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« Study the History of Political Economy Young Aspiring Economists | Main | Anarchy, Order, and/or Chaos in Egypt? »


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Hear all parties.

Revolutions are loosely predictable; if a people are repressed, they will eventually revolt. What is not predictable at all is whether the revolution will be explosive or implosive, but some research suggests that the more repressive a regime is, the milder will be the revolution, while the less repressive regime will experience a much more violent revolution (See: "Murder in the Middle," which contrasts the implosion of the Soviet Union with the explosion of Yugoslavia).

The greatest part of the unpredictability of revolutions is what form they will take after the initial replacement of power. Terror regimes replaced revolutions in France and Iran and the Soviet Union, while democratic governance replaced revolutions in the United States, England, and India...perhaps suggesting that there is something to the idea that the Magna Charter has an enduring positive influence on how a people go about revolting against the established power structure.

Finally, what is important about revolutions is not what sparked the conflagration; they vary so wildly as to be utterly non-correlative. What is important to understanding the conflagration is recognizing the dry tinder being assembled for the resultant fire. The tinder is repression, which acts to build up the heat until a spontaneous combustion suddenly and unexpectedly---but predictably---ignites the entire dry tinder of the repressed society.

Which means, the very worst concept in foreign affairs is "stability," the buzz words favored by all thugs, theocrats, and mass murderers. Repression acts against human nature until there is a conflgration; freedom acts to dissipate human nature so that revolution does not occur. Counter-intuitively, it is freedom that best promotes "stability" in a society, and it is repression which most often causes 'instability.'

Do you think anyone in Saudi Arabia, Syria, North Korea, Zimbabwe or the PRC understands this?

In terms of what motivates a revolution, and then what replaces the existing regime if it is successful, we should not totally ignore the "power of ideas."

Both the American and French Revolutions were preceded by years of intellectual debate and discussion among at least certain influential circles in those societies concerning what were the causes of existing conditions that needed redress, and what should replace the "old regime," if overthrown?

In America, a more Lockian view of man, society and government (and the intellectual and political heritage that had evolved in Great Britain that had help mold that conception) lead the American founders to see a danger in both the "rule of the one" (monarchy) and the "rule of the many" (democracy). They, therefore, were concerned with safeguarding the "natural rights" of the individual to his life, liberty, property, and pursuit of happiness. The underlying philosophy was one that we have come to call "classical liberalism." This set the tone and direction for much of what followed.

In France, a dominating idea was Rousseau's notion of the "General Will," under which the individual surrendered a good part of the liberty that was his in some "state of nature." And since the General Will can never be wrong since it represents the "true" will of "all," the individual might have to be "forced" to be "free." That is, do what was "really" in his true self-interest, if he only fully appreciated the content of that "General Will." Thus, was born the ideal of "totalitarian democracy" -- and all its consequences following 1789.

This is not to down play or ignore the insightful "public choice" aspects of understanding the dynamics of political revolutions. But there are times when men "bare their chests at the barricades." However, they rarely do it to save a few dollars in their taxes by revolting against tax-funded special interest group favors and privileges.

They do it for "justice," "freedom," or "the rights of man," or the ending of "class-based exploitation of the workers," or overturning the sinfulness of the "unrighteous" in the name of establishing "God's order on earth," or . . .

To fully understand the how, when, and why of such social upheavals, and the way they may play out one way rather than some other, we need to remember that "ideas have consequences."

Richard Ebeling

May I suggest that revolutions are not predictable because history tout court is not predictable?

All this unpredictability must be laid at the door of Henri Bergson. He was a very annoying thinker, as Murray Rothbard reminded us (me).

Yes, as time passes so knowledge grows and we cannot predict the future growth of knowledge. (This is where Popper and Bergson agree.)

However, I do not doubt that there has been preference falsification in Egypt for years, just as there was in the Soviet Union. The problem with this idea, however, is that it is either obvious/trivial or something you point to *after* the revolution happens. "See, people are saying all these things they never said before."

What do we mean by "preferences"? People choose in coordination with unobservable preferences and constraints. So if I buy potatoes only when the price went down, was I *falsifying* my preferences before the price went down?

Perhaps this "falsification" idea simply means that there has been no increase in knowledge; only the constraints have changed. This is probably true over the past few years, but in the longer-run ideas -- especially among the youth --have no doubt changed. And so Richard Ebeling is right.

Taking up the importance of ideas, it really helps for revolutionaries to have a good game plan for afterwards in case they win. That was the case in the US but not in France and Russia.

Part of the game plan, both before and after the revolution, is to be clear about the purpose and limits of violence that are acceptable, like the principles of "just wars". This is one of the little-appreciated contributions that Popper provided in the Open Society when he criticised the ambivalent stance of Marxists towards democracy and violence.

In the chapter on the social revolution he condoned one kind of violence, namely that required to remove a tyranny if no other means are available. That is a dangerous move if it is not quickly effective because the prolonged use of violence will undermine the dispassionate rule of reason, and possibly deliver not freedom but the rule of the strong man. "A violent revolution which tries to attempt more than the destruction of tyranny is at least as likely to bring about another tyranny as it is likely to achieve its real aims."

"There is only one further use of violence in political quarrels which I should consider justified. I mean the resistance, once democracy has been attained, to any attack (whether from within or without the state) against the democratic constitution and the use of democratic methods. Any such attack, especially if it comes from the government in power, or if it is tolerated by it, should be resisted by all loyal citizens, even to the use of violence. In fact, the working of democracy rests largely upon the understanding that a government which attempts to misuse its powers and to establish itself as a tyranny (or which tolerates the establishment of a tyranny by anybody else) outlaws itself, and that the citizens have not only a right but also a duty to consider the action of such a government as a crime, and its members as a dangerous gang of criminals. But I hold that such violent resistance to attempts to overthrow democracy should be unambiguously defensive. No shadow of doubt must be left that the only aim of the resistance is to save democracy. A threat of making use of the situation for the establishment of a counter-tyranny is just as criminal as the original attempt to introduce a tyranny; the use of such a threat, even if made with the candid intention of saving democracy by deterring its enemies, would therefore be a very bad method of defending democracy; indeed, such a threat would confuse the ranks of its defenders in an hour of peril, and would therefore be likely to help the enemy.

"These remarks indicate that a successful democratic policy demands from the defenders the observance of certain rules. A few such rules will be listed later in this chapter"

This is a summary of the second part of the chapter.


All reports on Egypt vindicate Tullock’s view of revolutions. The revolutions are products of inter-elite rivalry, in this case, in the context of looming succession.

The street violence is a catalytic event that threatens to incite police and army mutinies and desertions.

Members of the Egyptian elite must decide who is most likely to retain security forces loyalty and discipline. This is why everyone agrees that the attitude of the military is pivotal in Egypt. The military will be the handmaidens of any revolution.

The street protests in Iran failed because the military and security forces stayed loyal. The military switched their loyalty to the Prime Minister in Tunisia.

The fall of communist regimes also was about members of the ruling elite replacing older leaders and members of the elite jockeying for power with new leaders.

The role of mass demonstrations in Eastern Europe was to focus attention on who could maintain security forces loyalty and discipline in an environment where co-option was increasingly preferred to repression.

This as because although the cost of co-opting people is a decrease in the standard of living of members of the elite, the cost of more repression is the danger that members of the elite will themselves be victimised. Co-option was already rampant with at the fall of USSR with the communist party having 26 million members.

There have been no revolutions in China, Cuba and N. Korea because all have, to paraphrase Tullock, moderately efficient secret police willing to torture and kill.

Remember Popper: a true test of a theory focuses on potential refutations of its more bold and novel predictions. There will always be empirical anomalies troubling any theory, but how many must arise before the seeds of doubt are overwhelming?

The failure of central planning was not a reason for the fall of communism because China, Cuba and N. Korea continued on. More to the point, plenty of autocrats have securely ruled for decades over economies that descended into total basket-cases because of their economic policies. Recall many parts of Africa and Burma.

Discussions of theories of popular revolutions suffer from a confirmation bias.

I think we will see the same thing in China. Today the Chinese people are relatively happy because of the explosive process of economic growth of the last 30 years. However, when this process starts to slow down (consequence of the natural exhaustion of profit opportunities and the reduction of the marginal product of capital), the Chinese government will lose popularity, and since China will be an urban country, with the majority of the population with access to modern means of communication and with some economic security, they will demand rights that today are denied to the population.

In Brazil a similar process to the one that I predict occurred during the redemocratization in the 80's. From 1964 to 1985 Brazil was a military regime, with limited freedom of speech. However, from 1964 to 1980, the regime justified itself with the average rate of GDP growth of 7-8% per year, once inflation and crisis knocked the door in the early 80's, with inflation rates of 100-200% a year, and unemployment increased, the complacency with the regime ceased and democracy was reestablished. The dictatorship tried to maintain their power, but all governments depend fundamentally on the will of the population. If the Chinese population doesn't like their government, it will change.

In North Korea, Africa and Cuba the vast majority of the population still doesn't have enough food for their needs. And people tend to follow certain priorities, first they try to satisfy their basic biological needs after that they start to think about freedom and democracy.

The case of Egypt is similar to Brazil: the country had a process of robust economic development from 1980 to 2008, but with the recent crisis and the increase in food prices, recently the living standards of the population suffered, and the Egyptian population, now capable of caring for non biological preferences, started to revolt.

Rafael: "The case of Egypt is similar to Brazil: the country had a process of robust economic development from 1980 to 2008..."

Sociologists used to say that revolutions happen when things are good and getting better, not when they are bad and expected to get worse. I think Egypt agrees with that old notion. When things are good, people's expectations outrun reality and they become angry. Expectations are everything.

Iran is another good example. Economic growth was great under the Shah, so the people overthrew him. Per Capita gdp has fallen by 3/4 in Iran since the revolution but there seems to be no revolt in site that can overthrow the government.

Here is my theory of Egypt's revolution:


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