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Assassination is probably underrated

April 18, 2013

The Selectorate Theory makes a lot of sense to me. In a country with a large selectorate, individual leaders don’t have much impact on policy. If one dies, another with similar views will be elected quickly without much of a transitional period. If an American leader is assassinated, they are even replaced by someone of the same party. Basically, assassination is totally useless in changing policy in a democracy. However, when the selectorate is small, only a few people hold the reigns of power and they can steer policy more or less to their whim. If Kim Jong Un were killed, his replacement might have totally different views on a number of polices, such as following China’s lead on modernizing the economy or reunification. Perhaps the assassinating group won’t be able to predict the result, but they would know that the result would be different.

Furthermore, credible threat of assassination is more likely to result in compliance in a dictatorship. If you disagree with a popular policy in a democracy, you’d have to kill vast swathes of the population to ensure it was not enacted, which is total war, not assassination. But if you disagree with a policy of a dictatorship, you might only have to kill half a dozen people it was popular with inside the regime. After the first few deaths turned up, the rest might reconsider. Economists like to talk about incentives – there is no sharper incentive than a gun to the head. If the regime can’t even promise its cronies safety, they are less likely to commit horrible crimes against humanity on the regime’s behalf.

To put it lightly, war has shaky moral foundations. It is not just or right to murder millions of innocent people to avenge the crimes of a single villanous dictator. But to kill the dozen people who actually commited the crimes is far less troubling. If I had the opportunity and means to kill Bashar al-Assad, I would neither hesitate nor mourn. However, if my actions killed innocent Syrians along the way, I would feel terrible about it. How would the war with Japan turned out if Doolittle’s raid nailed the Emperor with its payload? I’m guessing the next guy in line would start considering peace real quick.

Caveat: As always, consider the Economist’s Modus Tollens. Even powerful geopolitial actors don’t resort to assassination except under the most extreme circumstances. Hence, there must be something I’m missing about either its effectiveness or its difficulty. It seems like the Israelis agree with me, at least.

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