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Popularity through punishment

An MIT political scientist explains how authoritarians gain support by meting out “retributive justice” against those who violate social norms.

December 17, 2021
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Living under an autocratic regime does not sound like much fun, yet many authoritarian governments enjoy a surprising amount of genuine support. Why?

According to Professor Lily Tsai, founder of the MIT Governance Lab, one reason is that they give the people something they truly want: “retributive justice,” or high-­profile punishment of those who have violated shared values. Such punishments, it seems, signal that leaders are maintaining a social order based upon core moral principles.

“It’s an important strategy for mobilizing public support that unfortunately we don’t always acknowledge,” Tsai says. “Successful authoritarians understand that people need to feel there is a stable social and moral order, arguably before anything else, and they have to consciously and continuously produce it.”

In her new book When People Want Punishment, Tsai explores how retributive justice functions and seeks to shift our understanding of how authoritarians prosper.

“Retributive justice is not revenge, which is an emotional reaction to a wrong that’s been done, and often violent,” she notes. In a high-functioning democracy, it takes the form of the normal legal process. In the Philippines, it has been made manifest through the government’s campaign against criminality and drugs. In China, where Tsai conducted fieldwork, retributive justice is evident in anticorruption campaigns that punish local officials, often severely.

As an issue, she has found, Chinese citizens rank anticorruption efforts alongside welfare measures and fair administration of elections. These campaigns are so popular that, in Tsai’s interpretation, the persistence of corruption is virtually by design. Local officials face many unfunded mandates and often must resort to dubious means of fulfilling them or fail in their jobs. “It’s very hard [for local officials] not to be breaking some rules at some point,” she says. “This is very useful for the Chinese [federal] state.” 

All told, Tsai writes, retributive justice is “perhaps the most fundamental public good that a government provides to its citizens.”

“People in international development are typically thinking about the need to get government to provide basic public services—health care and clean water and education—but one of the most important and basic public goods governments need to provide is moral order and social stability,” she says. 

This analysis represents a change in scholarly thinking. Many experts have focused on elite sources of support for autocrats, such as the business community and the military. But sometimes they gain much wider popularity, and Tsai believes we need to understand that process better—not to imitate authoritarian regimes, but to figure out how democratic countries can also provide a sense of order and stability.

“Until you have that, promoting democracy really doesn’t have the salutary effects that we think it will have,” Tsai says. “You need a functioning state that can uphold the social order first.”

Recent books from the MIT community

Building the New Economy: Data as Capital
By Alex Pentland, PhD ’82, Toshiba Professor of Media, Arts, and Sciences; Thomas Hardjono, technology officer, Internet Trust Consortium; and Alexander Lipton
MIT PRESS, 2021, $35.00

The Decarbonization Imperative: Transforming the Global Economy by 2050
By Michael Lenox, PhD ’99, and Rebecca Duff

Radical Product Thinking: The New Mindset for Innovating Smarter 
By Radhika Dutt ’00, MNG ’01

Shakespeare’s Sonnets Among His Private Friends
By Carl Atkins ’75

Urban Play: Make-Believe, Technology, and Space
By Fábio Duarte, principal research scientist at the MIT SENSEable City Lab and lecturer in urban studies and planning, and Ricardo Álvarez, postdoctoral fellow at the SENSEable City Lab
MIT PRESS, 2021, $30

Ada and the Galaxies
By Alan Lightman, professor of the practice in the humanities, and Olga Pastuchiv, with illustrations by Susanna Chapman
Candlewick/MIT Kids Press, 2021, $17.99

Send book news to or 1 Main Street, 13th Floor, Cambridge, MA 02142.

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