I’ll leave it to the professional pundits to determine whether House Republicans, President Obama, or someone else got the better deal with last week’s announced compromise. One winner in the deal, however, is the ethanol lobby. Although conservative Republicans, environmental groups and even Al Gore had come out against extending ethanol’s tax breaks, Iowa lawmakers made sure ethanol got (more than) its share of the bargain. Alas, ethanol’s not alone, as the lame-duck tax bill is beginning to look like a Christmas tree.
Archive for the ‘Public Choice’ Category
I have several times criticized Western observers who naively assume that pro-government statements by people who live under repressive regimes necessarily reflect their true opinions (see here and here). Even if they actually hate the government, such people have obvious incentives to pretend otherwise in order to avoid punishment. At the same time, it is also a mistake to conclude that all citizens of repressive regimes are closet dissidents. Often, many of them genuinely support the regime and its ideology, if only because indoctrination can be effective, especially in an environment where opposing views are suppressed.
How can we find out the true beliefs of people living under repressive governments? There are several strategies, each of which has its flaws. For example, interviewing emigrants can be very useful; but they are unlikely to be a fully representative sample of the society they come from.
In Foreign Policy, political scientists Angela Hawken and Matt Leighty describe an interesting recent effort to overcome this problem: “guerrilla polling”:
We’ve been intimately involved in the effort to conduct public-opinion surveys in countries controlled by authoritarian regimes.In January, we completed the analysis of an in-person survey of 1,046 adults living in Syria. The poll, conducted by the Democracy Council, a California-based NGO, was the first face-to-face survey collected by an unsanctioned organization on the ground in Syria.
Democracy Council had to overcome several hurdles to pull off the survey. First, it had to find 60 qualified interviewers in a country where such data collection is illegal and then train them from scratch. The interviewers were recruited by word of mouth, and each was put through an extensive background check to make sure that he or she had no association with the Syrian government.
New technology greatly assisted in the training process. Democracy Council prepared its field staff using Skype, the well-known Internet calling service, which now allows videoconferencing. Skype provided several advantages: The calls are encrypted, so any messages intercepted by Syrian security services would be unintelligible, and videoconferencing avoided the need for any in-person gathering, which might have attracted the attention of the authorities.
The resulting survey “reflected poorly on the Syrian government”:
The poll found that a majority of Syrians believe that their political and economic situation is poor and worse than it was five years ago. They consider the government to be corrupt and have little faith in its ability to confront the country’s problems. A substantial majority believes the state of emergency, which has been in place since 1963 and used to justify violations of civil liberties, should be lifted, and a majority reported that it would leave Syria if it had the opportunity to do so.
Hawken and Leighty discuss some methodological limitations of this kind of research. I would add that I do not share their confidence that it can be easily replicated in societies that are more repressive than Syria, such as North Korea (a country they discuss as a site for future research). Syria has a repressive government. But enough private individuals have access to the internet and Skype to make Democracy Council’s project feasible. Moreover, the punishment for dissent in Syria is probably less severe.
Hawken and Leighty also point out that the Syrian government is now aware of the study and will surely try to prevent a recurrence. Other authoritarian regimes will likely do the same. Future efforts at guerrilla polling will no longer enjoy the advantage of surprise that Hawken and Leighty admit played a key role in the success of their Syrian study.
It is also important not to overstate the significance of their findings. The fact that a repressive regime is unpopular doesn’t necessarily mean that it is ripe for collapse. Repression can often keep a despised government in power for long periods of time, because of the difficulty of organizing effective resistance. At the same time, such regimes do risk collapse if they start to liberalize their economic or political systems, as happened in the case of the USSR and Eastern Europe in 1989-91. If the threat of repression is lifted or even significantly eased, an unpopular regime may fall apart faster than anyone expected.
Despite these caveats, “guerrilla polling” is a useful methodological innovation, one that effectively takes advantage of modern technology that is difficult for government to fully control. Hopefully, future guerrilla pollsters will find ways to stay a step ahead of the secret police.
One of my longstanding interests is the political economy of ancient Greece and Rome. Former VC-er Eric Posner has an excellent new article on the political economy of the Roman Republic:
The constitution of the Roman Republic featured a system of checks and balances that would eventually influence the American founders, yet it had very different characteristics from the system of separation of powers that the founders created. The Roman senate gave advice but did not legislate; the people voted directly on bills and appointments in popular assemblies; and a group of magistrates, led by a pair of consuls, proposed bills, brought prosecutions, served as judges, led military forces, and performed other governmental functions. This paper analyzes the Roman constitution from the perspective of agency theory, and argues that the extensive checks and balances, which were intended to prevent the recurrence of monarchy, may have gone too far. Suitable for an earlier period in which the population was small and the political class was homogeneous, the constitution proved unworkable when Rome acquired a vast, diverse empire. The lessons of Roman constitutionalism for the American constitution are also discussed.
Eric makes many interesting points, and I learned a lot from the paper. But I disagree with the bottom-line conclusion that the Roman Republic failed because it had too many checks and balances, which led to paralysis and gridlock. Even in its last, most dysfunctional century, the Republic repeatedly vanquished powerful foes, including monarchs such as Mithridates of Pontus, Eric’s argument that monarchy was a more efficient form of government during this period notwithstanding. The Republic also undertook various important new domestic policy initiatives, including expanding the citizenship and granting land to enormous numbers of military veterans. This is not the sign of a polity paralyzed by gridlock.
On balance, I tend to agree with the more conventional view that the Republic failed not because of gridlock, but because of agency problems: the Senate and people gradually lost control of the larger and larger military forces needed to defend their growing empire. These forces were increasingly more loyal to their immediate commanders than to the state. As a result, unscrupulous generals such as Marius, Sulla, and ultimately Caesar could use “their” troops to seize power. This problem probably could not be easily solved in a large empire during an era when communications were difficult and slow and the central government could not readily control far-flung standing armies. Indeed, the same problem eventually played a decisive role in bringing down the empire that replaced the republic.
Because I am unpersuaded by the paper’s explanation for the collapse of the Roman Republic, I am also skeptical of the claim that the lesson for the modern United States is that we need fewer checks and balances than we have. Like the Roman Republic, we actually have a fairly strong record of outperforming rival states with more unitary governments (both dictatorships and parliamentary democracies). In some areas, my fear is that we need more checks and balances rather than fewer, in part because we too have some serious agency problems – albeit not as severe as those of the Romans.
Despite this disagreement, I think this is a great paper, and well worth your time if you are at all interested in the subject. And for those who absolutely can’t get enough of ancient political economy, there is my shorter piece on democracy and political knowledge in ancient Athens, and this post I wrote about whether we should revive the Athenian Council of 500.
Economic studies show that local governments often step up enforcement of minor traffic offenses during recessions in order to increase revenue. I seem to have been the victim of this kind of recession-driven revenue-mongering by the authorities in Falls Church, Virginia.
Twice during the past year, I have been ticketed for driving over the 25 MPH speed limit on Route 7 near downtown Falls Church, Virginia. Both times, the officers claimed I was going over 40 MPH, even though there was heavy traffic and it would have been physically impossible for me to have gone that fast without hitting the car ahead of me (which I didn’t come close to doing). I admit that it is quite possible that I was in fact going over 25 MPH. But this is a busy commercial thoroughfare where nearly all the traffic goes faster than that. As the officer in the second incident admitted to me, “all the cars [he] checked were going over 25 MPH.” Had I chosen to go much slower than the rest of the traffic, I would have endangered both myself and others. That’s why I got nailed in the second incident despite the fact that I knew to be careful in this area after what happened the first time.
During normal times, police generally let minor infringements of the speed limit go because they recognize that it is unrealistic to expect drivers to fully obey the speed limit and because they know that going much slower than the surrounding traffic is dangerous. During a deep recession, however, local governments pressure police to crack down and increase revenue. I suspect that such pressure is particularly likely in areas like Route 7 where much of the traffic is by people who don’t live in the jurisdiction. That way, local governments can fleece drivers who can’t even punish them at the polls for doing so. Such behavior undermines the implicit social contract between police and drivers under which the former focus on motorists who pose a genuine threat to public safety, while the latter can be assured that if they drive safely, minor infractions won’t be punished. The implicit contract is especially vital in an area like this stretch of Route 7, where the posted speed limit is simply unrealistic.
Between 2003 and 2009, I lived in Falls Church and drove down the very same road hundreds of times. I didn’t do anything differently than I have over the last year. Yet I never had any problems with traffic police. Since leaving Falls Church in August 2009, I have been stopped twice in that location, despite going there far less often (no more than 10-12 times in all). It’s possible that I somehow became a much more aggressive driver since the recession began (though social science data suggest that men become more cautious drivers as they pass into their thirties, and I am now 37). But it’s far more likely that it was enforcement that changed rather than me.
I was so angry that I actually contested the first incident in court, notwithstanding folk wisdom suggesting that I was wasting my time. Despite the facts that 1) the officer admitted that she misidentified the color of my Mazda 3, 2) both I and and my then-fiancee (who was with me in the car at the time) testified to the nature of the traffic, which made it impossible to drive 40 MPH, 3) the officer didn’t contest our testimony, and 4) the Mazda 3 is a very common car, the judge ruled against me. I don’t claim that these facts definitively prove that I was innocent. As I said, I don’t know for sure exactly how fast I was going. But they should surely have been enough to prove reasonable doubt, the standard of proof the judge was supposed to be applying.
I’m not an expert on traffic judges. But I suspect that people in that position tend to be biased in favor of the authorities, partly for the understandable reason that the police are usually right, and partly because local governments lobby for the selection of judges who will serve their revenue-raising interests. In Virginia, lower court judges are chosen by their local state legislative delegation, which creates obvious opportunities for lobbying by local governments. The driving public, by contrast, pays little attention to traffic courts because of rational ignorance. Moreover, even a completely unbiased judge can’t do much to protect drivers in cases where the driver really did exceed the speed limit, but in a way that should not have been punished. For these reasons, the judiciary may not be a very effective check against this kind of abuse.
I don’t have the expertise to propose any definitive solutions to this problem. But a few tentative thoughts occur. One possible option is to adopt speed limit laws under which speed limits automatically go up by, say, 5 MPH during a recession. That could offset the tendency towards overenforcement during such periods. Another option is to impose more rigorous state government control over speed limits in areas that get a great deal of traffic from outside the local jurisdiction. That might curb the ability of local governments to use speed traps to fleece out of towners.
Hopefully, those more expert than I am can suggest more and better reforms. In the meantime, I’m going to avoid driving near downtown Falls Church as much as possible. If you live in northern Virginia, you might want to do the same.
The stimulus bill included $5 billion for weatherization projects. The idea was not just to create jobs, but also invest in energy efficiency. The money didn’t get spent quite as quickly as some had hoped, but it was still worthwhile , right? Maybe not. The stimulus funds ramped up weatherization programs so much that quality control and oversight may have suffered.
Exhibit A is Illinois’ Weatherization Assisatance Program, which received $242 million in stimulus money. As the NYT‘s Green blog reports, a new Department of Energy Inspector General audit of Illinois’ program finds serious problems.
An audit by the inspector general focused on some work done by the Community and Economic Development Association of Cook County, one of 35 agencies in Illinois that are expected to share $91 million over three years. The audit looked at 15 homes and found that 12 failed final inspection “because of substandard workmanship.” In some cases, technicians who tuned up gas-fired heating systems did so improperly, so that they emitted carbon monoxide “at higher than acceptable levels.”
In eight cases, initial assessments of the houses and apartments called for “inappropriate weatherization measures.” In one case an inspector called for more attic insulation but ignored leaks in the roof, which would have ruined the insulation, the audit said. And for 10 homes, “contractors billed for labor charges that had not been incurred and for materials that had not been installed.’’ . . .
The federal audit said that Illinois had found a 62 percent error rate when it re-inspected homes weatherized by CEDA. And sometimes CEDA was spending more for materials than an individual homeowner would spend, the audit found. Some of the work created fire hazards, the audit said.
These results may not be representative of programs in other states, but there is good reason to be concerned. Thanks to the stimulus, state agencies got lots more money to spend. In Illinois’ case, the stimulus increased weatherization funds ten-fold. Agencies received the funds even if they lacked the administrative capability to spend it wisely — particularly if they were expected to spend it quickly. As a consequence, high levels of waste were to be expected, and results like those found in the IG’s Illinois audit should not be a surprise.
Center for American Progress house blogger Matthew Yglesias confesses that he has an unlicensed barber, and has no regrets.
Regulation of this sort seems totally unnecessary. People don’t die of bad haircuts, and since hairstyle is a quintessential matter of taste there’s absolutely no reason to think consumers can’t figure out for themselves who has a decent reputation as a cutter of hair. You can cut your own hair perfectly safely in your own house, and if you screw it up all that happens is you need to find a real professional to fix it. But what’s more, even if regulation were somehow a good idea, the composition of the board couldn’t possibly serve a legitimate consumer protection function. It’s overwhelmingly composed of people from the industry whose incentive is to limit competition and raise prices.
But barbers are licensed and heavily regulated in much of the country nonetheless. What could justify this? Sraight razors perhaps? No dice, says Yglesias.
though “torts and the free market will take care of it” isn’t the answer to everything, it’s surely the answer to some things. Getting some kind of training before you shave a dude with a straight razor is obviously desirable in terms of strict self-interest. If you screw it up in a serious way, you’ll face serious personal consequences and the only way to make money doing it—and we’re talking about a very modest sum of money—is to do it properly. People also ought to try to think twice about whether their views are being driven by pure status quo bias. Barbers are totally unregulated in the United Kingdom, is there some social crisis resulting from this? Barber regulations differ from state to state, are the stricter states experiencing some kind of important public health gains?
The government licensing and regulation of barbers, like other hair stylists, is driven by the self-interest of the profession. Licenses restrict entry and reduce competition, enabling those with licenses to capture more rents. This is actually the case with most licensing regimes, even those that appear to serve a greater public interest than barber licenses. Though I doubt Yglesias would go this far, I would argue that it’s rare that a licensing regime of this sort is put in place without the support of those who stand to benefit economically, and that many public spirited rationales, including health and safety, are a smokescreen.
It’s also important to remember that the creation of a licensing, permitting and inspection, or other regulatory regime hardly guarantees protection of the public interest, even if the system was not created for rent-seeking purposes in the first place. Government regulators and inspectors are people too, and may shirk their responsibilities, become corrupted, or otherwise fail to safeguard the public interest. In many major cities, licensing and other local regulatory regimes are opportunities for corruption and graft. We have our share in Cleveland, but we’re not alone. A friend of mine in D.C. was shaken down during the health inspection for her bar in our nation’s Capitol, and check out this story about one building inspector in New York who submitted hundreds of fraudulent inspection reports.
Ygelsias is correct that barber licensing is completely unnecessary, but it’s just the tip of the iceberg. I am not prepared to say that all such regulatory regimes are unnecessary or unwise, but as a former colleague of mine would say, this is an area in which one could swing an axe for days and never hit live wood.
University of Florida lawprof D. Daniel Sokol has published a very good (and extremely favorable) review of co-conspirator Todd Zywicki’s important recent book Public Choice Concepts and Applications in Law (coauthored with Maxwell Stearns), in the Michigan Law Review.
Danny writes that the book is “likely to be recognized as the leading work on the subject for some time.” Having read it myself, I tend to agree. It’s a great introduction to and analysis of the literature on public choice and its implications for law. The book drives home the implications of the simple but important public choice insights that government actions can be understood using the same tools of economic analysis that economists have long applied to the private sector, and that political behavior is often just as self-interested as market behavior. I would also note that the book has an interesting political balance, since Stearns is generally liberal and certainly well to the left of Todd.
Danny’s review essay also considers some possible additional applications of public choice to legal issues that were not covered by Stearns and Zywicki, especially in the field of international law. As he points out, scholars in the international law field have made very little use of public choice analysis, even though international legal institutions have serious public choice problems that may be even worse than those of domestic political processes in Western democracies. John McGinnis and I have sought to help close this gap in the literature in our work on international human rights law and domestic incorporation of international law.
Some of the commenters on my last two posts criticizing libertarian paternalism accuse me of ignoring the possibility that such paternalism is justified by the supposedly superior expertise of government regulators. Actually, I have addressed this point in several previous posts, such as here and here. However, readers can’t be blamed for not taking the time to collect bits and pieces from previous posts scattered over a three year period. Therefore, it may be helpful to collect my thoughts on this point in a single post. To summarize, I think that the regulators’ superior expertise applies at most only to one-half of the relevant equation, that even with respect to that half it has serious drawbacks, and that consumers who need expert advice can usually do better by relying on the private sector.
I. Regulators Lack Expertise on the Subjective Benefits of Risky Activities.
Regulators may have greater knowledge than consumers about the health or safety dangers of risky activities. But they lack comparable knowledge of the benefits that consumers derive from those activities. A public health expert probably knows more than I do about the risks of drinking or smoking. But only I know how much enjoyment I derive from having a beer or puffing on a cigarette. This is especially true when we remember that preferences about such things vary widely. I get zero utility from smoking and (unusually for a Russian) very little from drinking alcohol. Many other people have very different experiences. With respect to the subjective benefits they get from risky activities, consumers actually have vastly greater expertise than regulators do. In a classic 1945 article, F.A. Hayek emphasized the importance of this constraint on expert knowledge:
It may be admitted that, as far as scientific knowledge is concerned, a body of suitably chosen experts may be in the best position to command all the best knowledge available—though this is of course merely shifting the difficulty to the problem of selecting the experts. What I wish to point out is that, even assuming that this problem can be readily solved, it is only a small part of the wider problem.
Today it is almost heresy to suggest that scientific knowledge is not the sum of all knowledge. But a little reflection will show that there is beyond question a body of very important but unorganized knowledge which cannot possibly be called scientific in the sense of knowledge of general rules: the knowledge of the particular circumstances of time and place. It is with respect to this that practically every individual has some advantage over all others because he possesses unique information of which beneficial use might be made, but of which use can be made only if the decisions depending on it are left to him or are made with his active cooperation.
This kind of ignorance might not be a problem for traditional paternalists, who sought to make individuals do the “objectively” right thing without reference to their own preferences. Libertarian paternalists such as Richard Thaler, however, emphasize that they seek to “make people better off as judged by themselves.”
II. Limitations of Regulators’ Analysis of Risk.
Even with respect to estimating health and safety risks, government regulators function under severe constraints. Regulators are not philosopher-kings who can implement whatever conclusions they reach through objective analysis. Rather, they are constrained by political pressure. In a democratic political system, regulators’ decisions will be heavily influenced by public opinion. And voters have very strong incentives to be ignorant about public policy and irrational in their analysis of the limited political information they do have. Both of these limitations of voters are likely to impose severe constraints on the quality of paternalistic regulation. Ironically, leading libertarian paternalist Cass Sunstein has done important work documenting the ways in which irrational public opinion reduces the quality of other forms of regulation (see e.g. here). Paternalistic regulation, libertarian or otherwise, suffers from this weakness as well.
Expert regulators are also vulnerable to interest group pressure. The more complex and technical the regulations they administer, the greater will be the opportunities for interest group lobbying and “capture” of the regulatory process, since rationally ignorant voters will have great difficulty in monitoring the experts performance. Ironically, expert regulators will be least likely to function as truly disinterested experts on precisely those issues where expertise is most needed.
Finally, government experts have major cognitive biases of their own, just as consumers do. And the regulators have less incentive than consumers to try to combat their own prejudices.
Given these three dangers, it is no surprise that government experts have a long history of making dubious risk analyses that were then used to justify costly and intrusive paternalistic policies that turned out to cause far more harm than good. As economist Edward Glaeser pointed out in his important 2006 critique of libertarian paternalism:
Paternalism has been used to justify government actions and rhetoric towards alcohol, drugs, homosexuality, religion-related activity, slavery, and even loyalty to the government itself. The nineteenth century crusade against alcohol brought Prohibition, which appears to have had only a modest impact on alcohol abuse while supporting a large, violent, underground alcohol-based economy. The fight against other drugs is more defensible, but the advocates of marijuana legalization argue that the costs of this government policy far exceed the benefits. Governments have attacked homosexuality for centuries and often used paternalistic rhetoric for doing so....
Most disturbing, governments are often persuaded that service to themselves is indeed the highest of callings, and that as a result for paternalistic reasons people should be induced to serve and be loyal to the government. In the United States, this form of paternalism has been pretty benign at least by world standards (pledges of allegiance, jailing critics of World War I). Places with fewer checks and balances, like Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia, turned to paternalistically justified prostate policies with awful results. Some paternalistic policies have had positive benefits, but much of the time, paternalism has been pretty harmful. Social welfare may be well-served by a general bias against paternalistic interventions.
III. The Advantages of Relying on Private Sector Experts.
None of this proves that we don’t need experts. To the contrary, there are many decisions where we can benefit from expert advice. However, the private sector offers a wide range of opportunities to avail ourselves of such advice without incurring the risks posed by government coercion. I addressed this point in more detail in one of my very first posts on libertarian paternalism:
[I]t is essential to recognize that individual consumers don’t have to rely on government for expertise. They can hire their own experts in the market or rely on more knowledgeable friends and acquiantances. When I get seriously ill, I go to a doctor. When I decide how to invest my money, I rely on the advice of friends who work in venture capital and investment banking. The real question is not whether we are going to rely on experts to help us make decision, but who gets to choose the experts and whether or not the experts will have veto power over the final decision on what to do.....
If instead of each individual choosing his or her own experts, there is a single set of specialists chosen in democratic elections, then the quality of the decision is likely to be impaired by political ignorance....
Of course the experts could instead be chosen by nondemocratic means and insulated from political pressure. Yet, in the absence of democratic control, it will be difficult to ensure that the experts are actually serving the interests of the people as opposed to their own. By contrast, experts hired in a competitive market have better incentives; they know that if they pursue their own interests at the expense of the consumer’s, they are likely to be out of a job......
Finally, both democratic and nondemocratic means of choosing government experts have a common weakness: both eliminate the option of dispensing with experts entirely. For some people, that may well be the best choice...
The second major shortcoming of government-appointed experts relative to those hired in the market is the fact that government coercion deprives the consumer of the right to make the final decision. If I hire an expert in the market, I retain the right to reject his advice and pursuing a different course of action. This is a vitally important option.
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.