Han Solo and the Economics of Rebellion Against Repressive Regimes

Economist Daniel Hamermesh has an entertaining game theoretical analysis of Han Solo’s decision to fight for the rebels against the Empire back in the first Star Wars movie. The analysis is a bit of a joke, but there is a serious point here. And not the one that Hamermesh emphasizes:

In the original Star Wars movie (Episode IV), Luke Skywalker pleads with Han Solo to help the Rebel Alliance battle the Empire, but Han refuses and a disgusted Luke storms off. Chewbacca, being a student of game theory, lays out the payoff bimatrix to Han in their “conversation” [Note by IS: there follows a payoff matrix in which it is clear that the Rebels will maximize their payoff by fighting regardless of what Han does, and that Han, in turn can increase both his payoff and that of the Rebels' if he chooses to fight too]….
Han understands that the Rebels have a dominant strategy of fighting. Knowing that, although he has no dominant strategy, and being the self-centered person he has already shown himself to be, Han realizes he is better off choosing to aid the Rebels and fight. (Fight, Fight) is a Nash equilibrium and also a Pareto optimum….

Hamermesh downplays the real game theoretical reason why it’s rational for Han to fight: His contribution is likely to be decisive to the outcome. After all, he’s got “the fastest ship in the galaxy,” and it can make mincemeat of Imperial tie-fighters (as we already saw earlier in the movie). Hamermesh’s payoff matrix implicitly represents this by positing that if Han fights, he increases his own payoff from 5 to 8, and that of the Rebels from 7 to 10. In truth, however, Han’s contribution might well make the difference between victory and total defeat (as in fact happens). Moreover, the speed of the Millenium Falcon minimizes the risk that Han takes should things go badly. He has a good chance of running away unscathed. I’ll ignore the fact that he also times his arrival at the battle perfectly, such that it’s clear exactly what he has to do to ensure victory at little risk to himself; if it looked like the Rebels were going to lose, he could have just as easily have destroyed Luke’s fighter instead of Vader’s and then claimed he was there to help the Empire all along.

Now the serious part: Consider how different is the situation of most people suffering under oppressive governments from Han Solo’s. If any one of them tries to rebel, it is highly unlikely that their actions will have a decisive impact on the regime’s fate. On the other hand, they, unlike Han, don’t have the Millenium Falcon to escape in. If they defy the government, they will likely be caught and punished. Of course if all or most of them resist at once, they might well overthrow the state. But it is hard to coordinate a mass simultaneous uprising in a repressive regime, and the strong incentive for any individual is to free ride on the efforts of others. Ironically, the more repressive the regime, the more severe the collective action problem involved. That’s why a mass movement to overthrow the totalitarian North Korean government is far less likely than one that overthrows a run of the mill dictatorship that oppresses the people much less.

This point also explains why most repressive regimes that are overthrown fall either because they were taken down by a small clique of insiders (who can make individually decisive contributions because of their privileged positions of power) or by a mass uprising that occurs because the regime itself begins to liberalize and the people begin to think that dissent won’t be punished anywhere near as ruthlessly as before (this is what happened in Eastern Europe and the USSR in 1989-91, as Timur Kuran showed in a brilliant book). Sometimes, as in Iran this year, the people imagine the regime is less committed to repression than it actually is, and their resulting protests are brutally suppressed.

This analysis has many important implications. But I will focus on just one. The next time someone tells you that Soviet-era Russians, Iranians, North Koreans or any other population living under severe oppression actually support their rulers and their policies or are “just getting the government they deserve,” remember how different their situation is from Han Solo’s. And ask yourself what you would do in their place if any act of dissent you undertook was both highly unlikely to make a difference and likely to draw severe punishment such as death or imprisonment. Some courageous dissidents are brave enough to act despite such odds. But it’s understandable if most people aren’t.

That’s not too say that some people don’t genuinely support nasty governments and believe their propaganda. Indoctrination and censorship are often effective. However, the mere absence of an effective rebellion or large-scale dissident movement is not proof that a majority or anything close to one actually supports their rulers. Indeed, the existence of a massive apparatus of repression and censorship is a strong sign that the rulers themselves do not believe they have popular support, and want to make sure that no one can become a potential Han Solo.

UPDATE: This isn’t essential to the analysis. But Han Solo, unlike most potential dissidents in repressive societies, stood to gain purely individual benefits from fighting that he could not get if the regime were defeated without his help. For example, he greatly increased his chances of getting to marry Princess Leia and becoming a high-ranking officer in the Rebel Alliance. In Return of the Jedi, we learn that he has been given the rank of general, which is extremely rapid advancement indeed from his previous position as an impecunious smuggler. Marrying a princess and becoming a general are not likely outcomes for your average potential North Korean or Iranian dissident.