How Mencius Undermines Tyrants

At The Useless Tree, Sam Crane describes a Mencian alternative to conventional authoritarian stability management. He takes as his starting point an op-ed in The New York Times, “How Tyrants Endure“, by the authors of “The Dictator’s Handbook: Why Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics“:

Despotic rulers stay in power by rewarding a small group of loyal supporters, often composed of key military officers, senior civil servants and family members or clansmen. A central responsibility of these loyalists is to suppress opposition to the regime. But they only carry out this messy, unpleasant task if they are well rewarded. Autocrats therefore need to ensure a continuing flow of benefits to their cronies.

If the dictator’s backers refuse to suppress mass uprisings or if they defect to a rival, then he is in real trouble. That is why successful autocrats reward their cronies first, and the people last. As long as their cronies are assured of reliable access to lavish benefits, protest will be severely suppressed. Once the masses suspect that crony loyalty is faltering, there is an opportunity for successful revolt. Three types of rulers are especially susceptible to desertion by their backers: new, decrepit and bankrupt leaders.

From The Useless Tree:

This sentence is especially important: “That is why successful autocrats reward their cronies first, and the people last.” It brings a rather famous passage from Mencius to mind:

Mencius said: “The people are the most precious of all things. Next come the gods of soil and grain. The sovereign matters least.” (14.14/7B.14)

Indeed, throughout the book that bears his name, Mencius is constantly presented as challenging rulers to share their wealth with the people, to ensure that economic inequalities do not grow too onerous, and to limit their personal consumption, as well as that of their families and immediate political supporters, all in the interest in preserving “the most precious of all things.” We can read this as a kind of socio-economic welfarism but, as De Mesquita and Smith suggest, it also has profound political implications. If taken seriously, and actually implemented, serving the people would limit an autocrats capacity to pay off the military, the bureaucracy and other key political supporters. From the Menican point of view, a ruler has to be willing to weaken his own political base, in order to create the conditions for longer term political stability, on the belief that when people can see that their material conditions are improving they will continue to support the leader who has contributed to their prosperity.

For a glaring contrast with this Mencian approach, see The Dui Hua Foundation’s detailed description of China’s current stability management machinery.