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All in the Family: How Political Leaders Secure Their Regimes

- March 13, 2008

kim yong-il.jpg

George W. Bush has two, but Saddam Hussein had six. Bill Clinton has one, but Kim il-Sung (shown above with the infant Kim Jong-il) had seven. Ronald Reagan had three, but the Sultan of Brunei has 10. John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Richard Nixon had two apiece, but Idi Amin had somewhere between 30 and 45.

Do you see any pattern here?

I’m speaking, of course, of children.

On the assumption that what matters most to political leaders is survival, Dustin Beckett and Gregory D. Hess argue, in essence, that leaders are motivated to immortalize themselves or at least to secure the future of their regime (abstract here). This motivation, in turn, leads them to try to influence the selection of their successor. From the leader’s perspective, trust in one’s presumed successor is vital, or else a successor might pull a Khrushchev by disassociating himself from the legacy of the leader. (I’m aware that Khrushchev wasn’t Stalin’s immediate successor, but you get the point.)

How, then, to ensure that one can trust one’s likely successor to carry on as one would wish? Because blood is thicker than water, the safest route is to keep it all in the family. For the leader of a non-democratic system, then, the best way to assure a “trustworthy succession match” is to sire a whole lot of children, in hopes that by the luck of the genetic draw one of them will turn out to be a “person who can successfully maintain the regime and the expropriation of rents, and with whom the enforcement of ex-ante promises is less problematic.” (As you can tell from the way they talk, Beckett and Hess are economists.)

By contrast, leaders in democratic systems find themselves more hemmed in by those bothersome checks and balances, and so many other people have a say in the choice of their successor that democratic leaders can’t do all that much to determine who is next in the line of succession anyway.

From these considerations, Beckett and Hess extract the expectation that the leaders of non-democratic systems will sire more children than their democratic counterparts, in hopes of finding the trustworthy succession match that they so avidly seek.

Sounds pretty far-fetched, doesn’t it?

Well, Beckett and Hess’ empirics, based on the composition of the families of 221 leaders worldwide and a wide array of country- and leader-level data, indicate that the leaders of non-democracies do indeed produce more offspring than the leaders of democracies; Idi Amin may have been an outlier, but his autocratic peers also tend to be prolific begetters. On average, the leaders of fully non-democratic countries have sired between 1.5 and 2.5 more children than the leaders of fully democratic countries — and this relationship holds up when a wide array of statistical controls are instituted. (So it’s not just that, say, the leaders of Muslim countries, most of which are non-democratic, have lots of wives and sire lots of children. There’s more to it than that.)

To which I must caution that the empirical relationship that Beckett and Hess observe is a matter of differences of degree, on average, rather than a universal generalization. Exceptions come fairly quickly to mind. Stalin, for example, had only three children (which could, if one buys Beckett and Hess’ argument, help explain the destalinization that occurred soon after his death). And some democratic leaders do produce a large number of children. John Adams, for example, had five, Willliam Henry Harrison had nine, and George H.W. Bush had six. But perhaps these are just exceptions that prove Beckett and Hess’ rule: When it comes to succession (whether immediate, as in the Adams and Bush cases, or delayed, as with the Harrisons), the more children, the better.