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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Self-Enforcing Democracy


If democracy is to have any of the good effects said to justify it, it must be self-enforcing. Those who control the government must want to hold regular, competitive elections for the highest offices, and all parties must be willing to comply with the results. I consider a model in which citizens can always protest or rebel against the current ruler, but can unseat the ruler only if enough people rebel. When individuals privately observe a signal of the government's performance (e.g. their own welfare), they face a difficult problem of how to coordinate to pose a credible threat of rebellion necessary to keep the ruler from stealing. Further, if the signals are noisy, inefficient rebellions must occur in equilibrium to keep the ruler honest. Allowing for the possibility of elections makes for equilibria that eliminate both problems. The convention of holding elections at particular times provides a public signal for coordinating rebellion in the event that elections are suspended of blatantly rigged. The electoral results themselves aggregate private information about the ruler's performance, providing the ruler an incentive to stick to the terms. Int he case of noisy signals of government performance, the electoral results act as a cheap talk signal that allows the public to commit to rebel if a losing ruler does not step down, avoiding the need for costly rebellions. These arguments pose an explanation for self-enforcing democracy, whereas the several models in the literature do not because they do not explain why anyone would want to use elections to allocate power.

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