In the span of a few days, we celebrated both the 30th anniversary of the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the international day in commemoration of the victims of communism. We were thus treated to numerous reminders of the fact that communism killed more than 100 million individuals over the course of the 20th century.
Yet, there is something we might forget in the midst of these commemorations. The deaths under communist rule are only a subset of the deaths that occurred at the hands of governments. Murder by government — democide, as Rudolph Rummel called it — accounts for terminating the lives of 262 million individuals during the 20th century. Numerous ideological variants are found in the regimes that murdered their own people. Violence is thus not an exclusive domain of the communist regimes of the 20th century.
This should come as no surprise. As Frank Dikötter points out in How to Be a Dictator (or older thinkers like Franz Oppenheimer), ideology is merely a justification for the use of violence. The end served by violence is the acquisition or preservation of power. Unconstrained rulers are those who are more likely to rely on extreme violence to preserve power. The justification comes after in the form of ideology. More extreme ideologies justify more extreme uses of violence to acquire or preserve power.
Why mention all this? Not because I want to diminish the lives that never were because of communist rule. Quite the reverse in fact! Because the key point above is the one that speaks to the constraints that rulers face. The more constrained rulers are least likely to abuse their population. And constraints come in different forms.
Legal and institutional constraints are one type. In this grab bag of de jure constraints we can include democracies and constitutions that establish systems of checks and balances. However, this type of constraint is weak. Constitutions can drift. Democracies can be illiberal. Laws can be changed to the point that we could hear Pompey tell his victims that there is no point in quoting laws to those who carry swords. After all, while democracies pale in terms of comparative death count with respect to democides, they still contributed 1 percent of the total number of democide victims during the 20th century. They too can commit sins, which suggests that while necessary, de jure constraints are not sufficient.
The more effective constraints are de facto ones. These are more complex and depend on context. However, they are a potent deterrent because they raise the cost of abusing one’s own people. They can take the form of greater costs to persecuting one group or another. The latter form of constraints has been used to explain how the Magna Carta finally stuck in England or why the emergence of religious toleration in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries had more to do with the costs of persecution than with any enlightened belief about tolerating those who differed. It can also take the form of greater forgone benefits (i.e., the opportunity cost of violence in richer societies is greater than in poorer societies).
Probably the most potent constraint on bad rulers that could have mitigated the democides of the 20th century is immigration. The acquisition and preservation of political power is about the extraction of rents from the population. If populations can move, they deny the rents sought by rulers. If rulers know that there can be exit, they are forced to temper their use of violence for fear of being left worse off. Not only that, but when populations move, they reward the rulers who promise to be the least violent and the most respectful of their rights. Migration (regardless of the direction) constrains rulers at the margin toward being more respectful of individual rights and liberties. This is not a perfect mechanism, but it is quite potent. We have strong empirical evidence that immigration tends to improve institutional quality in the host countries as much as in the home countries.
This is the reason why authoritarian regimes of all ideological stripes seek to restrict migration. The Berlin Wall, like any form of migration restrictions in authoritarian regimes, was meant to prevent exit. Absent exit, democide is a more arduous task.
Any regime that limits entry makes exit harder and, by definition, helps authoritarian regimes. Democratic regimes frequently indulge in immigration restrictions, and thus they aid (indirectly) authoritarian rulers.
Thus, embedded in the commemorations of the past few days for the victims of communism lies a great lesson about migration. Some of the 262 million individuals that suffered from democide could have escaped their fates. More importantly, rulers faced with the possibility of exit would have been more reluctant to engage in democides in the first place. As a result, a greater number of the 262 million victims could have been spared their fate.
The constraint migration imposes on rulers is the most potent tool in the preservation of human life. If any lessons are to be learned from the last few days of commemoration, this is the one.