Home / Opinion / Views /  Know the ‘Incarceration Game’ that perpetuates power

A spectre is haunting Russia, the spectre of dissent. Anti-draft protests have broken out in Moscow, St. Petersburg and other Russian cities, large and small. Thousands of young men are fleeing the country [rather than get drafted by Russia for its armed forces at a time of war]. And more than 2,000 Russians have reportedly been arrested after protesting against President Vladimir Putin’s attempt to mobilize 300,000 reservists to fight his war in Europe against Ukraine.

It is too early to speculate about whether the current civil unrest being witnessed in Russia will lead to Putin’s ouster. If he is indeed deposed, it would be a blessing for the people of Ukraine and for billions of people worldwide suffering the economic fallout of his war. But among the main beneficiaries would be ordinary Russians whose lives and prospects have clearly been diminished under his corrupt, authoritarian regime.

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Do Russians want to oust Vladimir Putin and restore democracy in their country? If you ask people familiar with Russia, they will most likely say that most of the population still supports him. I have my doubts, though, about that.

Tyrants always appear to have more support than they do until they are gone, because feigning support is a survival strategy. We saw this in Zine el-Abidine ben Ali’s Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt before both were overthrown in 2011. In the early 1050s, during the height of McCarthyism in the US, more people mimicked support for Senator Joseph McCarthy’s oppressive views than actually supported them.

Even so, authoritarian rulers have a knack for staying in power despite their brutality. In the summer of 2020, a popular uprising threatened to end the oppressive reign of Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko, but he survived. Myanmar’s military regime, one of the world’s most brutal dictatorships, has outlasted multiple attempts at democratization.

In an era of democratic backsliding, it behooves us to comprehend the forces that entrench authoritarian regimes. By better understanding why some tyrants endure while others succumb to popular uprisings, we could design better laws and constitutions that ensure leaders cannot hold on to power against their people’s will. After all, constitutional tweaks have strengthened the foundations of democracy in the past. For example, the Twenty-Second Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America limits the country’s presidents to two terms in office, thus limiting the authoritarian temptation one sees in countries like China, where President Xi Jinping will seek—and almost certainly gain—an unprecedented third term this month.

What explains the longevity of dictators like Lukashenko and Putin? In a recent paper, I developed an allegory I call the Incarceration Game to show how abstruse philosophical reasoning can illuminate the shadowy machinations and oppressive tactics that help authoritarian rulers stay in power.

The Incarceration Game boils down to a simple thought experiment.

This is how it goes. In a country with a population of 100 adults, assume every person opposes the leader. If even ten citizens take to the streets, the leader will be deposed, but the leader can incarcerate up to 10 dissenters. So, if fewer than 10 people protest, there is a high probability that they will be arrested. But if every citizen is willing to protest, the likelihood of being caught drops so much that people are no longer afraid to express dissent openly and the leader does not stand a chance of staying on in power.

But a shrewd and ruthless ruler would divide the population into ten separate groups: opposition leaders, newspaper editors, trade union officials, and so on. Suppose the leader announces that he will arrest only opposition leaders who are caught joining the uprising. If the members of that group stay home, then he will target protesting newspaper editors, and so on, until he incarcerates ten protestors or the revolt ends.

It is not difficult to guess what would happen. Opposition leaders will not join the protest because they are sure to be arrested. At that point, newspaper editors will not join either, because they now know for certain that they will be arrested if they do.

With opposition leaders and newspaper editors staying off the streets, trade union leaders will do the same. This inexorable process of backward induction will ensure that no one feels safe protesting. And the ruler will portray the absence of protest as a sign of popular support.

The point of this hypothetical exercise is to highlight the methods that allow authoritarian rulers to repress political dissent. Those of us who care about protecting democratic norms must develop constitutional mechanisms that can prevent actual authoritarians from pursuing such tactics in the real world.

To block the rise of authoritarians, we must understand the games they play. ©2022/Project Syndicate

Kaushik Basu is a professor of economics at Cornell University and a former chief economic adviser to the Government of India.

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