NATIONAL BUREAU OF ECONOMIC RESEARCH
NATIONAL BUREAU OF ECONOMIC RESEARCH

A Theory of Military Dictatorships


"Societies where the elite form a strong military in order to prevent democratization are more likely to later lapse into military dictatorships because the military retains some of its power during transitional democracy and can attempt a successful coup against democracy."

Non-democratic regimes almost always rely on some degree of repression against competing groups, often exercised by the military. However, there has been little systematic analysis of why and how the military uses its coercive powers to support such regimes rather than setting up their own. This question is relevant because, although many non-democratic regimes survive with the support of the military, there are numerous examples of military dictatorships that have emerged as a result of a coup against a non-democratic regime or against the subsequent democratic government.

In A Theory of Military Dictatorships (NBER Working Paper No. 13915) authors Daron Acemoglu, Davide Ticchi, and Andrea Vindigni point out that creating a powerful military is a double-edged sword for the elite who wish to maintain their political power in a non-democracy. On the one hand, a powerful military is more effective in preventing transitions to democracy. On the other hand, it necessitates either greater concessions on the part of the elite or an increased risk of a military takeover. The authors investigate the conditions under which the military will act as the agent of the elite in non-democratic regimes (oligarchies) versus those conditions under which oligarchies will turn into military dictatorships. The framework they develop emphasizes the importance of economic inequality, natural resource abundance, and the national defense role of the military -- all important factors in determining whether a strong military will emerge in non-democratic regimes and whether it will later prevent transition to, and the consolidation of, democracy.

The authors construct a model that assumes that the means of violence in the society are in the monopoly of the military; if the elite decide to form a strong military, then they have to live with the political moral hazard problem that this causes. In particular, a strong military may not simply work as their agent, but instead may turn against them, creating a regime more in line with its own objectives. Thus the cost of using repression in non-democratic regimes is higher, because the elite need to pay "efficiency wages" to soldiers, or make other social or policy concessions to the military, in order to prevent coups.

Once a transition to democracy takes place, a strong military poses a coup threat against the nascent democratic regime until the military is reformed. Indeed, the anticipation that the military will be reformed in the future acts as a central motivation for it to undertake coups against democratic governments. In particular, democratic regimes are most vulnerable when they are not strong enough to immediately reform the military, but also cannot commit to making concessions and to not reforming the military (to reduce its power) in the future. Consequently, the authors find, societies where the elite form a strong military in order to prevent democratization are more likely to later lapse into military dictatorships because the military retains some of its power during transitional democracy and can attempt a successful coup against democracy. This leads to a specific and novel channel for the emergence of military dictatorships, which appears to be consistent with the historical evidence. It also highlights how repression during a non-democratic era can have important effects on the economic and political success of a later democratic regime.

The model proposed by the authors also suggests that greater inequality makes the use of the military in non-democratic regimes more likely, and also makes it more difficult for democracies to prevent military coups. Both of these effects increase the likelihood of military regimes following brief democratic episodes. In addition, greater inequality exacerbates the political moral hazard problem in non-democratic regimes, creating another channel for the emergence of military dictatorships.

The authors further show that natural resource rents may also fuel military coups against emerging democracies, though they generally have only ambiguous effects on the political equilibrium in non-democracies: in natural-resource-abundant societies, controlling politics in the context of a non-democratic regime becomes more valuable for the elite, but also more expensive to maintain because of the more severe political moral hazard problem that results from the higher natural resource rents.

Finally and most interestingly, democratic consolidation may also be facilitated by the presence of a potential foreign threat, which makes the military necessary for national defense. This new link between international politics and domestic politics is related to the main economic force in this framework: when there is an international threat, concessions from democratic regimes to the military become more credible, because democracy also needs the military.

-- Les Picker


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