Bryan Caplan  

The Common Sense of Scapegoating

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Suppose your long-term enemy has compromised himself somehow. You're in a position to demand satisfaction, but his position is too strong to actually get rid of him. What could you do instead? In practice, a common solution is to insist that your enemy make a scapegoat of one of his own subordinates.

For example, suppose you have proof that another country committed some atrocity. You know that the order came from the top. But the top isn't going to resign to appease world opinion. So instead, you demand that he hand the general in charge of the atrocity over for a war crimes tribunal.

Seems kind of silly, doesn't it? Since you can't punish the real criminal, you take it out on his flunkie. What's the point?

On reflection, though, there IS a point. What happens when a leader throws an obedient follower to the wolves? It reduces the incentive to follow orders. That makes it harder for the leader to commit further crimes, because his followers have to weigh the costs of disobedience against the costs of being scapegoated. Once the people at the top start giving these bad incentives, moreover, they trickle down throughout the hierarchy.

An interesting history of Russia (this one if memory serves me) argues that this mechanism partly explains the fall of the Soviet Union and subsequent defeats by Chechens and other separatist forces. After some Soviet/Russian generals were scapegoated to placate world opinion, their replacements decided it was safer to ignore criminal orders than to follow them.

We see the same thing in ordinary politics. The President orders a cabinet member to do something. It fails. Since the President isn't going to resign, his critics demand the resignation of the cabinet member. You could object, "What makes you think the replacement will be any better?" But that misses the point. His replacement might not be a better human being, but he's going to be reluctant to follow the kind of orders that turned his predecessor into a sacrificial lamb. And of course, this encourages other ministers to be insubordinate as well.

Bottom line: "I was just following orders" was always a lame excuse. But it turns out that punishing people for following orders has more benefits than meet the eye.

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The author at The Right Coast in a related article titled The Economics of Scapegoating
Mike Rappaport
    Bryan Caplan, one of my favorite economic bloggers, argues that putting pressure on a leader to fire one of his subordinates for doing something that the leader actually ordered can be socially beneficial: What happens when a leader throws an [Tracked on April 6, 2006 1:21 AM]
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Zubon writes:

It is said that the current American President selects subordinates with a strong eye towards loyalty. Loyalty is rewarded with promotion to high office, and loyal high-ranking officials are rarely asked to resign; the most visible examples have really done something wrong.

1a. This seems to circumvent the problem in many ways. Apparently, no one is in sufficient "position to demand satisfaction" most of the time.

1b. Of course, look at the President's approval ratings. Some political price is paid. Would some disapproval of Iraq have slid off the President if he sacrificed the Secretary of Defense or some high-ranking military officials?

2a. The more weight you give loyalty, the less you can give to other factors, such as competence. If you must weight loyalty, you get less of other desirables.

2b. Of course, if you just want someone to carry out your orders, that is no problem. They do not need to be great thinkers; they need to be great obeyers.

3. Extending 1b, if you need the assistance of people outside your direct control, the effect could be the same. That is, if Congress will not follow a President with low approval ratings, then taking the hit himself will have the same practical effect of undermining policy implementation as losing follower loyalty.

4. This is very person-centered, possibly without much potential for long-term institutional change. A charismatic leader loses support, either from sacrificing underlings or taking the hits directly. After this leader is removed, is the next one more likely to avoid corruption or atrocities out of fear of the same end, or is he going to spend his political capital in the same way in a potentially endless cycle? We have seen many countries where the warlords has been deposed by...the next warlord. We have seen many politicians voted out of office in favor of someone who is differently but no less corrupt or incompetent. After all, the new guy has no track record of sacrificing subordinates yet, so why not follow his orders? He seems to have very broad public support at the moment, hailed as the reforming new leader and the great hope of a nation...

Timothy writes:

What does a second term president care about his approval ratings?

Zubon writes:

Congress always cares about its ratings because hundreds of them are up for re-election every two years. If the President is not popular, supporting him is not popular and is therefore a risk to them. Any policy associated with an unpopular President is therefore a political risk, whereas there are political points to be gained for opposing the President on any given issue.

It is hard to get your agenda through the legislature if members of your own party are scared to be photographed in public with you. It is easy to get your agenda through the legislature if they believe they can get re-elected by supporting everything you do.

Although scapegoating may indeed have the positive effect that you describe, getting the responsible party would be better still. And conversely, the further down the scapegoat is (think Abu Ghraib), the less the effect would be. A general might be less likely to follow an illegal order because of the risk of scapegoating, but a soldier probably won't. To them, the price of refusing is higher than the price of obeying.

Another thing which makes me a little sceptical of this, is that I have seen some examples of people seemingly appointed just to take the blame. For many politicians, it won't be difficult to find a loyal follower willing to take an Uriah's post. Especially if all he will lose is a position he would have no chance at getting otherwise, like Michael Brown at FEMA.

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