Why strongmen have taken advantage of Covid-19

The current crisis has given opportunities to authoritarian leaders to exercise more power over citizens and risk democracy. The crisis has provided an opportunity to take further steps towards intervening in personal freedom, eroding media independence, and censoring social media through new legislation, in countries like Hungary, Turkey, and the Philippines. The crisis may provides legitimacy for the powerful leaders through militarized law enforcement mechanisms at the expense of constitutional rights by eroding the normal checks and balances of constitutional democracy. For instance, new surveillance technology, such as biometric surveillance and facial recognition apps were made mandatory on the promise of effective quarantining and in the interests of public health. Yet, the collected personal information can be used to curb personal freedom and discipline transgressors.

However, there is not much resistance by citizens against these authoritarian leaders, except in academic circles. How authoritarians legitimize powers or why citizens accept these measures without resistance worth understanding. When the crisis or shocks become common knowledge between leaders and citizens, citizens rationalize or view the actions of governments as beingin the general interest of the public. As the individuals in their lexicographic ordering put living before the personal freedom. During a crisis, citizens’ normative expectations or fairness concern changes and citizens tend not to question the measures taken by governments. Leaders might exploit the uncertainty of the crisis in their favor.

Let us understand how change in normative expectation influences the concerns of fairness of individuals. The economic game that is supposed to understand these concerns is called an ultimatum game1 (UG). Two players are invited to play the UG game and a coin toss determines one player acts as a proposer and another player acts as a responder. The proposer receives a non zero payoff, say 1 unit, and asks to divide the payoff between herself and the responder. For instance, the proposer makes the offer x units to the responder, the payoff division is (1-x, x), where (1-x) units for the proposer and x units for the responder. The payoffs of the game are as follows: (a) if the responder accepts, the proposer gets (1-x) and the responder gets x. (b) if the responder rejects, both the proposer and responder get zero. The game is supposed to measure fairness in two person bargaining situations.

Now, let us look at the game, when the responder accepts the offer and when the offer is rejected. For instance, the payoff division is (1-x, x), where (1-x) is for the proposer and x units for the responder. The responder accepts the offer when the offer is compatible with her normative expectations, usually the fair division is (50:50), x = ½. However, in many laboratory experiments it is observed that the offers of less than 30% are rejected. Suppose some amount of noise enters into the system that divides the payoffs, i.e., when the proposer proposes x the receiver receives x*. x* can be greater or less than the original amount x. If the responder is not aware of the noise in the system, usually the lesser offers are rejected. The offer close to ½ or more is accepted more often.

What happens if the noise is common knowledge; both proposer and responder are aware that there is noise in the system. It has been observed that the responder tends to accept small offers because the responder no longer questions the intentions and motivations of the proposer. Further, when the proposer is aware that the small offers x*<< ½ are accepted, the proposer tends to offer minimum offers (x<< ½) to the responder2. When the noise or shock enters into the system and it is common knowledge, the normative expectations of the receivers or responders have changed, thus the proposer exploits the uncertainty as there is no backlash from the receiver. The UG game explains for us why citizens do not revolt against governments during crises or shocks:the shocks allow leaders to play an unfair game as there is no chance of questioning the leader’s intentions as citizens tend to puttheir lives before personal freedom.

1.Falk, A., Fehr, E. & Fischbacher, U. On the Nature of Fair Behaviour. Econ. Inq. 41, 20–26 (2003).

2.Bicchieri, C. & Chavez, A. Behaving as expected: Public information and fairness norms. J. Behav. Decis. Mak. 23, 161–178 (2010).

EUI, Florence, Italy