April 24, 2011

JON HENKE EMAILS: “I was thinking about the ongoing revolutions in the Middle East and surrounding areas and I recalled something you wrote in 2002 that really captured what is happening in that region today. Concerning ‘preference cascades’, you wrote…”

This illustrates, in a mild way, the reason why totalitarian regimes collapse so suddenly. (Click here for a more complex analysis of this and related issues). Such regimes have little legitimacy, but they spend a lot of effort making sure that citizens don’t realize the extent to which their fellow-citizens dislike the regime. If the secret police and the censors are doing their job, 99% of the populace can hate the regime and be ready to revolt against it – but no revolt will occur because no one realizes that everyone else feels the same way.

This works until something breaks the spell, and the discontented realize that their feelings are widely shared, at which point the collapse of the regime may seem very sudden to outside observers – or even to the citizens themselves. Claims after the fact that many people who seemed like loyal apparatchiks really loathed the regime are often self-serving, of course. But they’re also often true: Even if one loathes the regime, few people have the force of will to stage one-man revolutions, and when preferences are sufficiently falsified, each dissident may feel that he or she is the only one, or at least part of a minority too small to make any difference.

One interesting question is whether a lot of the hardline Arab states are like this. Places like Iraq, Syria, or Saudi Arabia spend a lot of time telling their citizens that everyone feels a particular way, and punishing those who dare to differ, which has the effect of encouraging people to falsify their preferences. But who knows? Given the right trigger, those brittle authoritarian regimes might collapse overnight, with most of the population swearing – with all apparent sincerity – that it had never supported them, or their anti-Western policies, at all.

Perhaps we should think about how to make it so.

He continues: “It is becoming so. Preferences are cascading against the current regimes. Let us hope their preferences continue to cascade towards democratization and freedom, rather than simply into the arms of new dictators.” Indeed. I had pretty much forgotten that column, but it does fit today’s events pretty well.

Er, read the whole thing, as they say. . . . And if you want to know more about this phenomenon, I highly recommend Timur Kuran’s Private Truths, Public Lies: The Social Consequences of Preference Falsification, which inspired that column.

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