“It was obvious in March that the war was a colossal mistake—and that there were voices warning of the great dangers and difficulties of the invasion,” says Georgy Egorov, professor of managerial economics and decision sciences at the Kellogg School. “At the end of the day, the decision-making process boiled down to a few people close to Putin who acted like yes.”
In the long view of history, this failure to seek wise counsel is more the rule than the exception. From Emperor Nicholas II’s decision to enter World War I to Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, authoritarian leaders have a history of entering pointless conflicts that ultimately weaken or topple their own regimes.
So why does the same story keep repeating itself? In a new working paper, Egorov and Konstantin Sonin of the University of Chicago use game theory to help answer this question. They argue that institutional autocracies like Russia, which have complex bureaucracies surrounding authoritarian rulers, gradually degenerate as leaders suppress opponents and avoid honest advisers. As the downward spiral continues, authoritarians are left with only the dubious guidance of slanderers.
Putin is a perfect illustration of this path from relative competence to stupidity. “In his first term, his policies, at least on the economic side, were relatively sound. He did not waste the oil windfall at the time, despite calls to do just that. If he had resigned after two terms, there would have been memorial services for him while he was alive,” says Egorov.
But the longer Putin stayed in power, “grabbing power became more and more important to him, and that ultimately led to the top-down corruption of institutions and the colossal mistake we’re seeing now.”
How authoritarian regimes degenerate
Egorov and Sonin’s model of authoritarian decentralization has two components. The first involves the despot’s struggle to stay in power. Whenever challenged by an adversary, the leader faces a decision: he can spare his former adversary, or he can engage in repression, for example, by arresting, exiling, or executing her. If the opponent successfully ousts the incumbent, they become the new leader and face the same choice between repression and mercy.
Suppressing rivals is beneficial to the leader because then those rivals are unlikely or unable to challenge him again. But it also raises the stakes: if the leader is ever overthrown, he is more likely to be oppressed himself. Clinging to power becomes, sometimes literally, a matter of life or death. As a result, repression begets repression.
As this struggle unfolds, the leader also selects advisers to help him run the country—a process that constitutes the second element of the model. The leader has two choices: he can appoint people who are not the brightest but are completely loyal, or he can choose those who are highly capable but potentially dangerous to him. Thanks to their intelligence (and perhaps their cunning), these advisors can see which opponents are most likely to overthrow the leader, so they seize the opportunity to switch sides and betray the leader.
For a leader who has never been involved in repression, an experienced subordinate could be worth the risk. But for a leader who has suppressed his opponents, a competent-but-possibly-disloyal adviser would be too dangerous. After all, betrayal could lead to his own death or imprisonment. For this reason, he will choose to surround himself with only the most loyal people, even though they are not particularly suitable for their work.
“In a way, it becomes a mutually reinforcing process,” Egorov explains. Bad advice from the leader’s yes-men creates problems and “makes him more paranoid and more repressive of the people around him, even when there’s no particular threat.” As these crackdowns accelerate, the circle tightens until only the most loyal friends make the most important decisions and the regime begins to crumble.
The model suggests that the descent into impotence is a natural outcome of authoritarianism. The cycle begins with the decision to suppress opponents—a temptation to which almost all autocratic rulers succumb if they rule long enough, even if they show leniency early on. As time passes, the leader begins to realize that “as I get rid of more opponents, they become more dangerous for me,” explains Egorov. “That way, I’m basically sealing my fate – if someone takes me on, I’m too dangerous to keep around.”
Building a model of authoritarians’ actions allows for “a unified picture of why people make big mistakes in pursuit of arguably small prizes,” says Egorov. The model also shows that the initial success of an authoritarian regime says little about what to expect in the future: “Regime maturity does not mean better decision-making—if anything, quite the opposite.”
Authoritarian countries that manage to maintain long periods of stable rule are usually those that have ensured that power does not rest with one person for too long. In China, for example, the three previous presidents ruled for only a decade each, which prevented the spiral of repression from going too far and “basically turning back the clock on the authoritarian regime,” Egorov argues.
This can be changed with the lifting of presidential term limits under Xi JinpingEgorov says: “There is no reason to believe that in the second decade of Xi Jinping’s rule, China is not exactly on the same path, perhaps slowly but surely.”
When it comes to the fate of the Russian president, Egorov has no crystal ball. Putin may be able to stay in power a little longer by “making the regime even more miserable and more oppressive.” Alternatively, there could be a coup initiated by leaders and some of the people “who are just fed up and who are not afraid of the consequences because they have already lost so much.”
Either way, the research makes one thing clear: “It’s an important lesson that in autocracies, things tend to go downhill.”