The Nobel committee has a problem. They keep giving the peace prize to people to war criminals.

In their most recent debacle, they have the 2019 prize to Abey Ahmed of Ethiopia for making peace with Eritrea. It seemed sensible, a popular young presidents buried the hatchet with their former territory to focus on development. Ahmed seemed like a good man, a great candidate.

Unfortunately, being a good man is easily faked. We now know Ahmed’s real motivation for peace was expanding his coalition relative to internal rivals that might stop his rise to dictatorship. Shortly after the peace deal Ahmed canceled federal elections to destroy subnational rivals. The Tigrayans resisted, and now Ethiopian and Eritrean troops together are busily destroying Tigray.

The problem is that politicians can and do pretend to be “good” to get power. If you are a potential ally, then whatever you define as good can easily be impersonated; committed democrat, liberal, communist, developmental state. After all, any politician that can’t pretend to care never reaches the national stage. The Nobel Peace prize is one more feather in their cap, which only requires a bit more pretending. But in weak democracies the charade only lasts as long as the leader is vulnerable. Once the leader gets enough mercenaries, expectation and appointees, eliminating rivals is worth more than Norwegian admiration.

What are the Norwegian bigwigs to do? They want to give prizes to high-status people that further peace. Sure, they can give grants to NGO’s and activists, but these political lightweights are lower-status.

How about constitutional designers? The real problem of politics is not finding someone who isn’t a sociopath, it’s designing a system that makes the sociopaths serve the people. Thomas Jefferson sold pardons after he lost re-election, but for decades before that he worked hard for the people to build his career.

The lawyers and politicians who write them are lower status than presidents, but they are higher status than NGO leaders or street activists. And they are not in power, so they can’t commit atrocities later.

More importantly, the institutional design, coalition building and negotiating that produces peace and democracy don’t get enough publicity. It’s a long hard slog, slow boring of hard beams. The us didn’t protect democracy by picking good people, they distributed violence capacity between 13 governors and restricted the president from appointing West Point students.

I live in DC with a large Ethiopian community, who are acrimoniously split over Abey Ahmed. The Amharans argue that Ahmed is “good” and the Tigrayan leaders are “bad”(from crimes in the 90s) so the violence is “good”. I try to explain that when Ahmed has the only remaining army, democracy will hinge on his patronage networks need.

Maybe giving a Nobel peace prize to a Hamilton instead of a Washington will teach people that peace needs thought-out institutions not “good” people.

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I barely know anything about this topic, so... how difficult is it to judge whether an institution is good or bad?

An institution works in a larger context, so I suspect that there may be institutions which are good in one context and bad in a different context, a Nobel prize like this might incentivize people to create institutions that e.g. work in context of Western democracies, but are dysfunctional or even actively harmful in other cultures.

To give a specific example, I agree that the principle of separation of powers and making the judicial branch independent on the rest of the government is good in general. But in context of post-communist Slovakia it meant that while the elected parliament and government became (kinda) democratic as a result of popular vote, the justice remained led by entrenched communist judges, who obviously had no incentive to vote themselves out of the office, acted as a fifth column of the old regime (e.g. making sure that no former communist leader gets prosecuted for their past crimes), later openly took side of the organized crime on some occassions (and expelled the judges who resisted this). It took a lot of time to make even minor improvements; 30 years later, the situation is still less than satisfactory, although much better than it used to be. I would be quite sad to see this guy receive a Nobel prize for upholding the independence of justice. (An alternative reality where he got hanged by a group of vigilantes is probably a better place, even considering second-order effects.) [More info.]

It kinda reminds me about debates how to moderate online forums. Problem is, no matter what kind of mechanism you set up, it only has a chance to work if a large number of participants are non-assholes. A bad moderator may e.g. censor his political opponents, and you may set up some system where users check his behavior, but what if most users agree actually support that? Or you may have a rule that "upvotes and downvotes are about quality, not agreement or disagreement", but it's not going to help if a majority of users are on the same side of the conflict and they downvote the minority regardless (and may hypocritically insist they did it because of low quality of argument).

To put it bluntly, if you have a hypothetical population of 90% Nazis and 10% Jews, you may give them a copy of American constitution and all institutions, and ten years later the Jews will end up dead anyway, because in each institution, 90% of employees will try to make this happen. (That would be "mere" 90% in the beginning, before they fire their Jewish colleagues for made-up reasons, and then it is 100%.) Any institution that is supposed to check on the remaining ones, will instead confirm that everything is okay. Also the rules themselves may be gradually, democratically, changed. And no matter what is legal and illegal, things simply will happen, and then the judge will rule that they did not, and the jury will agree. If you this prediction seems likely to you, why would the outcome be different for Hutus and Tutsis?

I guess the full picture is some kind of co-evolution of institutions and popular opinion. Institutions channel human ambitions into behavior. Humans can uphold the institutions, or dismantle them, or pervert their intended function from inside. Maybe we need to wait 10 years after the institution was established, to see whether it works as intended. Which is a problem for Nobel prize, because it is nominally given for achievements made during this year. (On the other hand, given how current Nobel peace prize already works, it is unlikely to make it worse.)

I guess the full picture is some kind of co-evolution of institutions and popular opinion. Institutions channel human ambitions into behavior. Humans can uphold the institutions, or dismantle them, or pervert their intended function from inside. Maybe we need to wait 10 years after the institution was established, to see whether it works as intended.

I think you’re right, non-elite support for democracy is essential. I think elites are status maximizing assholes always and everywhere.

Problem is, no matter what kind of mechanism you set up, it only has a chance to work if a large number of participants are non-assholes. A bad moderator may e.g. censor his political opponents, and you may set up some system where users check his behavior, but what if most users agree actually support that?

I disagree what happened on the US after independence. The founding fathers were assholes, bad moderators who sought illicit advantages. They were checked by governors, voters and legislatures.

In other words, you can design a system where every actor pursues their own interests (is an asshole) but it doesn’t revolve into dictatorship. A longer treatment https://academic.oup.com/qje/article-abstract/126/4/1661/1923169?redirectedFrom=fulltext

For a very simple illustration, imagine you are in a room with 6 others. 6 of you have dollars, and one has a gun with one bullet. There is a Nash equilibrium where each of you give up your dollar and a NEwhere you say “shoot one of us am we’ll kill you”. Both only involve people being “assholes” or selfish. The point is to design a system where being selfish leads to good governance.

Misc. If and when median voters support genocide is a separate question from democracy. https://www.econlib.org/archives/2011/02/reflections_on_6.html Separation of powers is surprisingly bad https://www.bu.edu/sthacker/files/2012/01/Are-Parliamentary-Systems-Better.pdf

Slovakia wound up a flawed democracy or an anocracy, yes. Next door the Czech Republic wound up a full democracy with redistribution.

For a very simple illustration, imagine you are in a room with 6 others. 6 of you have dollars, and one has a gun with one bullet. There is a Nash equilibrium where each of you give up your dollar and a NEwhere you say “shoot one of us am we’ll kill you”.

Yes. And because coordination is difficult, the natural equilibrium is "what happened the last time in a similar situation". If you know that, historically, when a similar situation happened, in 80% cases the people paid; in 5% cases one person resisted and got shot, then the shooter got killed; in 15% cases one person resisted and got shot, then the shooter said "actually, your information is wrong, and I have more bullets (and in 5% the remaining people paid; in 5% they called his bluff and killed him; and in 5% the shooter actually had more bullets, killed one more person, then everyone paid)... I guess you would pay.

On the other hand, if the historic experience is that in 95% cases the shooter gave up, and in 5% cases shot one person and then got killed... then you would probably resist.

And this may be the key difference between traditional democracies that, dunno, perhaps simply got lucky the first few times, and then the Shelling point became "most people will defend the democratic institutions, the traitors will lose and end up in prison". And traditionally non-democratic societies, where everyone expects that "the rules will only be followed as long as it benefits the most powerful person... otherwise that person will say 'fuck the rules', most people will join their side, and the rest will be killed". In other words, the popular expectation about who would join the rebelion is a self-fulfilling prophecy (if you expect that no one would join, you don't want to be the only one; if you expect that most people would, you don't want to stay on the losing side).

Establishing the institutions may be the easy part, changing the expectations may be the difficult one.

As an example, most people in USA expected that life would mostly go on as usual both when Trump won in 2017 and when he lost in 2021. A few people were hysterical, there were even protesters marching on the Capitol, but it was always obvious that the army will support the democratic transition. (And when half of population and the entire army are against you, you have already lost.)

I totally agree that "autocracy is always and everywhere an expectation phenomenon". My favorite piece of evidence is how quickly regimes collapse when the leader is terminally ill. Nothing has changed but you found out the Shah has cancer so you immediately throw down your arms. Because "Hello prince, i killed people for your dad now rob the people to pay me" doesn't work. Clearly, repression is motivated by the expectation the incumbent will win and pay you back in the future.

Yes, if people expect democracy to fail it probably will. But the inverse is not true. People expecting democracy to succeed is not nearly a sufficient condition for its success, and such expectations are more common than successful democratizations. The Russians really expected to democratize in 1992, and their experiment failed. The French really expected to democratize in 1789 and didn't. The Ethiopians I talk to today really expect Ethiopia to stay democratic and it obviously won't.

The US didn't just believe in themselves and win the gun game. They denied coercive capacity to the president and distributed it among state governors. They then constrained the governors with the threat of tariffs to prevent secession or shirking. The governors are specialized leader-restraining elites with coordination capacity, the ability to punish each other for shirking, and they are competitively selected.

The Chilean regime had strong expectations of democratic continuity but a terrible constitution that gave Allende the presidency with 35% of the popular vote, leading to collapse into autocracy.

On the other hand, society wide expectation flips are surprsingly common. I agree that it's weird, but it's true. Autocratic regimes (not leaders) are very shot lived. The oldest autocratic regime today is Saudi Arabia, which became a state around 1920. Even Saudi is currently in a massive consolidation crisis. The CCP is ancient at ~80 years old, and also in a consolidation crisis. Consolidation means the leader is systematically removing competent elites to cement control. When a consolidated leader dies regimes often collapse. Most autocratic states have not had a regime last 30 years. So it seems like the autocats expectation equilibrium would be very stable, but empirically it is quite unstable.

One could argue that the expectation that any regime will keep power is weaker than the expectation that "democracy will backslide into autocracy". I think that's a stretch, but this post is already too long.

Thanks for writing this! While reading the post, I was also thinking that this heuristic of building better systems is useful for deciding what to work on in our career as well.