Tuesday, March 1, 2022

Information Problems in Autocracy

In my business-government relations class yesterday, we were originally scheduled to discuss empirical papers on general information problems in government and bureaucracy. We instead discussed the Russian-Ukrainian situations as best we could.

One interesting result, coming out of intelligence work, is that Putin and others seem generally surprised at how difficult this invasion has been. Why might that be? 

One problem in general is that leaders like to surround themselves with "yes people". Leaders don't enjoy having thorns in their sides who challenge their every move or tell them they are wrong. (That's one reason Georgetown's provost is unlikely to ask me to be vice provost.) They prefer to have people who tell them good news and give them optimistic assessments of their plans. That's true even of nice people, like your kindly dean or friendly boss. But this means that in general people in power in bureaucracies will often get lower quality information than they need, or get information presented to them in a rosy way. 

Dictators in particular have a tendency to shoot the messenger and so probably get worse information. For instance, consider a story about Stalin. He orders a census. Because he had murdered and forcibly starved so many people, the real census numbers are low. The census officials know they can't tell Stalin the truths they lie and inflate the numbers. They didn't inflate them enough, so Stalin has them shot. The message is clear: Tell Stalin what he wants to hear. And thus throughout his dictatorship, Stalin is fed false information because his subordinates want to survive.

You might think a perfectly rational dictator would want perfect information so they can make optimal choices. However, dictators--and indeed bosses in general in hierarchies--have significant leeway to externalize the costs of their own ignorance and irrationality onto others. For instance, suppose Putin did not know that the West would respond as it has. Who is suffering the most right now? I doubt Putin is eating any worse, but the average Russian citizen is suffering a lot. Accordingly, while dictators need sufficiently good information and sufficiently rational processing of that information to stay in power, they do not have an incentive structure which leads them to prioritize perfect information or perfect rationality. They, too, are partially rationally ignorant and rationally irrational.