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How to Subvert a Democracy

Just read a fascinating paper, thanks to links from friend Chris Warren and from Eugene Volokh of The Volokh Conspiracy. Titled “How to Subvert Democracy: Montesinos in Peru”, it’s an examination of the most efficient way to bribe different institutions to keep a corrupt government in power, while still pretending to be a democracy. The authors conclude that it’s disproportionately important to control the press, especially television stations, if you’re hoping to subvert a democracy.

Authors Pablo Zoido and John McMillan found a terrific data set to use in the study of corruption. In 1990, Alberto Fujimori, a political unknown, won the presidency of Peru. Behind the scenes, Fujimori was controlled by secret police chief Vladimiro Montesinos Torres. Montesinos kept control of the country for a decade through a complex web of bribery and other “obligations” that prevented opposition parties, the judiciary or the media from challenging Fujimori’s executive power.

Much to the delight of social scientists, Montesinos was a meticulous recordkeeper. He required receipts for all his bribes, and structured many of them as legal contracts, explicitly purchasing services, like favorable headlines in a newspaper, for fixed fees or monthly payments. And he videotaped most of his transactions, creating a set of Nixon-esque tapes collectively referred to as los vladevideos.

With such well-documented corruption, the authors are able to use the theory of “revealed preference” to calculate the relative importance of bribing different branches of Peruvian government and society. The discovery that the opposition politicans were bribed at $5,000 (US dollars) to $20,000 a month (roughly equal to their official monthly salaries of $4,500 plus an equal amount for expenses) and that bribes to the judiciary ranged from $2,500 to $55,000 a month (generally three to four times official salaries) paled in comparison to the bribes given to television channels, which reached up to $1.5 million dollars a month.

(A flaw in methodology, in my opinion: the authors aren’t able to give us the revenues earned by the legitimate businesses. As a result, it’s hard for us to know whether television stations required enormous bribes because of their relative incorruptability, or because they were so profitable that it would take millions a month to effect their bottom line. Furthermore, it would be useful to see speculation on what profits a media source might have generated by being an opposition voice and giving viewers unique stories. But this objection doesn’t detract from the analysis the authors offer – we can tell what Montesinos thought was worth paying for by seeing what he did pay.)

Why is it worth so much more money to buy a television station, versus an opposition politician or a judge? Simple: to control the media, you need to control all of it, while to control a political process, you often need just a simple majority. In buying opposition politicians, Montesinos needed to choose only 12 of 69 available congresspeople, allowing him to select individuals who he thought would be vulnerable to bribery. With the judiciary, he simply needed a simple majority of justices and control over the administrative judge who assigned judges to cases.

But a single renegade television channel could bring down a government. Indeed, that’s what ultimately happened, as independent, unbribed Channel N aired a series of Vladivideos that caused Montesinos and Fujimori to flee the country. (Fujimori ultimately resigned… via fax. Technology wins again.) TV reaches 95% of homes in Peru and, as in most nations, is the main way the population gets its news. Montesinos’s willingness to pay stations millions a month reflects a realization that popular uprising, brought about by a message on a medium that reaches a majority of the population, is the ultimate check to any government’s power.

These ideas provide interesting fodder for discussion in the context of US debates on media consolidation. While media consolidation implies that a corrupt US government might have to bribe only half a dozen companies to control the news (fewer, if we assume one of those companies is already in the government’s pocket), this analysis suggests that the sums involved might be astronomical, and that the last network to hold out might have terrific economic incentives (as well as ethical reasons) to continue to air anti-government views.

It also raises the question of the value of the Internet as an “safety valve” for alternative viewpoints – would it be adequate to control television in a (reasonably) well-functioning democracy like the USA, when dissenting voices could make themselves heard on the ‘net. The Montesinos strategy suggests that a politician can afford to ignore dissenters who’ve got small audiences – he didn’t bribe a number of small magazines and newspapers read primarily by Peru’s elite, either because they were incorruptible, to expensive to corrupt… or irrelavent, once he controlled the major TV channels. Would Montesinos have bothered to bribe bloggers? Probably not. With even smaller audiences, he’d likely have dismissed us as even less relevant than opposition papers.