In an interesting paper he tweeted yesterday, Kaushik Basu discusses, using a mathematical model, an old problem: how rulers once they are in power cannot leave it even if they wish to do so, because their road to power, and in power, is littered with corpses that will all (metaphorically) ask revenge if the ruler were to step down. Furthermore, since the number of misdeeds and of rulers’ real or imagined enemies multiplies with each additional period in power, they need to resort to increasingly greater oppression to stay in power. Thus, even the originally well-meaning or tolerant rulers become, with the duration of their rule, tyrants. Basu is aware of the millennial nature of the problem; he cites Shakespeare’s Macbeth. He could have also cited Tacitus’ description of Tiberius’ descent into murderous suspiciousness and folly.
Basu terms this issue “temporal inconsistency” because his assumption is that the ruler would like at one point to leave and spend the rest of his life in affluence and leisure. (I write in “his” life because all individuals listed in Basu’s paper are men, and he strangely resort to the use of “she” and “her” in the mathematical part of the paper.) This assumption of a ruler who wants to retire is unrealistic, and I will explain why below, But before I do so, I need to note that there is no inconsistency in the ruler’s or dictator’s behavior in each individual period. (Basu acknowledges this in the latter part of the paper by stating that fully rational maximizing behavior in each individual period may still lead to on overall suboptimal outcome.). Assume that the ruler plays an annual game where he wonders: am I better off if I retire now or if I commit another crime which would make my retirement next year more difficult but my rule this year safer? The answer is simple: he is better off committing another crime in the expectation that this would make his overthrow less likely. He replays that game every year and every year he reaches the same conclusion. Thus, the ruler’s decisions are not at all irrational or even inconsistent.
From Machiavelli’s point of the art of statecraft it would be equally wrong to fault the ruler. According to Machiavelli, the role of the ruler is to rule like the role of a baker is to bake. In order to rule he must unavoidably commit misdeeds or crimes because it is the nature of politics and human society. But he should not use unnecessary force; in other words, crimes must be acknowledged by the ruler intimately as such and their use must be kept to the minimum necessary to stay in power. And indeed most rulers do believe that they are doing just that.
But why is the very assumption of a ruler who wants to retire generally wrong? (I know that there are some examples of rulers who have chosen the road of retirement but they are extremely rare: the reason why we speak of Sulla is precisely because he was unusual in choosing retirement and powerlessness after having committed many misdeeds.) The assumption is wrong because rulers’ objective is not a comfortable life on a yacht in the Pacific—the example Basu gives in the end of the paper—but raw power and enforcement of an ideology.
When power as such becomes the objective, as it is among all politicians, and autocratic rulers especially, there is no amount of worldly goods that could substitute for power. Rulers cannot be cajoled (as Basu seems to believe) into leaving power. And this is not just because of the possible punishment that may await them in retirement, but because they crave, and they need, the exercise of, power. Svetlana Alliluyeva writes in her memoirs that her father lived only for politics and was interested only in politics. And indeed whoever has read memoirs of Stalin’s comrades or Stalin’s biographies could not be but struck with the emptiness –in the normal human sense—of the life that Stalin led at the peak of his power. It was the life of interminable meetings, long hours of reading, quasi solitary dinners with a few scared companions, monotonous banquets; a dry life devoid of both humanity and affluence. There is nothing you can offer to Stalin to make him leave power even if you can guarantee that he would live for the rest of his life safe in luxury.
The same applies to ideologues. Or perhaps even more so because ideologues believe that they are on a unique mission to save their nation or the world, and obviously then being in power is a necessary condition for such a salvation. Take Hitler as the easiest and strongest example. He believed from a relatively young age that the Providence has selected him to save Germany and make it powerful again. Thinking that offering him, say in 1938 or 1942, a retirement in the Austrian Alps, or an endless Wagner festival in his beloved Linz, in exchange for stepping down is so ludicrous that can produce only derision and laughter.
Basu’s concluding sentence that giving rulers an escape route through luxurious retirement might make many “Individuals with no interest in power and tyranny…strive to become tyrants for no other reason but to get that castle in the Pacific Island” although said probably in jest and with the intend to provide a paradox, is simply wrong. Rulers do not want to go to the Pacific islands.
Dictators often evolve during their rule, moving more toward the power-hungry tyrants and ideologues than they were in the beginning of their reign, even regardless of the amount of crimes they might have committed. Here Putin comes to mind. He came to power by giving the impression to be ready to do the oligarchs’ bidding, to be hard-working and meticulous, pro-western, and in love of comfort and affluence. Gradually however he evolved: first, by dropping the oligarchs who brought him to power, and then by changing ideologically to see himself as a savior of Russia. If that is supposed to be his role, he obviously has no choice but to stay in power because everybody else, in his view, would drive the country to ruin.
We thus come to the conclusion that there is absolutely nothing that can be offered to dictators to leave power; thinking that there is something shows a misunderstanding of what motivates people in politics. It also shows a naivete of other economists (not Basu as he explicitly rejects it) who hold that all human activities are driven by the search for material profit and comfort.
Basu’s suggestion that there should be globally-enforced term-limits is not only impossible to implement but shows a misunderstanding of politics. Regarding the practical impossibility of its implementation one need only mention that such a rule would never pass through any international organization, but that even if that were to happen, there would be many ways to avoid observing the rule while formally adhering to it. Putin, at first, side-stepped the issue of term limits by taking the position of prime minister while effectively still remaining in charge; Havel got rid of term limits because he argued that being president of Czechoslovakia was different than being president of the Czech republic. Djukanovic, the Montenegrin leader, ruled for more than three decades by switching between the positions of president and prime minister. Erdogan did the same by changing the system from parliamentary to presidential. There is, in effect, no way technically to implement the notion of a global term-limit even if somehow, miraculously, the world were to come to believe in them.
And more importantly
there is nothing that can be offered to dictators to make them step down. They
have to continue to rule until they either die peacefully in their beds and after
death became either vilified or celebrated (or at times, both), or until they
are overthrown, or meet an assassin’s bullet. Once on the top, there is no
exit. They have become prisoners like many others they have thrown in jail.