How should a rational autocrat or would-be autocrat deal with a free press? Rationality does not mean conscious, formal, or consistent rationality: the autocrat could be an entrepreneur with good intuitions. (In this model, I take “autocrat,” “dictator,” or “strongman” as roughly equivalent political beings.)

Being an autocrat is not easy. On the one hand, a free press is dangerous because it holds the autocrat to account by revealing to “his” people things that he does not want them to know. A free press also, at least indirectly, helps the organization of collective action against him, although social media are a new competitor in this field.

On the other hand, a free press is useful to the autocrat. It provides him with information about the conditions of life, the economy, and the sentiments of his people towards him. The Minister of the Economy or some other apparatchik is not likely to tell him, for example, that tariffs have increased the price of cake and that people are grumbling. The minion or the courtier who reveals that to the autocrat would risk his job, his standing, or even more in an advanced dictatorship. Wasn’t it precisely the minister’s mission to implement the brilliant autocrat’s policy? In short, the free press is for the autocrat a competitive source of information about the performance of his own associates. To the extent that the autocrat is not deluded, a free press also gives him information about the consequences of his policies.

A number of economists have noted this autocrat’s dilemma. In The Political Economy of Dictatorship (Cambridge University Press, 1998, p. 335, but see also pp. 24-25), Ronald Wintrobe writes:

The more the repressive apparatus stifles dissent and criticism, the less the dictator knows about how much support he or she really has among the people. … there is a cost: the loss of the capacity to find out just how popular the ruler’s policy are.

In “Why Resource-Poor Dictators Allow Freer Media: A Theory and Evidence from Panel Data,” American Political Science Review (103-4, November 2009, p. 666), Georgy Egorov et al. observe that

a dictator needs an independent source of information on the outcomes of his policies. … The independent and competitive media do provide this information, but cannot commit not to leak it to the citizens.

I was reminded that a draft of the present post had been sleeping on my hard disk for several weeks when I read in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal (“Trump to Tell Federal Agencies to Cut New York Times, Washington Post Subscriptions,” October 24, 2019) that President Trump apparently wants federal bureaucrats to end their subscriptions to the New York Times and the Washington Post. But he may himself continue to read these newspapers (perhaps it would be more exact to say “read front-page titles”):

Mr. Trump is an avid consumer of the news, and he regularly reads the Times and the Post, according to aides who privately acknowledged that they expect him to continue doing so despite the directive.

It can be seriously argued that Mr. Trump’s political contenders are not very far from him on the scale of autocracy. (No need to emphasize that my gender-neutral “he” includes the feminine.) My model is meant to apply to any political autocrat or would-be autocrat.

Back to our stylized rational autocrat, then. He wants to keep the free press for his own personal information (or perhaps he just cannot abolish it yet); at the same time, he wants to prevent the free press from influencing his supporters among the citizenry. How is he going to square this circle? One way would be to persuade his supporters that the free press is disseminating “fake news” and is an “enemy of the people.” That’s a difficult trick to pull, especially in a democratic society, but delusion might blind him, or we might be farther down “the road to serfdom” than we think.

But even if the trick could be pulled, the resulting autocratic nirvana would probably not be  a stable equilibrium. After all, we seldom, in the real world, see a vibrant, inquisitive free press coexisting with a powerful autocrat. The more the press reveals information about the autocrat’s policies, the more people will discover that the emperor is naked. And the more the autocrat’s entourage will try to persuade him that the press is conspiring to disseminate fake news against him. The system would move to a new equilibrium in which people have revolted against the autocrat, peacefully or violently.