2022-03-16 Brian Klaas
For those of us living in liberal democracies, criticizing the boss is risky, but we’re not going to be shipped off to a gulag or watch our family get tortured. In authoritarian regimes, those all-too-real risks have a way of focusing the mind. Is it ever worthwhile for authoritarian advisers to speak truth to power?
As a result, despots rarely get told that their stupid ideas are stupid, or that their ill-conceived wars are likely to be catastrophic. Offering honest criticism is a deadly game and most advisers avoid doing so. Those who dare to gamble eventually lose and are purged. So over time, the advisers who remain are usually yes-men who act like bobbleheads, nodding along when the despot outlines some crackpot scheme.
When despots screw up, they need to watch their own back. Yet again, they can become victims of the dictator trap. To crush prospective enemies, they must demand loyalty and crack down on criticism. But the more they do so, the lower the quality of information they receive, and the less they can trust the people who purport to serve them. As a result, even when government officials learn about plots to overthrow an autocrat, they may not share that knowledge. This is known as the “vacuum effect”—and it means that authoritarian presidents might learn of coup attempts and putsches only when it’s too late. This raises a question that should keep Putin awake at night: If the oligarchs were to eventually make a move against him, would anyone warn him?