Harvard economist says assassinations have little effect in democracies but can end dictatorships

Historians in the News

In his nondescript office on Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge, nestled in a far-off corner of Harvard Square, Ben Olken ruminates on the economic consequences of tyrannicide, the damaging effects of television on social cohesion, and the byzantine system of bribery in Indonesia. Olken, a 32-year-old with an undergraduate degree from Yale (in mathe matics and “ethics, politics, and economics”) and an economics doctorate from Harvard, is a ris ing star in the field of developmental economics. Olken is currently a member of Harvard’s Society of Fellows, a prestigious institution within the institution, where the best young scholars pursue what interests them. Among economists alone, former Junior Fellows include Paul Samuelson, Carl Kaysen, Jeffrey Sachs, Steven Levitt, and James Tobin.

Olken is “one of the most exciting young scholars in economics,” his Harvard adviser, Lawrence F. Katz, former chief economist to the U.S. Labor Department, told The Chronicle of Higher Education. He is.

Olken wonders whether economic devel opment and the path to democratization are shaped more by broad historical forces or by the actions of specific leaders—be they demo cratically elected prime ministers or thuggish authoritarians. With the assistance of his fre quent research partner Ben Jones, an economist at Northwestern, Olken has challenged broadly held assumptions by publishing a pair of papers asking how heads of state affect economic out comes and democracy.

In “Hit or Miss? The Effect of Assassinations on Institutions and War,” Olken and Jones looked at the effects of political assassination, using a strict empirical methodology that takes into account economic conditions at the time of the killing and what Olken calls a “novel data set” of assas sination attempts, successful and unsuccessful, between 1875 and 2004.

Olken and Jones discovered that a country was “more likely to see democratization follow ing the assassination of an autocratic leader,” but found no substantial “effect following assassinations—or assassination attempts—on democratic leaders.” They concluded that “on average, successful assassinations of autocrats produce sustained moves toward democracy.” The researchers also found that assassinations have no effect on the inauguration of wars, a result that “suggests that World War I might have begun regardless of whether or not the attempt on the life of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914 had succeeded or failed.”...

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