Selectorate Theory | #2

My first assignment from Dr. Morrow was to read The Logic of Political Survival, the work he had co-authored on selectorate theory. Selectorate theory is a theory on how a nation’s method of selecting political leaders influences how those leaders spend the nation’s resources. The theory makes use of game theory to construct its arguments; it sets up a series of “games” in which an incumbent leader and a challenger compete to be selected for office, and during which the leader chooses how to spend national resources in order to influence his chances of being selected. The theory is explained in prose, and mathematical proofs of the theory’s claims are provided in an appendix. The takeaway of the theory is that in societies where the group of individuals who select the leader is small, leaders will spend a large proportion of the nation’s resources on paying off those individuals, while in a society where the selecting group is large, leaders will spend most of their resources on public works that benefit the whole society.

The first step in explaining the theory is defining some of the terms it uses. The leader is, of course, the nation’s current leader, while the challenger is the entity hoping to become the leader in the next iteration of the game. “Entity”, because the theory notes that the leader and challenger do not necessarily have to be individuals; they can be a group or a coalition that jointly governs. However, it is simpler to think of them as individuals. The leader and challenger are both assumed to be motivated by personal profit; if the leader does not spend all of the nation’s resources to stay in power, he or she can keep the remainder. Private benefits are perks that leaders supply to their supporters (I think of dachas, yachts, patronage jobs, etc.), and public goods are investments that benefit the entire society (things like infrastructure). The selectorate is the fraction of the population that has a meaningful say in who will be the leader in the next iteration. In an autocracy the selectorate can be as small as a few dozen individuals or less, while in a modern democracy the selectorate is, nominally, nearly the entire adult population. No matter how small the selectorate, though, it always exists – the leader needs the support of at least a few individuals to stay in power. A selector is a member of the selectorate, and a support coalition is the group of selectors whom the leader or challenger chooses to provide private benefits to in exchange for their support. There are other terms that are important, but these will be defined as they come up.

Leaders are assumed to be allowed to spend resources however they choose. There is no chance of impeachment or corruption charges, nor any philosophical or moral obligations. The only check on leaders’ powers is the threat of being dethroned by a challenger. Selectors, similar to leaders, are motivated by profit. Essentially, they will support whoever is most likely to provide them with the greatest amount of benefits.

A key point is that leaders must have the support of some number W of selectors (W depends on the size of the selectorate). Leaders must maintain a support coalition of size W, and challengers must form a coalition of size W AND reduce the leader’s coalition below W. Challengers attempt to do this by convincing some of the leader’s supporters to defect. If a selector is not in the leader’s support coalition – called the winning coalition – they are not receiving any private benefits, and will therefore always join the challenger’s coalition if approached. If a selector IS in the winning coalition, though, and if they are approached by the challenger, they must choose whether or not they will defect. A challenger might promise to provide more private benefits than the current leader, but there is no guarantee that a challenger will keep a selector in their winning coalition in follow-on iterations of the game (something called affinity comes into play here, but it’s not crucial to explain right now).

The bottom line is that the larger W is, the greater the fraction of national resources the leader will spend on public goods, as public goods give you “more bang for your buck”; the more people you need to divide up private benefits among, the less each individual gets. This is a powerful result, but the model is still fairly basic and general. As the authors make plain, this model is only a starting point, a framework to be built upon. One issue, specifically, is that as a consequence of the mathematics of the model, the leader can always find an equilibrium solution to stay in power. In other words, she can always figure out the exact split between public and private resources that will keep her in power, and she is never deposed. This is the feature of the model we will be seeking to improve.

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