Democracy’s Burning Ships

According to legend, Hernán Cortés, in his quest to conquer Mexico, burned the boats that had brought his expedition from Spain in order to motivate his soldiers to win. But when elected governments try to adopt a similar "commitment" strategy to enhance long-term economic outcomes, they risk losing democratic legitimacy.

CHICAGO – Since the late 1970’s, the academic diffusion of game theory has led macroeconomists to emphasize the importance of “commitment,” a strategy that aims to enhance long-term economic outcomes by restricting policymakers’ discretion. The idea seems counterintuitive: How can less produce more?

While not historically accurate, one of the best examples of a strategic commitment is provided by the legend of Hernán Cortés, according to which, in his quest to conquer Mexico, he decided to burn the ships that had brought his expedition from Spain. At first, this might seem like a crazy move: Why intentionally destroy the only possible way out in case of defeat? Cortes allegedly did it to motivate his troops. With no escape route, soldiers were highly motivated to win. Alexander the Great is said to have done something similar when conquering Persia.

To produce its benefit, a commitment strategy should be credible – that is, it cannot be reversed quickly. In this sense, Cortés’s strategy was perfect: in case of defeat, the Spanish would have no time to rebuild the burned ships. To work properly, a commitment strategy should also be costly in case of failure: had Cortés lost, no Spanish soldier would have escaped alive. It is precisely this cost that helped motivate his soldiers.

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