The Tocqueville Paradox: when Does Reform Provoke Rebellion?

Evgeny Finkel (George Washington University)
Scott Gehlbach (University of Wisconsin–Madison)

Abstract: We analyze a model of reform and rebellion to explore Alexis de Tocqueville's conjecture that reform provokes political unrest. Our theory emphasizes the role of reform in determining expressive motivations to rebel through two forms of reference dependence: reform reduces grievances to the extent that its implementation improves on the status quo, but it also raises expectations that contribute to grievances when reform is implemented by local agents with a stake in the status quo. When reform is predominantly locally implemented and state capacity is weak, a more ambitious reform leads to greater concessions by local elites; nonetheless, the equilibrium probability of rebellion also increases. This tradeoff is robust to assuming that citizens are motivated by instrumental as well as expressive concerns and to the presence of strategic complementarities across localities. We illustrate our results with a discussion of Russia's Emancipation Reform of 1861.

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