Timur Kuran – Why the Middle East Became Economically Underdeveloped

Institutions and Economic Performance | Timur Kuran speaks with Douglass North

Rod Croome’s unanticipated revolution

Back in 1986, an old University mate of mine, Rod Croome was very physically brave in his protesting for reforms to the Tasmanian state criminal law.

  • Rod even walked into a Tasmanian police station and confessed to abominations against the order of nature, as the Tasmanian criminal code called it.
  • The Police said they could not prosecute without the other party coming forward as the witness. The abominee did.
  • The Tasmanian Director of Public Prosecutions then declined to prosecute on public interest grounds. His discretion to not prosecute is absolute.

These days, Rod is campaigning for the equal right to marry. All inside one generation!

When Rod walked out of that police station rather disappointed at being a free man, I wonder if he anticipated how much change would happen regarding gay rights in his lifetime, much less in the next 5, 10, and 20-years.

A good explanation of this rapid social change is in Timur Kuran’s “Sparks and Prairie Fires: A Theory of Unanticipated Political Revolutions” and “Now Out of Never: The Element of Surprise in the East European Revolution of 1989“.

Kuran suggests that political revolutions and large shifts in political opinion will catch us by surprise again and again because of people’s readiness to conceal their true political preferences under perceived social pressure:

People who come to dislike their government are apt to hide their desire for change as long as the opposition seems weak.

Because of the preference falsification, a government that appears unshakeable might see its support crumble following a slight surge in the opposition’s apparent size, caused by events insignificant in and of themselves.

Kuran illustrated his bandwagon effect first with the fall of the Russian Czar in 1918. On the morning of the day that the Czar abdicated, he thought it was just another day at the office. But the regiment stationed in St. Petersburg to put down riots had been recently sent to the front. The raw recruits that replaced them melted away in the front of the rioters. The rest is history.

Then there is the Ayatollah Khomeini: two months before the Iranian Revolution, the main concern of his aides was his French visa was expiring; He needed a new country to seek refuge. Just before the Iranian Revolution of 1979, a CIA report characterised the Shah of Iran as an “island of stability.”

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Yeltsin came to power after the coup attempt by hard-liners against Gorbachev because a KBG regiment sent to arrest Yeltsin mutinied against the orders of the hard-line coup leaders. Then everyone at the top of the military and security forces saw their main chance and switched sides. All popular revolutions against autocrats are ultimately palace revolutions, as I have argued before.

The loyalties of security forces are crucial in any political revolution. Within the security forces, a key concern is ending-up on the winning side in any show-down. Moving too early, too late or not at all have risks of their own when the time comes after a military coup to reward supporters and punish those that chose the wrong side, or even worse, sat on the side-lines waiting to see who would win.

Kuran argues that everyone has a different revolutionary threshold where they reveal their true beliefs, but even one individual shift to opposition leads to many others to come forward and defy the existing order. Small concessions only emboldens the ground-swell of revolution.

Those ready to oppose social intolerance or who are lukewarm in their intolerance keep their views private until a coincidence of factors gives them the courage to bring their views into the open. They find others share their views and there is a revolutionary bandwagon effect.

Plenty of people have had personal experiences of this in the 1980s and the 1990s when there were rapid changes in social and political attitudes about racism, sexism and gay rights.

A few political entrepreneurs such as Rod Croome had to stand up for what was right, and a surprisingly large number of others will quickly join the side pushing for social change.

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In switching sides, these early movers and initial protestors encourage other hidden opponents of the established social and political order to switch. As knowledge of the opposition spreads and grows, the external cost of joining becomes lower.

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In Crime Waves, Riots, and Revolutions, Alex Tabarrok makes the important related point that when the courts and police are over-crowded and over-whelmed, proportionately fewer criminals or protestors will be apprehended, convicted, and imprisoned or otherwise socially pressured to conform. This feedback effect from one decision to participate in crime or protest to the decisions of others to break the law or rebel can be highly significant.

Kuran argued that fear changes sides once the revolutionary bandwagon takes hold: genuine supporters of the old political or social older or the traditional social values falsify their publicly professed preferences, pretending that they support the new order.

These are late-switchers. Do not trust them.

These late switchers are opportunists who will as easily switch back or move on to support another coup or a counter-coup or a return to traditional values.

Kuran argued that the reason for the bloody purges among revolution movements after many takeovers is to find and route-out these late-switchers. Many are purged, rightly or wrongly, before they have a chance to betray the current leaders of the revolution or military coup.

There are plenty of Christian and family parties winning upper house seats in Australia and soon in the New Zealand House of Representatives. There are plenty of morally manoeuvrable politicians willing to switch to their side if they have enough votes.

Ministers of course have a whole range of dazzling qualities, including … um … well, including an enviable intellectual suppleness and moral manoeuvrability.

Sir Humphrey, The Death List

Addendum: don’t pretend it was just the old fogeys who were the social reactionaries back then in the 80s.

When a gay men’s club sought affiliation with the Tasmanian University Union’s Societies Council in 1983, a number of clubs spoke against it because they simply didn’t like gays. I was there representing a catholic college students club so I seconded the motion.

When the motion was put to the vote, it was carried on the voices with a lot of people not saying anything or mumbling against it.

The chairman of the meeting, who was a member of the Liberal club, wisely didn’t put the motion to a vote. He declared it carried and moved as quickly as possible to the next item of business in case there was a call for show of hands.

Anti-gay rhetoric was common among young people in the 1980s.

NZCPR Site

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