TCS Daily


Washed Away By the Preference Cascade?

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - March 7, 2005 12:00 AM

Three years ago, I looked at the phenomenon of "preference cascades" -- in which people who have been obliged to conceal their true beliefs by social pressure or sheer force suddenly discover that a lot of other people feel the same way -- and wrote:

        "This illustrates, in a mild way, the reason why totalitarian regimes collapse 
        so suddenly. (Click here for a more complex analysis of this and related 
        issues). Such regimes have little legitimacy, but they spend a lot of effort 
        making sure that citizens don't realize the extent to which their 
        fellow-citizens dislike the regime. If the secret police and the censors 
        are doing their job, 99% of the populace can hate the regime and be ready 
        to revolt against it - but no revolt will occur because no one realizes 
        that everyone else feels the same way.

        "This works until something breaks the spell, and the discontented realize that 
        their feelings are widely shared, at which point the collapse of the regime may 
        seem very sudden to outside observers - or even to the citizens themselves. 
        Claims after the fact that many people who seemed like loyal apparatchiks 
        really loathed the regime are often self-serving, of course. But they're also 
        often true: Even if one loathes the regime, few people have the force of 
        will to stage one-man revolutions, and when preferences are sufficiently 
        falsified, each dissident may feel that he or she is the only one, or at least 
        part of a minority too small to make any difference.

        "One interesting question is whether a lot of the hardline Arab states are 
        like this. Places like Iraq, Syria, or Saudi Arabia spend a lot of time telling their 
        citizens that everyone feels a particular way, and punishing those who dare 
        to differ, which has the effect of encouraging people to falsify their 
        preferences. But who knows? Given the right trigger, those brittle authoritarian 
        regimes might collapse overnight, with most of the population swearing - 
        with all apparent sincerity - that it had never supported them, or their 
        anti-Western policies, at all.

        "Perhaps we should think about how to make it so."

Apparently, some people in the White House and the Pentagon did think about that, and the wave of interest in democracy that has swept the Middle East has been impressive. As the New York Times noted this past weekend, the success of elections in Afghanistan and Iraq has led to moves toward democracy around the region:

        "The entire Middle East seems to be entering uncharted political and social 
        territory with a similar mixture of anticipation and dread. Events in Lebanon 
        and Egypt, following a limited vote for municipal councils in Saudi Arabia and 
        landmark elections in Iraq, as well as the Palestinian territories, combined 
        to give the sense, however tentative, that twilight might be descending 
        on authoritarian Arab governments.

        "A mix of outside pressure and internal shifts has created this moment. 
        Arabs of a younger, more savvy generation appear more willing to take their 
        dissatisfaction directly to the front stoop of repressive leaders."

Although some people are openly gloating already, I think it's a bit early: Democratization is a process, not an event, and in the Middle East it's a process that's just getting underway, with plenty of room for things to go wrong. And well over a decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the democratization process in Eastern Europe is far from finished. Still, it's become clear that those who were claiming -- as recently as a couple of months ago, in some cases -- that Arabs just don't care about democracy, or freedom, were wrong. And though there's a lot of ground to cover between demonstrating that desire, and fulfilling it, it's still an important point.

Recent events also offer us some lessons in how we might continue the process. One lesson is that we need to keep communications as free as possible, worldwide. As the Times article notes:

        "Young protesters have been spurred by the rise of new technology, 
        especially uncensored satellite television, which prevents Arab governments 
        from hiding what is happening on their own streets. The Internet and 
        cellphones have also been deployed to erode censorship and help activists 
        mobilize in ways previous generations never could."

Fearful of such events, Nepal has shut down its cellphone network, though this seems more likely to foment revolution than to scotch it.

After 9/11, there was a lot of talk about making communications networks more amenable to censorship and control by governments, but I think that's a terrible mistake. Yeah, open communications make it marginally easier for terrorists to communicate -- but that downside is swamped by the terrorism-draining potential of democracy, which open communications facilitate. That's a reason to oppose a United Nations takeover of the Internet, which would, like most things the U.N. does, tend to push matters in a tyrant-friendly direction. Dictatorships always depend on enforcing public lies; that makes open communication inherently anti-dictator, and ensures that dictators and their friends will always try to quash it.

Another lesson is that we need to provide leadership. People listen to what America says, and they watch what we do. If we're consistent in our defense of freedom, people will notice, and even our enemies will play into our hands. This happened in Iraq, where the hostile satellite networks Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya never missed a chance to show an anti-American protest. But what their audiences in Iran and the Arab world saw was something more -- not just anti-American protest, but anti-American protest that was allowed by the Americans. (The boomerang effect was something like what happened to the Soviet Union when it broadcast reports of Americans protesting the Vietnam War, only to have Soviet audiences notice that the Americans were not only free to protest, but also had new shoes!) Freedom is contagious, if we let it be, and open media are the most potent vector by which it spreads. That should drive our strategy, and our tactics, most of the time.

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