So you’ve got an Evil Overlord ruling over the peasants. The Evil Overlord raises taxes. What do the peasants do?
The answer depends on a whole host of factors, depending on your setting. But a nice, simple model for thinking about it was developed in 1970 by economist Albert O. Hirschman. He was initially thinking about how consumers respond when a product they use (a brand of car, for example) gets worse, but quickly realized that the same basic model applies in a multitude of settings—politics included. The model (and Hirshman’s book describing it) is called Exit, Voice, and Loyalty.
Back to our Evil Overlord. The peasants obey partly out of rational calculation (they don’t want the Brute Squad sent after them), but partly out of loyalty: a non-rational sense that the peasants want to, or ought to, obey the Overlord. Loyalty might reflect a long history of good experiences, and the expectation that good experiences will return in the future even with the momentary troubles. It might reflect irrational beliefs, such as official ideology or superstition. But in any event, loyalty gives the Evil Overlord a buffer so that the peasants continue to obey even after they “rationally” would decide not to.
Loyalty is incredibly valuable, and not just to the Overlord. If his regime is essentially “good enough” for the most part, and the current bout of tax-raising is to meet an immediate crisis, the peasants’ loyalty is what keeps them from demolishing the system right away. It gives the Overlord the chance to improve things, if he wants to. And if he does, then everyone benefits without the need for a destructive rebellion. Loyal obedience, in this case, was the right move.
But even the most loyal peasant will eventually lose patience. Things are bad, they’re not getting better, and something must be done. Hirschman writes that our peasant has two choices: exit, and voice.
Exit is straightforward: the peasants stop cooperating. That could either mean literally fleeing the country, or it could mean hiding your money and entering the black market, or it could mean launching a rebellion. The details will differ based on your setting; but fundamentally, if you choose Exit, you believe that there is nothing you can gain by acting within the system. All you can do is escape.
Voice, on the other hand, is action within the system. If the Overlord is doing poorly, the peasant using Voice literally speaks up to tell him what is wrong. In other settings, using Voice could mean answering customer surveys, or voting in an election, or submitting bug reports to a software developer. Voice becomes attractive if you are loyal, if you believe that the system can be improved, that those in charge will listen to what you say and act on it, that you yourself won’t be harmed for using Voice.
If you are the Overlord, or a corporation, or the leader of a nonprofit, you want to make it attractive for your “peasants” to use Voice, for two reasons. First, obviously, it makes it less likely for them to Exit, costing you money or power. Second, you gain more information about what is going wrong and how to fix it. But if your peasants don’t feel safe using Voice, they will simply Exit instead and the Overlord has a bigger problem.
As I said, this is only a starting point. But it’s a tremendously flexible one, and can clarify your thinking about many different issues. When writing your story, Exit, Voice, and Loyalty reminds you that your peasants have choices; it gets you thinking about which choice is most attractive, and why.
(This post is part of Politics for Worldbuilders, an occasional series. Many of the previous posts in this series eventually became grist for my handbook for authors and game designers, Beyond Kings and Princesses: Governments for Worldbuilders. The topic of this post belongs in the planned second book in this series, working title Tyranny for Worldbuilders. No idea when it will be finished, but it should be fun!)