Why People Get Much Worse Government than they Deserve:

In reply to my recent post on the shortcomings of Vladimir Putin's repressive regime in Russia, one commenter suggests that the Russian people are "getting precisely the kind of government they deserve." This is a very common point of view: that people who live under repressive or corrupt governments are in some sense responsible for their own fate. After all, why don't they act to improve the regime or replace it with a different one? My purpose in this post is not to attack an individual commenter, but to point out some major flaws in the widespread view underlying the saying that "people get the government they deserve." The problem is not just that the saying oversimplifies; all sayings do that. The problem is that it is fundamentally misleading. This is one case where liberal strictures against "blaming the victim" should be taken to heart.

I. The Impact of Repression.

If it has a relatively loyal army and secret police, a highly repressive government can survive for decades even if the vast majority of its subjects disapprove of it. Indeed, as economist Timur Kuran explains in an excellent book, such governments can often prevent both their people and outside observers from even realizing the full extent of the regime's unpopularity. Repression can make it dangerous for ordinary people to express their antigovernment views, much less act on them. As Kuran shows, such dynamics enabled communist governments in Russia and elsewhere to persist for many years despite widespread popular distaste for them. Only the regime's own efforts at partial liberalization finally gave the people an opportunity to overthrow it. Some communist regimes, such as Cuba and North Korea, persist to this day because their leaders wisely (from their point of view) chose not to imitate Glasnost and Perestroika.

To be sure, even a totalitarian state would fall apart if all or most of the population ceased to cooperate with it simultaneously. However, organizing such concerted resistance is a classic collective action problem, in which each individual has strong and understandable incentives to free ride on the efforts of others. Not to mention the fact that efforts to organize against the govenrment are likely to be ruthlessly suppressed and punished by the authorities. In light of these facts, I think it is wrong to assume that people living under a repressive regime necessarily approve of its policies. It is even more wrong to blame them for their supposed cowardice in failing to engage in active resistance. Given the dire risks to dissidents and their families, it is understandable if many are unwilling to take them. How many of us would be so brave if we were in their place?

II. Bad Government and Cultural Values.

Perhaps, however, the saying that "people get the government they deserve" is true in the weaker sense that corrupt or repressive regimes in some sense reflect the cultural values of the societies they rule over. Even if the people disapprove of the regime, their culture may be responsible for keeping it in place.

There is, of course, some truth to this, but far less than is often believed. Often, institutions matter far more than cultural values in causing repression and corruption. East and West Germany had similar cultures, and the same is true of North and South Korea. It was political institutions, not cultural values, that turned two of these countries into oppressive nightmares, and the two others into relatively successful democracies. Similarly, the large number of Russian immigrants living in the West or in Israel do not engage in nearly as much crime and corruption as Russians living in Russia, and are much more willing to criticize their government. Again, the difference is caused more by institutions than by cultural values. On average, Russians living in the West are not significantly better people than Russians living in Russia and do not have fundamentally different values. Rather, they face a different structure of incentives created by differing political institutions.

To some extent, of course, repressive societies often do have differing cultural values from freer ones. Yet these differences may be as much the result of repression as the cause of it. Living in an oppressive society reduces trust, "normalizes" corruption, and habituates people to government domination of the economy and civil society. In addition, repressive regimes often engage in extensive indoctrination of their subjects, while suppressing opposing points of view. Even in a society like East Germany, which existed in close proximity to to a freer society with a similar ethnic background, indoctrination had a major impact. People may not buy the government line all the way, but it is hard to avoid being influenced by it when it is constantly drummed into you and is the only viewpoint that can be publicly expressed. If all of this tends to warp cultural values over time, that is not surprising and is not primarily the fault of the people themselves.

Cultural values do have at least some impact. But it is easy to overstate their effects, while downplaying the ways in which political institutions often matter much more and indeed alter the culture itself.

Finally, I do acknowledge that the saying that "people get the government they deserve" has somewhat greater validity in democracies than in authoritarian states. Even here, however, it misleads at least as much as it enlightens. If time permits, I will take up the case of democracy in a follow-up post.

UPDATE: Various commenters note that Putin came to power in a (relatively) free election and is popular with the majority of Russians. Both points are true, and they do make Putin different from, say, Lenin, who took power despite the opposition of the vast majority of the Russian population. But neither point necessarily undermines my broader argument. After seizing power, Putin soon began to repress political opponents and shut down opposition media, making it very difficult for effective opposition to his policies to arise in the future. Moreover, the authoritarian and nationalistic political instincts that led many Russians to support Putin's initial ascension to power were conditioned by decades of Soviet indoctrination, and before that by the repressive policies of the czars. The Russian "values" that help maintain support for Putin are as much the product of repression as they are its cause.

UPDATE #2: Other commenters note that my comparison between Russian immigrants abroad and Russians in Russia is flawed because the former are in part self-selected for their distaste for Russian authoritarianism and totalitarianism. This is true, and I decided not to consider this issue in the original post only because of space constraints (in retrospect, a mistake). I don't think it completely invalidates the comparison, however. While it is fair to say that many Russian emigrants are indeed more liberal than those who remained at home, there are some groups of emigrants who can't be characterized that way. The many nobles and right-wing nationalists who fled to the West after the Bolshevik Revolution (along with many liberals and socialists) certainly did not lack for authoritarian instincts. Yet they and their descendants have behaved far differently in the West than they did in Russia. The political institutions of the West had a far bigger impact on their behavior than the dysfunctional cultural values that they brought with them.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Why People Get Much Worse Government than they Deserve:
  2. Gary Kasparov on Putin's Russia and the Godfather: