Mancur Olson on Democracy

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Mancur Olson on Democracy
Dictatorship, Democracy, and Development
Author(s): Mancur Olson
Source: The American Political Science Review, Vol. 87, No. 3 (Sep., 1993), pp. 567-576
Published by: American Political Science Association
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2938736
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The American Political Science Review.
American PoliticalScience Review
Vol. 87, No. 3 September 1993
University of Maryland
Tnderanarchy,uncoordinatedcompetitivetheftby "rovingbandits"destroystheincentiveto
andproduce,leavinglittlefor eitherthepopulationor thebandits.Bothcanbebetter
off if a banditsets himselfup as a dictator-a "stationarybandit"who monopolizesand
rationalizestheftin theformof taxes.A secureautocrathasan encompassing
interestin his domain
thatleadshimto providea peacefulorderandotherpublicgoodsthatincreaseproductivity.Whenever
an autocratexpectsa brieftenure,it payshimto confiscatethoseassetswhosetaxyieldoverhis tenure
is lessthantheirtotalvalue.Thisincentiveplus theinherentuncertaintyofsuccessionin dictatorships
implythatautocracieswill rarelyhavegoodeconomicperformance
for morethana generation.The
conditionsnecessaryfor a lastingdemocracy
are the samenecessaryfor the securityof propertyand
In my studentdays, in readingEdwardBanfield's
(1958) account of the beliefs of the people in a
poor village in Southern Italy, I came upon a
remarkable statement by a village monarchist. He
said, "Monarchy is the best kind of government
because the King is then owner of the country. Like
the owner of a house, when the wiring is wrong, he
fixes it" (p. 26). The villager'sargumentjarredagainst
my democraticconvictions. I could not deny that the
owner of a country would have an incentive to make
his property productive. Could the germ of truth in
the monarchist's argument be reconciled with the
case for democracy?
It is only in recent years that I have arrived at an
answer to this question. It turns out that for a
satisfactoryanswer one needs a new theory of dictatorship and democracy and of how each of these
types of government affects economic development.
Once this new theory is understood, one can begin to
see how autocraciesand democracies first emerge. I
shall set out this conception in a brief and informal
way and use it to explain some of the most conspicuous features of historicalexperience.
The starting point for the theory is that no society
can work satisfactorilyif it does not have a peaceful
order and usually other public goods as well. Obviously, anarchic violence cannot be rational for a
society: the victims of violence and theft lose not only
what is taken from them but also the incentive to
produce any goods that would be taken by others.
There is accordingly little or no production in the
absence of a peaceful order. Thus there are colossal
gains from providing domestic tranquilityand other
basic public goods. These gains can be shared in ways
that leave everyone in a society better off. Can we
conclude that because everyone could gain from it, a
peaceful order emerges by voluntary agreement?
From the logic of the matter, we should expect that
in small groups a generally peaceful order will normally emerge by voluntary agreement but that in
large populations it will not. The key to the matter is
that each individual bears the full costs or risks of
anything he or she does to help establish a peaceful
order or to provide other public goods but receives
only a share of the benefits. In a tiny group, such as
a hunter-gatherer band, each person or family will
obtain a significantshare of the benefits of a peaceful
order, and the net advantages of such an order are so
great that even a single family's share of the gains can
easily outweigh the sacrifices needed to obtain it.
Moreover, when there are only a few, the welfare of
each noticeably depends on whether each of the
others acts in a group-orientedway. Thus each family, by making clear that cooperationby another will
bring forth its cooperation but that noncooperation
will not, can increase the likelihood that another will
match its behavior, thereby increasing the incentive
each has to act in the group interest. The theoretical
prediction that sufficiently small groups can often
organize for collective action is corroborated by
countless observations (Olson 1965).
This predictionis also in accordwith the anthropological observations of the most primitive societies.
The simplest food-gathering and hunting societies
are normally made up of bands that have, including
the children, only about 50 or 100 people. In other
words, such a band will normally contain only a few
families that need to cooperate. Anthropologists find
that primitive tribes normally maintain peace and
order by voluntary agreement, and that is to some
extent what Tacitus, Caesar, and other classicalwriters observed among the less advanced Germanic
tribes. The most primitive tribes tend to make all
important collective decisions by consensus, and
many of them do not even have chiefs. When a band
becomes too large or disagreement is intense, the
band may split, but the new bands normally also
make decisions by unanimous consent. If a tribe is in
the hunting-and-gatheringstage, there is also little or
no incentive for anyone to subjugate another tribe or
to keep slaves, since captives cannot generate enough
surplus above subsistence to justify the costs of
guarding them.' Thus within the most primitive
tribes of preagriculturalhistory, the logical presumption that the great gains from a peaceful order can be
achievedby voluntaryagreementappearsto hold true.
Dictatorship,Democracy, and Development
September 1993
Once peoples learned how to raise crops effectively, production increased, population grew, and
large populations needed governments. When there
is a large population, the same logic that shows why
small groups can act consensually in their common
interest, tells us that voluntarycollective action cannot
obtain the gains from a peaceful order or other public
goods, even when the aggregate net gains from the
provision of basic public goods are large.2 The main
reason is that the typical individual in a society with,
say, a million people will get only about one-millionth of the gain from a collective good, but will bear
the whole cost of whatever he or she does to help
provide it, and therefore has little or no incentive to
contribute to the provision of the collective good.
There is by now a huge theoretical and empirical
literatureon this point, and the great preponderance
of this literatureagrees that, just as small groups can
usually engage in spontaneous collective action, very
large groups are not able to achieve collective goals
through voluntary collective action.3
Thus we should not be surprised that while there
have been lots of writings about the desirability of
"social contracts" to obtain the benefits of law and
order, no one has ever found a large society that
obtained a peaceful order or other public goods
through an agreement among the individuals in the
Why, then, have most populous societies throughout
history normally avoided anarchy?An answer came
to me by chance when reading about a Chinese
warlord (see Sheridan 1966). In the 1920s, China was
in large part under the control of various warlords.
They were men who led some armed band with
which they conquered some territoryand who then
appointed themselves lords of that territory. They
taxed the population heavily and pocketed much of
the proceeds. The warlordFeng Yu-hsiangwas noted
for the exceptional extent to which he used his army
for suppressing bandits and for his defeat of the
relatively substantialarmy of the rovingbandit,White
Wolf. Apparently most people in Feng's domain
found him much preferableto the roving bandits.
At first, this seems puzzling: Why should warlords, who were stationarybanditscontinuously stealing from a given group of victims, be preferred, by
those victims, to roving bandits who soon departed?
The warlords had no claim to legitimacy and their
thefts were distinguished from those of roving bandits only because they took the form of continuing
taxation rather than occasional plunder.
In fact, if a roving bandit rationally settles down
and takes his theft in the form of regulartaxationand
at the same time maintainsa monopoly on theft in his
domain, then those from whom he exacts taxes will
have an incentive to produce. The rationalstationary
bandit will take only a part of income in taxes,
because he will be able to exact a largertotal amount
of income from his subjects if he leaves them with an
incentive to generate income that he can tax.
If the stationary bandit successfully monopolizes
the theft in his domain, then his-victims do not need
to worry about theft by others. If he steals only
through regulartaxation, then his subjects know that
they can keep whatever proportionof their output is
left after they have paid their taxes. Since all of the
settled bandit's victims are for him a source of tax
payments, he also has an incentive to prohibit the
murder or maiming of his subjects. With the rational
monopolization of theft-in contrast to uncoordinated competitive theft-the victims of the theft can
expect to retain whatever capitalthey accumulateout
of after-taxincome and thereforealso have an incentive to save and to invest, thereby increasing future
income and tax receipts. The monopolization of theft
and the protection of the tax-generating subjects
thereby eliminates anarchy. Since the warlordtakes a
part of total productionin the form of tax theft, it will
also pay him to provide other public goods whenever
the provision of these goods increases taxableincome
In a world of roving banditry there is little or no
incentive for anyone to produce or accumulate anything that may be stolen and, thus, little for bandits to
steal. Bandit rationality, accordingly, induces the
bandit leader to seize a given domain, to make
himself the ruler of that domain, and to provide a
peaceful order and other public goods for its inhabitants, thereby obtaining more in tax theft than he
could have obtained from migratory plunder. Thus
we .have"the first blessing of the invisible hand":the
rational, self-interested leader of a band of roving
bandits is led, as though by an invisible hand, to
settle down, wear a crown, and replace anarchywith
government. The gigantic increase in output that
normallyarises from the provision of a peaceful order
and other public goods gives the stationarybandit a
farlargertake than he could obtain without providing
Thus government for groups larger than tribes
normally arises, not because of social contracts or
voluntary transactions of any kind, but rather because of rational self-interest among those who can
organize the greatest capacity for violence. These
violent entrepreneurs naturally do not call themselves bandits but, on the contrary, give themselves
and their descendants exalted titles. They sometimes
even claim to rule by divine right. Since history is
written by the winners, the origins of ruling dynasties are, of course, conventionally explained in terms
of lofty motives ratherthan by self-interest.Autocrats
of all kinds usually claim that their subjects want
them to rule and thereby nourish the unhistorical
assumption that government arose out of some kind
of voluntary choice. (These claims have an echo in
some literature in the "transactionscosts" tradition
that attempts to explain the emergence of various
kinds of governments partly or wholly through vol-
Vol. 87, No. 3
American Political Science Review
untary contracts and the costs of the transactions
associated with them. See Barzel 1991; Kiser and
Barzel 1991;North 1981;North and Thomas 1973.)4
Any individual who has autocraticcontrol over a
country will provide public goods to that country
because he has an "encompassing interest"in it.5 The
extent of the encompassing interest of an officeholder, political party, interest group, monarch, or
any other partial or total "owner" of a society varies
with the size of the stake in the society. The largeror
more encompassing the stake an organization or
individual has in a society, the greater the incentive
the organization or individual has to take action to
provide public goods for the society. If an autocrat
received one-third of any increase in the income of
his domain in increased tax collections, he would
then get one-third of the benefits of the public goods
he provided. He would then have an incentive to
provide public goods up to the point where the
national income rose by the reciprocalof one-third, or
three, from his last unit of public good expenditure.
Though the society's income and welfare would
obviously be greater from a larger expenditure on
public goods, the gain to society from the public
goods that a rationalself-interested autocratprovides
are nonetheless often colossal. Consider, for example, the gains from replacing a violent anarchywith a
minimal degree of public order.
From history, we know that the encompassing
interest of the tax-collecting autocrat permits a considerable development of civilization. From not long
afterthe first development of settled agricultureuntil,
say, about the time of the French Revolution, the
overwhelming majority of mankind was subject to
autocracyand tax theft. History until relativelyrecent
times has been mostly a story of the gradualprogress
of civilizationunder stationarybandits interruptedby
occasional episodes of roving banditry. From about
the time that Sargon's conquests created the empire
of Akkad until, say, the time of Louis XVI and
Voltaire, there was an impressive development of
civilization that occurred in large part under stationary banditry.6
We can now begin to reconcile the village monarchist's insight and the foregoing argument with the
case for democracy. Though the village monarchist
was right in saying that the absolute ruler has as
much incentive to fix what needs repairas the owner
of a house, his analogy is nonetheless profoundly
misleading. The autocrat is not in a position analogous to the owner of a single house or even to the
owner of all housing, but rather to the owner of all
wealth, both tangible and human, in a country. The
autocrat does indeed have an incentive to maintain
and increase the productivity of everything and everyone in his domain, and his subjects will gain from
this. But he also has an incentive to charge a monopoly
rent and to levy this monopoly charge on everything,
including human labor.
In other words, the autocraticruler has an incentive to extractthe maximumpossible surplus from the
whole society and to use it for his own purposes.
Exactly the same rational self-interest that makes a
roving bandit settle down and provide government
for his subjects also makes him extractthe maximum
possible amount from the society for himself. He will
use his monopoly of coercive power to obtain the
maximum take in taxes and other exactions.
The consumption of an autocratic ruler is, moreover, not limited by his personal capacities to use
food, shelter, or clothing. Though the pyramids, the
palace of Versailles, the Taj Mahal, and even Imelda
Marcos's three thousand pairs of shoes were expensive, the social costs of autocraticleaders arise mostly
out of their appetites for militarypower, international
prestige, and larger domains. It took a large proportion of the total output of the Soviet Union, for
example, to satisfy the preferences of its dictators.7
Some writers use the metaphor of the "predatory
state" but this is misleading, even for autocracies.As
we saw earlier,a stationarybandit has an encompassing interest in the territoryhe controls and accordingly provides domestic order and other public
goods. Thus he is not like the wolf that preys on the
elk, but more like the rancher who makes sure that
his cattle are protected and given water. The metaphor of predation obscures the great superiority of
stationarybanditryover anarchyand the advances of
civilization that have resulted from it. No metaphor
or model of even the autocraticstate can thereforebe
correctunless it simultaneously takes account of the
stationarybandit's incentive to provide public goods
at the same time that he extractsthe largest possible
net surplus for himself.
Although the forms that stationary banditry has
taken over the course of history are diverse, the
essence of the matter can be seen by assuming that
the autocrat gets all of his receipts in the form of
explicit taxation. The rational autocrat will devote
some of the resources he obtains through taxation to
public goods but will impose far higher tax rates than
are needed to pay for the public goods since he also
uses tax collections to maximize his net surplus. The
higher the level of provision of public goods, given
the tax rate, the higher the society's income and the
yield from this tax rate. At the same time, the higher
the tax rate, given the level of public-good provision,
the lower the income of society, since taxes distort
So what tax rate and what level of public good
provision will the rational self-interested autocrat
choose? Assume for the moment that the autocrat's
level of public-good expenditure is given. As Joseph
Schumpeter (1991) lucidly pointed out, and Ibn
Kalduhn (1967)sensed much earlier,8tax receipts will
(if we start with low taxation) increase as tax rates
increase, but after the revenue-maximizing rate is
reached, higher tax rates distort incentives and reduce income so much that tax collections fall. The
September 1993
Dictatorship, Democracy, and Development
rationalself-interested autocratchooses the revenuemaximizing tax rate.
Though the amount collected at any tax rate will
vary with the level of public-good provision, the
revenue-maximizingtax ratefor the autocrat should
not. This optimal tax rate determines exactly how
encompassing the interest of the autocrat in the
society is; that is, it determines what share of any
increase in the national income he receives. He will
then spend money on public goods up to the point
where his last dollar of expenditure on public goods
generates a dollar's increase in his shareof the national income. At this point, the gain to society will,
as we know, be the reciprocalof his share.
Though the subjects of the autocrat are better off
than they would be under anarchy,they must endure
taxes or other impositions so high that, if they were
increased further, income would fall by so much that
even the autocrat,who absorbs only a portion of the
fall in income in the form of lower tax collections,
would be worse off.
There is no lack of historical examples in which
autocratsfor their own politicaland militarypurposes
collected as much revenue as they possibly could.
Consider the largest autocraticjurisdictionsin Western history. The Bourbon kings of France were (especially on the eve of the French Revolution) collecting all they could in taxes. The Hapsburg kings of
Spain did the same. The Roman Empire ultimately
pushed its tax rates at least to the revenue-maximizing level.
How would government by a rational self-interested
autocrat compare with a democracy? Democracies
vary so much that no one conclusion can cover all
cases. Nonetheless, many practical insights can be
obtained by thinking first about one of the simplest
democratic situations. This is a situation in which
there are two candidates for a presidency or two
well-disciplined parties seeking to form the government. This simplifying assumption will be favorable
to democraticperformance,for it gives the democracy
an "encompassing" interest rather like the one that
motivates the stationarybandit to provide some public goods. I shall make the opposite assumption later.
But throughout, I shall avoid giving democracy an
unfair advantage by assuming better motivation. I
shall impartiallyassume that the democraticpolitical
leaders are just as self-interested as the stationary
bandit and will use any expedient to obtain majority
Observationof two-party democracies tells us that
incumbents like to run on a "you-never-had-it-sogood" record. An incumbent obviously would not
leave himself with such a record if, like the selfinterested autocrat, he took for himself the largest
possible net surplus from the society. But we are too
favorableto democracyif we assume that the incumbent party or president will maximize his chances of
reelection simply by making the electorateas a whole
as well-off as possible.
A candidate needs only a majorityto win, and he
might be able to "buy" a majority by transferring
income from the population at large to a prospective
majority. The taxes needed for this transfer would
impair incentives and reduce society's output just as
an autocrat's redistribution to himself does. Would
this competition to buy votes generate as much
distortion of incentives through taxationas a rational
autocracydoer? That is, would a vote-buying democraticleader, like the rationalautocrat,have an incentive to push tax rates to the revenue-maximizing
No. Though both the majority and the autocrat
have an encompassing interest in the society because
they control tax collections, the majority in addition
earns a significant share of the market income of the
society, and this gives it a more encompassing interest in the productivity of the society. The majority's
interest in its market earnings induces it to redistribute less to itself than an autocrat redistributes to
himself. This is evident from considering an option
that a democraticmajoritywould have if it were at the
revenue-maximizing tax rate. At the revenue-maximizing tax rate, a minuscule change in the tax rates
will not alter tax collections. A minuscule increasein
the tax rate will reduce the national income by
enough so that even though a larger percentage of
income is taken in taxes, the amount collected remains unchanged, and a tiny reductionin the tax rate
will increase the national income so much that even
though a smallerpercentageis taken in taxes, receipts
are unchanged. This is the optimal tax rate for the
autocrat because changes in the national income
affect his income only by changing tax collections.
But a majorityat the revenue-maximizingtax rate is
bound to increase its income from a reductionin tax
rates:when the national income goes up, it not only,
like the autocrat, collects taxes on a larger national
income but also earns more income in the market. So
the optimal tax rate for it is bound to be lower than
the autocrat's.The easiest arithmeticexample comes
from supposing that the revenue-maximizingtax rate
is one-third and that the majorityearns one-third of
the national income in the marketplace.The rational
autocratwill then find that the last dollarin taxes that
he collects reduces the national income by three
dollars. One-third of this loss is his loss, so he just
breaks even on this last dollar of tax collection and is
at his revenue-maximizing rate. But if a majority
mistakenly chose this same tax rate, it would be
hurting itself, for it would lose two dollars (the same
dollar lost by the autocratplus one dollar of market
income) from the last dollar it collected in taxes. Thus
a majority would maximize its total income with a
lower tax rate and a smaller redistribution to itself
than would be chosen by an autocrat.9
More generally, it pays a ruling interest (whether
an autocrat, a majority, or any other) to stop redis-
American PoliticalScience Review
Vol. 87, No. 3
tributing income to itself when the national income
falls by the reciprocal of the share of the national
income it receives. If the revenue-maximizingtax rate
were one-half, an autocrat would stop increasing
taxes when the national income fell by two dollars
from his last dollar of tax collection. A majoritythat,
say, earned three-fifths of the national income in the
market and found it optimal to take one-fifth of the
national income to transferto itself would necessarily
be reducing the national income by five-fourths, or
$1.25, from the last dollar that it redistributed to
itself. Thus the more encompassing an interest-the
larger the share of the national income it receives
taking all sources together-the less the social losses
from its redistributions to itself. Conversely, the
narrower the interest, the less it will take account of
the social costs of redistributionsto itself.
This last consideration makes it clear why the
assumption that the democracy is governed by an
encompassing interest can lead to much-too-optimistic predictions about many real-world democracies.
The small parties that often emerge under proportional representation, for example, may encompass
only a tiny percentage of a society and thereforemay
have little or no incentive to consider the social cost of
the steps they take on behalf of their narrow constituencies. The special interest groups that are the main
determinant of what government policies prevail in
the particular areas of interest to those interest
groups have almost no incentive to consider the
social costs of the redistributions they obtain. A
typical lobby in the United States, for example, represents less than 1% of the income-earning capacity
of the country. It follows from the reciprocalrule that
such a group has an incentive to stop arranging
further redistributions to its clients only when the
social costs of the redistribution become at least a
hundred times as great as the amount they win in
redistributionalstruggle (Olson 1982).
It would therefore be wrong to conclude that
democracies will necessarily redistribute less than
dictatorships. Their redistributionswill, however, be
shared, often quite unequally, by the citizenry. Democraticpoliticalcompetition, even when it works very
badly, does not give the leader of the government the
incentive that an autocrathas to extractthe maximum
attainable social surplus from the society to achieve
his personal objectives.
We know that an economy will generate its maximum
income only if there is a high rate of investment and
that much of the return on long-term investments is
received long after the investment is made. This
means that an autocratwho is taking a long view will
try to convince his subjects that their assets will be
permanently protected not only from theft by others
but also from expropriationby the autocrathimself. If
his subjects fear expropriation, they will invest less,
and in the long run his tax collectionswill be reduced.
To reach the maximum income attainableat a given
tax rate, a society will also need to enforce contracts,
such as contractsfor long-termloans, impartially;but
the full gains are again reaped only in the long run.
To obtain the full advantage from long-run contracts
a country also needs a stable currency. A stationary
bandit will therefore reap the maximum harvest in
taxes-and his subjects will get the largest gain from
his encompassing interest in the productivity of his
domain-only if he is taking an indefinitely long view
and only if his subjects have total confidence that
their "rights" to private property and to impartial
contract enforcement will be permanently respected
and that the coin or currencywill retain its full value.
Now suppose that an autocrat is only concerned
about getting through the next year. He will then
gain by expropriating any convenient capital asset
whose tax yield over the year is less than its total
value. He will also gain from forgetting about the
enforcementof long-termcontracts,from repudiating
his debts, and from coining or printing new money
that he can spend even though this ultimatelybrings
inflation. At the limit, when an autocrat has no
reason to consider the future output of the society at
all, his incentives are those of a roving bandit and
that is what he becomes.10
To be sure, the rational autocrat will have an
incentive, because of his interest in increasing the
investment and trade of his subjects, to promise that
he will never confiscate wealth or repudiate assets.
But the promise of an autocratis not enforceableby
an independent judiciary or any other independent
source of power, because autocraticpower by definition implies that there cannot be any judges or other
sources of power in the society that the autocrat
cannot overrule. Because of this and the obvious
possibility that any dictator could, because of an
insecure hold on power or the absence of an heir,
take a short-term view, the promises of an autocrat
are never completely credible. Thus the model of the
rational self-interested autocrat I have offered is, in
fact, somewhat too sanguine about economic performance under such autocrats because it implicitly
assumed that they have (and that their subjects
believe that they have) an indefinitely long planning
Many autocrats, at least at times, have had short
time horizons: the examples of confiscations, repudiated loans, debased coinages, and inflated currencies
perpetrated by monarchs and dictators over the
course of history are almost beyond counting.
Perhaps the most interesting evidence about the
importance of a monarch's time horizon comes from
the historical concern about the longevity of monarchs and from the once-widespread belief in the
social desirabilityof dynasties. There are many ways
to wish a king well; but the king's subjects, as the
foregoing argument shows, have more reason to be
sincere when they say "long live the king." If the
king anticipates and values dynastic succession, that
further lengthens the planning horizon and is good
for his subjects.
Dictatorship,Democracy, and Development
September 1993
The historicalprevalence of dynastic succession, in
spite of the near-zero probability that the son of a
king is the most talented person for the job, probably
also owes something to another neglected feature of
absolutisms. Any ruler with absolute power cannot,
by definition, also have an independent source of
power within the society that will select the next ruler
and impose its choice upon the society. An independent capacity to install a new ruler would imply that
this capacity can be used to remove or constrain the
present autocrat. Thus, as is evident from modem
dictatorshipsin Africa and Latin America, most dictatorshipsare by their nature especially susceptible to
succession crises and uncertainty about the future.
These uncertaintiesadd to the problem of short time
horizons that has just been described. In these circumstances, it may be advantageous to a society if a
consensus emerges about who the next ruler will
probably be, since this reduces the social losses
arising from the absence in an autocracy of any
independent power that could ensure a smooth succession. Given autocracy, then, dynastic succession
can be socially desirable, both because it may reduce
the likelihood of succession crises and because it may
give monarchsmore concern for the long run and the
productivity of their societies.
We have seen that whenever a dictator has a sufficiently short time horizon, it is in his interest to
confiscate the property of his subjects, to abrogate
any contracts he has signed in borrowing money
from them, and generally to ignore the long-run
economic consequences of his choices. Even the
ever-presentpossibility that an autocracywill come to
be led by someone with a short time horizon always
reduces confidence in investments and in the enforcementof long-run contracts.What do the individuals in an economy need if they are to have the
maximumconfidence that any propertythey accumulate will be respected and that any contractsthey sign
will be impartiallyenforced?
They need a secure government that respects individual rights. But individual rights are normally an
artifactof a special set of governmental institutions.
There is no private property without government! In
a world of roving bandits some individuals may have
possessions, but no one has a claim to private property that is enforced by the society. There is typically
no reliable contract enforcement unless there is an
impartialcourt system that can call upon the coercive
power of the state to requireindividuals to honor the
contractsthey have made.
But individuals need their property and their contractrights protected from violation not only by other
individuals in the private sector but also by the entity
that has the greatest power in the society, namely,
the government itself. An economy will be able to
reap all potential gains from investment and from
long-term transactions only if it has a government
that is believed to be both strong enough to last and
inhibited from violating individual rights to property
and rights to contract enforcement. What does a
society need in order to have a government that
satisfies both of these conditions?
Interestingly, the conditions that are needed to
have the individual rights needed for maximum economic development are exactly the same conditions
that are needed to have a lasting democracy. Obviously, a democracyis not viable if individuals, including the leading rivals of the administrationin power,
lack the rights to free speech and to security for their
property and contracts or if the rule of law is not
followed even when it calls for the current administration to leave office. Thus the same court system,
independent judiciary, and respect for law and individual rights that are needed for a lasting democracy
are also requiredfor security of property and contract
As the foregoing reasoning suggests, the only
societies where individual rights to property and
contract are confidently expected to last across generations are the securely democratic societies. In an
autocracy, the autocrat will often have a short time
horizon, and the absence of any independent power
to assure an orderlylegal succession means that there
is always substantial uncertainty about what will
happen when the current autocrat is gone. History
provides not even a single example of a long and
uninterrupted sequence of absolute rulers who continuously respected the property and contract-enforcement rights of their subjects. Admittedly, the
terms, tenures, and time horizons of democratic
political leaders are perhaps even shorter than those
of the typical autocrat, and democracies lose a good
deal of efficiency because of this. But in the secure
democracy with predictablesuccession of power under the rule of law, the adjudicationand enforcement
of individual rights is not similarly short-sighted.
Many individuals in the secure democracies confidently make even very-long-termcontracts,establish
trusts for great-grandchildren,and create foundations that they expect will last indefinitely and
thereby reveal that they expect their legal rights to be
secure for the indefinite future.
Not surprisingly, then, capital often flees from
countries with continuing or episodic dictatorships
(even when these countries have relatively little capital) to the stable democracies,even though the latter
are already relatively well supplied with capital and
thus offer only modest rates of return. Similarly,the
gains from contract-intensiveactivities such as banking, insurance, and capital markets are also mainly
reaped by stable democracies like the United States,
the United Kingdom, and Switzerland. Though experience shows that relatively poor countries can
grow extraordinarilyrapidlywhen they have a strong
dictator who happens to have unusually good economic policies, such growth lasts only for the ruling
span of one or two dictators. It is no accident that the
American PoliticalScience Review
Vol. 87, No. 3
countries that have reached the highest level of
economic development and have enjoyed good economic performance across generations are all stable
democracies.Democracieshave also been about twice
as likely to win wars as have dictatorships(Lake1992).
How do democracies emerge out of autocracies?It is
relatively easy to see how autocratic government
emerges and why it has been the predominant form
of government since the development of settled agriculture:there is never a shortage of strong men who
enjoy getting a fortune from tax receipts. It is much
harder to see how democratic government can
emerge out of autocracy.
It is a logical mistake to suppose that because the
subjects of an autocratsuffer from his exactions, they
will overthrow him. The same logic of collective
action that ensures the absence of social contractsin
the historicalrecord whereby large groups agreed to
obtain the advantages of government also implies
that the masses will not overthrow an autocratsimply
because they would be better off if they did so.
Historical evidence from at least the first pharaohs
through Saddam Hussein indicates that resolute autocrats can survive even when they impose heinous
amounts of suffering upon their peoples. When they
are replaced, it is for other reasons (e.g. succession
crises) and often by another stationarybandit.'1What
special circumstancesexplain the cases where a more
or less democratic12 or at least pluralisticgovernment
emerges out of an autocracy?
One obvious special circumstanceis that, partly for
the reasons just set out, the richest countries are
democracies,and democracieshave usually prevailed
in the competitions with their major autocraticcompetitors, whether fascist or communist. The triumphant democracies have sometimes encouraged or
subsidized transitions to democracy in other countries. In some cases, such as Germany, Japan, and
Italy after World War II, the victorious democracies
more or less demanded democratic institutions as a
price for giving independence to the vanquished
nations. The theoretical challenge is to explain not
these transitions but rather those that are entirely
internal and spontaneous.
Easy as it would be to argue that the initially or
spontaneously democratic countries were blessed
with democratic cultures or selfless leaders, this
would be an ad hoc evasion. The obligationhere is to
explain the spontaneous transitions to democracy
from the same parsimonious theory that has been
used in the rest of this essay.
The theory suggests that the key to an explanation
of the spontaneous emergence of democracy is the
absenceof the commonplace conditions that generate
autocracy. The task is to explain why a leader who
organized the overthrow of an autocrat would not
make himself the next dictator or why any group of
conspirators who overthrew an autocrat would not
form a governing junta. We have seen that autocracy
is a most profitableoccupationand that the authors of
most coups and upheavals have appointed themselves dictators. So the theory here predicts that
democracy would be most likely to emerge spontaneously when the'individual or individuals or group
leaders who orchestratedthe overthrow of an autocracy could not establish another autocracy, much as
they would gain from doing so. We can deduce from
the theory offered here that autocracy is prevented
and democracy permitted by the accidents of history
that leave a balance of power or stalemate-a dispersion of force and resources that makes it impossible
for any one leader or group to overpower all of the
But this deduction does not give us any original
conclusion:rather,it points directlytoward one of the
major inductive findings in some of the literaturein
history and in political science on the emergence of
democracy. If the theory here is right, there must be
a considerableelement of truth in the famous "Whig
interpretation"of Britishhistory and in the explanations of democracyofferedby political scientists such
as RobertDahl (1971)and, especially, TatuVanhanen
(1989).If the theory offeredhere is right, the literature
that argues that the emergence of democracyis due to
historicalconditions and dispersions of resourcesthat
make it impossible for any one leader or group to
assume all power is also right.
Yet it is also necessary to go back again to the
theory for a crucial detail. Even when there is a
balance of power that keeps any one leader or group
from assuming total control of a large area or jurisdiction, the leader of each group may be able to
establish himself as an autocratof a small domain. A
dispersion of power and resources over a large area
can result in a set of small-scale autocracies but no
democracy. If, however, the different contending
groups are scrambled together over a wide and
well-delineated domain, then' small autocracies are
not feasible. They may not be feasible also if each of
the leaders capableof forming a small-scaleautocracy
believes that a domain of that small scale would not
be viable, whether because of aggression by other
autocratsor for any reason.
If scrambled constituencies or any other reason
rules out division of a domain into miniautocracies,
then the best attainableoption for the leader of each
group when there is a balance of power is power
sharing. If no one leader can subdue the others or
segregate his followers into a separate domain, then
the alternativeis either to engage in fruitless fighting
or to work out a truce with mutual toleration. The
provision of a peaceful order and other public goods
will, in these circumstances,be advantageous for all
of the groups; thus, the leaders of the different
groups have an incentive to work out mutually satisfactoryarrangementsfor the provision of such goods.
Given peaceful conditions, there are great gains to
leaders and other individuals in each group from
being able to make mutually advantageous contracts
with others and thereby a common interest in estab-
September 1993
Dictatorship, Democracy, and Development
fishing a disinterested and independent judiciary.
With several groups, it is not certain in advance how
elections will turn out, yet each group can, by allying
with other groups, ensure that no one other group
will continually dominate elections. Thus elections as
well as consensual agreements among the leaders of
the different groups can be consistent with the interest of the leaders and members of each group.
Though there are a fair number of democracies,
there have not been many spontaneous and entirely
autonomous transitions from autocracy to democracy. Most of the democracies in the English-speaking world owed a good deal to the pluralism and
democracy that emerged in late seventeenth-century
Britain and thus they usually do not offer a completely independent test of the argument about the
transition to democracy offered here.
Happily, the initial emergence of democracy with
the Glorious Revolution of 1689 in England (and its
very gradual transition from a democracy with a
highly restricted franchise to universal suffrage)
nicely fits the logic of the democratic transition predicted by the present theory. There were no lasting
winners in the English civil wars. The different tendencies in British Protestantism and the economic
and social forces with which they were linked were
more or less evenly matched. There had been a lot of
costly fighting and, certainly after Cromwell, no one
had the power to defeat all of the others. The restored
Stuartkings might have been able to do this, but their
many mistakes and the choices that ultimatelyunited
almost all of the normally conflicting Protestant and
other political tendencies against them finally led to
their total defeat.
None of the victorious leaders, groups, or tendencies was then strong enough to impose its will upon
all of the others or to create a new autocracy. None
had any incentive to give William and Mary the
power to establish one either. The best option available to each of the leaders and groups with power
was to agree upon the ascendancy of a Parliament
that included them all and to take out some insurance
against the power of the others through an independent judiciaryand a Bill of Rights. (The spread of the
franchise is too long a story to tell here. But it is not
difficult to see how, once the society was definitely
nonautocraticand safely pluralist, additional groups
could parlaythe profitableinteractionsthat particular
enfranchised interests had with them-and the costs
of suppression that they could force the enfranchised
to bear-into a wider suffrage.)
With a carefully constrained monarchy, an independent judiciary, and a Bill of Rights, people in
England in due course came to have a relativelyhigh
degree of confidence that any contractsthey entered
into would be impartiallyenforced and that private
property rights, even for critics of the government,
were relatively secure. Individual rights to property
and contractenforcementwere probablymore secure
in Britainafter 1689than anywhere else, and it was in
Britain, not very long after the Glorious Revolution,
that the IndustrialRevolution began.13
Though the emergence of a democratic national
government in the United States (and in some other
areas of British settlement, such as Australia and
Canada) was partly due to the example or influence
of GreatBritain,it also was due in part to the absence
of any one group or colonial government that was
capable of suppressing the others. The 13 colonies
were differentfrom one another even on such important matters as slavery and religion, and none of
them had the power to control the others. The
separate colonies had, in general, experienced a considerable degree of internal democracy under British
rule, and many of the colonies were, because of the
different religious and economic groups they contained, also internallydiverse. Many of the authors of
the U.S. Constitution were, of course, also profoundly aware of the importance of retaining a dispersion of power (checks and balances) that would
prevent autocracy.
Since human nature is profoundly complex and individuals rarely act out of unmixed motives, the assumption of rational self-interest that I have been
using to develop this theory is obviously much too
simple to do justice to reality. But the caricature
assumption that I have been using has not only
simplified a forbiddingly complex reality but also
introduced an element of impartiality:the same motivation was assumed in all regimes. The results are
probablyalso robust enough to hold under richerand
more realisticbehavioral assumptions.
The use of the same motivational assumption and
the same theory to treat both autocracyand democracy also illuminates the main difference in the
sources of economic growth and the obstacles to
progress under autocracy and under democracy. In
an autocracy, the source of order and other public
goods and likewise the source of the social progress
that these public goods make possible is the encompassing interest of the autocrat.The main obstacle to
long-run progress in autocracies is that individual
rights even to such relatively unpolitical or economic
matters as property and contracts can never be secure, at least over the long run.
Although democraciescan also obtain great advantages from encompassing offices and politicalparties,
this is by no means always understood (Olson 1982,
1986); nor are the awesome difficulties in keeping
narrow special interests from dominating economic
policymaking in the long-stable democracy. On the
other hand, democracieshave the great advantage of
preventing significant extractionof social surplus by
their leaders. They also have the extraordinaryvirtue
that the same emphasis on individual rights that is
necessary to lasting democracy is also necessary for
secure rights to both propertyand the enforcementof
American Political Science Review
Vol. 87, No. 3
contracts. The moral appeal of democracy is now
almost universally appreciated, but its economic advantages are scarcely understood.
I am gratefulto the U.S. Agency for InternationalDevelopment for support of my researchon this subject through my
Center for InstitutionalReformand the InformalSector.
1. There is quantitativeevidence from an exhaustive survey of ethnographic accounts showing that references to
slaves are virtually absent in the accounts of the very most
primitive peoples but rather common in more advanced
agricultural societies (Hobhouse, Wheeler, and Ginsberg
1930). Slavery is unprofitablein hunting-gathering societies
(Olson 1967).
2. Small tribes can sometimes form federations and
thereby increasethe number who can obtain collectivegoods
through voluntary action (Olson 1965, 62-63). Some of the
very earliest agriculturalsocieties may have been of this
character.But when the number of small groups itself becomes very large, the large-numberproblemis evident again
and voluntary collective action is infeasible.
3. For citations to much of the best literatureextending
and testing the argument in TheLogicof CollectiveAction,as
well as for valuable new analyses, see Hardin 1982 and
Sandler 1992.
4. This literatureis most constructiveand interesting,but
to the extent to which it tries to explain government in terms
of voluntary transactions,it is not convincing. North, while
emphasizing transactionscosts and contracts, also uses the
notion of the "predatory state" and the logic of collective
action in his account of the state, so his approach must be
distinguished from Barzel's.
5. For the definition of an encompassing interest and
evidence of its importance, see Olson 1982. The logical
structure of the theory that encompassing interests will be
concerned with the outcome for society whereas narrow
groups will not is identicalwith the logic that shows that small
groups can engage in voluntary collective action when large
groups cannot.
6. Many of the more remarkableadvances in civilization
even in historic times took place in somewhat democraticor
nondictatorialsocieties such as ancient Athens, the Roman
Republic,the North Italiancity-states, the Netherlandsin the
seventeenth century, and (at least after 1689) Great Britain.
The explanation for the disproportionaterepresentation of
nonautocraticjurisdictions in human progress is presented
later in the article.
7. The theory offered here applies to communist autocracies as much as to other types, though the theory needs to be
elaboratedto take account of the "implicittax-price discrimination"pioneered by Joseph Stalin. This innovation enabled
Stalinistregimes to obtaina largerproportionof social output
for their own purposes than any other regimes had been able
to do. This explained Stalin's success in making the Soviet
Union a superpower and the great militarycapacityof many
communistregimes. It also generateda unique dependence of
the system on its managementcadre,which ultimatelyproved
fatal.Forhow the offeredtheoryappliesto communistautocracies and the societies in transition, see Clague and Rausser
1992, pref., chap. 4; Murrelland Olson 1991;Olson 1993.
8. Schumpeter'sanalysisis in his "Crisisof the TaxState,"
written in the highly taxed Austria-HungarianEmpirelate in
WorldWarI; Ibn Kalduhn'sis in his classic, TheMugaddimah.
9. A mathematicaland a geometricalproof of this conclusion and an analysis of many other technicalquestions raised
by the present theory is availableon request.
10. When war erodes confidence about what the boundaries of an autocrat's domain will be, an autocrat's time
horizon with respect to his possession of any given territory
shortens-even if he believes that he will remainin controlof
some territorysomewhere. In the limit, complete uncertainty
about what territoryan autocratwill control implies roving
banditry. The advantages of stationarybanditry over roving
banditry are obviously greatest when there are natural and
militarilydefensible frontiers.Interestingly,the earlieststates
in history emerged mainly in what one anthropologistcalls
"environmentallycircumscribed"areas, that is, areas of arable land surrounded by deserts, mountains, or coasts (see
Cameiro 1970). The environmentalcircumscriptionnot only
provides militarilyviable frontiersbut also limits the opportunity for defeated tribes to flee to other areas in which they
could support themselves (as Cameiro points out). This in
turn means that the consensual democracy characteristicof
the earlieststages of social evolution is, in these geographical
conditions, replacedby autocraticstates earlierthan in other
11. For more examples of other types of reason, see Olson
12. In the interest of brevity, democracyis here defined as
competitive elections, social pluralism, and the absence of
autocracy, rather than in terms of universal suffrage. Although how a narrowersuffrageturns into a wider suffrage
can be explainedby straightforwardextensions of the logic of
the theory offered here, developing these extensions and
testing them against the historicalevidence would not be a
small undertaking.
13. For strikingevidence on how the growth of cities was
much greaterin medieval and early modem Europein democraticor less autocraticregimes, see DeLong and Schleifer
1992. In effect, the DeLong and Schleiferpaper is a test of the
advantages of democracythat I put forward.
Banfield, Edward. 1958. TheMoralBasisof a Backward
Glencoe, IL:Free Press.
Carniero, Robert L. 1970. "A Theory of the Origin of the
State." Science169:733-38.
Clague, Christopher, and Gordon Rausser, eds. 1992. The
in EasternEurope.Cambridge:
Basil Blackwell.
DeLong,J. Bradford,and AndreiSchleifer.1992."Princesand
Merchants:European City Growth before the Industrial
Revolution."HarvardUniversity. Mimeo.
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Hobhouse, L. T., G. C. Wheeler, and M. Ginsberg.1965. The
MaterialCultureand SocialInstitutionsof the SimplerPeoples
London:Routledge & K. Paul.
Kalduhn,Ibn. 1967. TheMugaddimah.
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and War."AmericanPoliticalScienceReview86:24-37.
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CentrallyPlanned Economies."Journalof Comparative
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Haven: Yale University Press.
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Soviet-typeSocieties."Journalof SovietNationalities
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Olson, Mancur. 1993. "From Communism to a MarketDemocracy."Centerfor InstitutionalReformand the Informal
Sector. Typescript.
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Yu-hsiang.Stanford:StanfordUniversity Press.
Mancur Olson is Distinguished Professor of Economics and head of the Center for
InstitutionalReformand the InformalSector, University of Maryland,College Park,
MD 20742.
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