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To the Short-Sighted Victor Belong the Spoils: Politics and Merit Adoption in Comparative Perspective



This article addresses a persistent puzzle in social science: Why do some rulers adopt merit systems, refusing to enjoy the spoils of their victories? Dominant explanations underscore the importance of interactions among core constituencies of voters, legislators, and executives in a democratic polity but cannot explain the adoption of merit in autocracies and are not corroborated empirically outside Anglo-Saxon democracies. Based on insights from repeated game theory, this article proposes a simple theoretical explanation that focuses on the future discount rate of rulers—democratic or not—and their interactions with economic agents. An empirical test covering both cross-country variations among 35 developing nations and within-country differences among 39 Russian regions is undertaken to test the theory. Controlling for factors from prevailing theories, it is found that rulers' longtime horizons proved to be positively associated with the adoption of merit in both empirical settings tested.