Daily Archives: August 30, 2011

Mercedes Benzes, palaces, and Swiss bank accounts

I’m less than 100 pages into Ronald Wintrobe’s The Political Economy of Dictatorship, but already I keep thinking, “Wait, didn’t I just read that?” I know pointless repetition is a standard feature of academic writing (tell them what you’re going to say, say it, then tell them what you said), but I think you’re at least supposed to vary the wording a bit.

Here’s Professor Wintrobe on page 14, explaining his use of the word timocracy:

I borrow this term (perhaps inappropriately) from Plato (in The Republic [1974]). I use it to refer to a benevolent dictatorship, one in which the dictator genuinely cares for his or her people. It was not Plato’s ideal form of rule — it ranked second to rule by the Philosopher-King in his scheme. Still, the Greek root of timocracy is Thymos — to love.

And here he is on page 80, refreshing the reader’s memory:

I borrow the term “timocracy” from Plato (in The Republic), who designated by it what is obviously a benevolent dictatorship, although this type of regime ranked second to rule by the Philospher-King in Plato’s scheme. Still, the Greek root of the word “timocracy” is Thymos — to love.

And here he is, preparing his students for the exam question, “What three luxury goods do tinpot dictators crave?”:

Tinpots are regimes in which the ruling government does not disturb the traditional way of life of the people; instead it represses them only to the modest extent necessary to stay in office and collect the fruits of monopolizing political power (Mercedes Benzes, palaces, Swiss bank accounts, and so on) (p. 11).

A totalitarian regime uses these instruments of repression and loyalty to maximize power over the population, whereas a tinpot regime seeks no more power over its citizenry than is required to remain in power and collect the fruits (Mercedes-Benzes, palaces, Swiss bank accounts) of that office (p. 15).

The tinpot leader is essentially a rent-seeker, who seeks no more power over the population than the minimum needed to stay in office, using the rest of the resources of the state for his or her own purposes (palaces, Mercedes Benzes, Swiss bank accounts, and so on) (p. 79).

I wish Cambridge University Press had thought to hire an editor. Prof. Wintrobe’s central ideas are engaging, but these  déjà vu moments are starting to get really distracting. (When you stop reading to go back through the book looking for examples and then write a blog post about it, that’s generally a sign that you’ve been successfully distracted.)

Update (9/8): I’ve finished the book now and recommend it. The distracting repetitions stopped after the first 100 pages or so — or perhaps I just got sufficiently absorbed in the book that I didn’t notice them.

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