The Political Economy of Assassination

Today in intro to IR, we discussed the role of individuals in international politics.  On Friday, we’ll look at the policy debate on page 152 of Mingst, where the debate question is “Should ‘bad’ or ‘corrupt’ leaders be forcibly removed by the international community?  Mingst provides arguments for and against.  What about not only removing them, but having them assassinated?  Two economists–Ben Olken and Ben Jones–have decided to take a look at the link between assassinations and other factors such as democratization and economic growth.  What have they found?

Olken wonders whether economic devel­opment and the path to democratization are shaped more by broad historical forces or by the actions of specific leaders—be they demo­cratically elected prime ministers or thuggish authoritarians…

…In “Hit or Miss? The Effect of Assassinations on Institutions and War,” Olken and Jones looked at the effects of political assassination, using a strict empirical methodology that takes into account economic conditions at the time of the killing and what Olken calls a “novel data set” of assas­sination attempts, successful and unsuccessful, between 1875 and 2004.

Olken and Jones discovered that a country was “more likely to see democratization follow­ing the assassination of an autocratic leader,” but found no substantial “effect following assassinations—or assassination attempts—on democratic leaders.” They concluded that “on average, successful assassinations of autocrats produce sustained moves toward democracy.”

…In “Do Leaders Matter? National Leadership and Growth since World War II,” Olken and Jones explored whether “individual political leaders make a difference in economic growth.” This is tricky business for the researcher because, as Olken explains, a country’s economic situa­tion can affect the election of a leader: when the economic outlook is good, for instance, presi­dents are more likely to be reelected. [This is the problem of endogeneity–JD] So Olken and Jones looked at 57 leaders who died in office from accidents or natural causes and “found big changes in growth when autocratic leaders die in office—both positive and negative,” but no sub­stantial change when democratic leaders died in office. “The results suggest,” they write, “that individual leaders can play crucial roles in shap­ing the growth of nations,” provided they are ruling with minimal or nonexistent checks and balances to their power (think Augusto Pinochet or Robert Mugabe).

 

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