Egypt Thought of the Day

Bryan Caplan asks, a propos of events in Egypt, why some revolutions end up making things better while others make things worse. His answer (which he admits is unconvincing) is that revolutions make things better when they are against totalitarian regimes and worse when they are against authoritarian regimes, because “the point of totalitarian regimes is to give people less freedom than the median voter wants, but the point of authoritarian regimes is often to give people more freedom than the median voter – or at least the median man of violence – wants.”

I don’t think that works. Marcos wasn’t a totalitarian, for example, and neither was Milosevic. When I consider which revolutions turned out badly and which turned out well, the thing that really jumps out at me is the degree to which the revolution in question was achieved by peaceful as opposed to violent means. There are exceptions, of course, but for the most part violent revolutions have tended to end badly (very often making things even worse than before), whereas largely non-violent revolutions have tended to make things better. Violent revolutions end up being led by violent men, and once in charge they have a tendency to turn their talents on others. Whereas the leaders of non-violent revolutions tend to be better at democratic politics (and if they aren’t they don’t try to hold onto power by killing their opponents).

Something to think about.

More to explorer


  1. It might even be specified to violence inside of the new country– the US’s revolution wasn’t bloodless, but the target was outside, not part of the new country. France, on the other hand, killed… like, everybody?

    I generally figure that revolutions make things bad if the guys doing the revolution enjoy the power they got more than they care about the original reason for the revolution. (assuming the reason wasn’t “get in power”)

  2. Our revolution was not especially peaceful, and not just against the British. There was also a fair amount of fighting between Patriots and Tories, both before and during the Revolutionary War. What we did have, which other revolutions lacked, was a long tradition of elections, and leaders who were used to helping run their colonies. I think that type of experienced leadership can make a vast difference in how a revolution turns out.

  3. The same people who believe that miraculously in 48 hours Egypt will be blessed with a classical liberal, Jeffersonian democracy also believe that 310,000,000 Americans can generate all their energy needs with sunbeams and wind mills. Go ask the Spanish how that worked.

  4. Off the top of my head, I’d say that national unity is an important factor. Really, a non-violent revolution can’t succeed unless there’s massive support for it. In that situation, it’s going to be a lot easier to govern the resulting state. A revolution that involves one sizable population overthrowing another is going to be violent, and is not likely to lead anywhere nice. The first scenario is Poland; the second is South Africa. Even the rare peaceful revolution with a divided population has the potential of leading to catastrophe – I’m thinking of the Indian subcontinent.

    If national unity is an important factor, that would bode well for possible uprisings in Egypt and Lebanon, but not for those in Sudan or Yemen. Of course, this being a Catholic blog, we have to recognize the risk that too much unity in Egypt or Lebanon could raise for the Christian minorities.

  5. 1. What are the boundary conditions which define ‘revolution’ as opposed to some other sort of regime change?

    2. To what importance do you assign the different components of the common life in assessing whether conditions are better or worse?

    3. When you say conditions are better or worse, events over what interval of time would count as frictional costs which could be excluded from the assessment?

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