This article was written by Peter Dizikes for the MIT Technology Review. The complete article is available online with excerpts below.

Popularity through punishment 

How authoritarian regimes use retributive justice to gain popular support? An MIT political scientist explains how authoritarians gain support by meting out “retributive justice” against those who violate social norms.

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. 


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 anti corruption campaigns that punish local officials, often severely. 


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. 


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