in the good grace of the dictator. (I take “autocrat” and “dictator” as synonyms.) The cost of communications with the rest of the world has dramatically decreased for ordinary people, although Putin is trying hard to compensate for this with internal propaganda through state media.
Putin’s regime illustrates the well-known flaws of a command-and-control system. The lack of a free press dramatically limits the autocrat’s knowledge of what is really happening in society (and in the military too). But he has little choice because a free press would directly endanger his tenure in the job, if not his life. His minions are often afraid to tell him the truth as they can be held responsible for the bad news. The dictator is “isolated and out of touch,” as Putin is said to be more and more. (On the economics of dictatorship, see Gordon Tullock, Autocracy [Springer, 1987]; see also my Econlog post “The Autocrat and the Free Press: A Model,” October 15, 2019.)
The autocrat also obtains poor intelligence in military matters. His army is much less capable than he thinks; but an efficient one would of course represent a higher danger of coup against him. The military’s morale is low, in part because it is not easy to motivate a 20-year-old conscript to service missiles fired on women and children and to shoot foreigners whose lifestyles he probably envies. (“Some Russian Troops Are Surrendering or Sabotaging Vehicles Rather Than Fighting, a Pentagon Official Says,” New York Times, March 1, 2022)
As Gordon Tullock put it,
the life of a dictator is not an easy one, but there is no reason we should feel particularly sympathetic. No one is compelled by law to be a dictator.
Despite the myth or dream of the benevolent despot, anyone who (like Tullock) shares classical-liberal or libertarian values is happy that a dictator’s life is difficult, and hopes these difficulties more than cancel the benefits he may gain from power and stolen money. The lower the net benefits an autocrat can obtain, the lower his incentives to get the job or create the job for himself.
This is not denying that a cornered dictator may be a public danger for his subjects and, especially if he is armed with nuclear weapons, for foreigners. But this in turn does not mean that his violence should not be countered: resistance increases the cost to dictators, and the more so as if it affects their personal security. Opponents to a dictator, however, should make sure that they are not themselves, in the process, drifting toward dictatorial power.
The difficult life of the dictator makes everybody else’s life more difficult—except, at least for a time, for their minions and most important supporters and political clienteles. The current thinking about the war in Ukraine seems to be that, by intensifying its aggression, the Russian tyrant will win. But, suggests the Wall Street Journal (“As Russian Invasion of Ukraine Widens, the West’s Options Shrink,” March 2, 2022), this would likely not be the end of the story:
The early fighting by Ukrainian forces and citizens portends an insurgency even if Russia were to take control of population centers and stand up its own government. “I think [Putin] will have an insurgency on his hand that is going to be extremely wearing and degrading to him, to his military and to his economy,” the European diplomat said. “Ordinary Russians will be paying the price of this hubris and this aggression.”