The good and the bad of dictatorships
November 21, 2006 12:33 AM   Subscribe

Pros and Cons of a dictatorship?

I want to know the pros and cons of dictatorships, and when it would start to hurt it's own people. Any examples of how dictatorships have helped people to a certain extent, but then became bad for the country after a certain "tipping point"?
posted by lain to Law & Government (31 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
May want to google the term "benevolent dictatorship."
posted by Brian James at 12:45 AM on November 21, 2006

I know this is totally going to sound like a terrible suggestion, but from a point of perspective, may I suggest you read through Mein Kampf?

No, I do not advocate Nazism in any way shape or form. Hitler does though lay out his opinion on why a dictatorship is the superior form of government.

Again, I do not advocate Nazism. I just want to make that clear. The book is full of hate and vitriol and is basically the rantings of a very evil person, but one that did have some pretty clear ideas on dictatorship.
posted by Pollomacho at 12:47 AM on November 21, 2006

Oh, I also do not advocate dictatorship*, just making a book suggestion. Thanks, just want to be clear here.

*or Nazism!
posted by Pollomacho at 12:50 AM on November 21, 2006

posted by mr_roboto at 12:57 AM on November 21, 2006

Democracy is the most expensive form of government. It is cheaper to govern in a dictatorship, when you do not have to pay for representatives, elections, etc.

I wonder whether anyone has studied the costs of government directly before and after an absolute monarch has been kicked out. My guess is that Versailles, for all its luxuries, was less expensive than the Republics that followed it.
posted by stereo at 1:16 AM on November 21, 2006

A history of the first hundred years of Imperial Rome is probably the best single answer to your question. The reign of Augustus was a golden age for Rome. The next emperor, Tiberius, was a vile man with very strange tastes, but he handled the empire well. However, then you got Caligula.

Tiberius left the Imperial Treasury very full. Caligula squandered it all, and that was the least of his excesses. It only took three years for the Pretorian Guard to get fed up with him.

After Caligula was assassinated, Claudius became emperor. He wasn't as good an administrator as either Augustus or Tiberius, and later in life he tended a bit to the absent minded. Even so, the empire did well under him.
But then there was Nero, another monster who was even worse than Caligula. Eventually the Pretorian Guard assassinated him, too.

Determining who the next Emperor should be required a civil war. AD 69 is known to history as the "Year of 4 Emperors".

It's been said that a benevolent dictatorship is the best of all governmental forms. The problem is that a benevolent dictatorship can very easily become a malevolent dictatorship, which is the worst of all governmental forms. Early Imperial Rome had both.

And Rome also suffered from another fundamental problem of dictatorships: uncertain succession. Dynastic succession doesn't necessarily yield consistently good leadership, and there's always the problem of disputed succession and cases where there is no heir at all.

Seutonius is a fascinating read, but he concentrates mainly on court gossip. A book like "Caesar and Christ" would probably be more useful to you in answering your question.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 1:21 AM on November 21, 2006

It all depends on the dictator. I'd say Steven CDB up there has made my point much more succinctly than I ever could, though.
posted by antifuse at 2:53 AM on November 21, 2006

Well, naturally, "dictatorship" allows for a lot of variation in how decisions are made. But some advantages of more authoritarian styles of decision-making beyond who is actually in power might be:

- effective disaster relief. Being able to tell people where to live, and to move when you want them to, can be quite an advantage
- swift legislative reform. Whether it's enacting new environmental laws, amending a budget, or responding to some other pressing need, the decision gets made and things can happen quickly
- reform, period. Unpopular decisions are sometimes the right decisions. Of course, it's better to educate people and get support for those decisions, but particularly when some kind of sacrifice is called for, people may be unwilling to do the right thing. (again, I tend to think environmental controls on industry as an example)
- expulsion of a corrupt governmental apparatus. This has happened more than a few times. It is difficult to root out corruption using an already corrupt system.
- the money spent on democratic mechanisms, of course, but this is really the barest of the advantages. You could save a lot of money by having a Draconian system of justice, too, but I wouldn't support that either.

In terms of tipping point, I have to say that the fundamental flaw of the "benevolent dictator" is that decisions foisted on an unwilling populace are going to be resisted whether they are the right decisions are not. That is why democracy -- doing the difficult job of convincing people of the right course of action -- is the only lasting beneficial path. Even a dictatorship that doesn't turn sour, as I think that is what you are suggesting, is going to leave a bitter taste in the mouth from day one.
posted by dreamsign at 3:07 AM on November 21, 2006 [1 favorite]

To summarise SCDB:

Pro: one guy is calling all the shots.
Con: one guy is calling all the shots.
posted by Meatbomb at 3:12 AM on November 21, 2006

Living in a dictatorship, and finding it not at all what I expected it to be, my own idea is that democracy isn't nearly as important as liberty [or for the Chinese, quality of life]. The two are not mutually exclusive. There is, however, a strong correlation between the responsiveness of a government and the ability to remove said leadership.

Is there really something inherently more just about America's last Presidential election basically being a "Pick Your Favorite Billionaire" than having an unelected but wise, fair, and responsive benevolent despot? It would appear that mechanism of democracy can get jammed up often, spitting out the same binary choices for voters decades on end...

Furthermore, think of the places that you don't want democracy right now. As corrupt as they are, I'm glad the House of Saud [Saudi Arabia] is in power. I'm glad Mushareff [Pakistan] is in power. I'm even a little glad Mubarak [Egypt] is in power. Listen to the little jokes about people wishing Hussein was still in power.

In the long-run it would be nice having the radicals try running government and fail, but in the short term all these countries would look like Lebanon and Palestinian Authority if the masses got their pick. Masses with intent to kill and cause Wars of Civilization ought not vote. In the meantime, I'm sure as hell glad the world's largest oil reserve doesn't have a "bin Laden/Cheney '08" sign sticking out it.
posted by trinarian at 4:15 AM on November 21, 2006

Democracy is the most expensive form of government. It is cheaper to govern in a dictatorship, when you do not have to pay for representatives, elections, etc.

Elections and legislatures are negligible costs in a modern state. The true cost of democracy is the administrative state - the extent to which street-level agents of the government are accountable to the people.
posted by Saucy Intruder at 4:39 AM on November 21, 2006

I'd say it more like:

Pro: One guy is calling all the shots.
Con: This guy could be an idiot or worse.
posted by Mr.Encyclopedia at 4:42 AM on November 21, 2006

Franco was tied for longest running dictatorship in Europe and it was mostly because he had a large base of popular support. It helped that he killed off the majority of his detractors during the civil war and the period afterwards. But even to this day there is conservative leaning in the country which is tied to La Falange.

I'd say the bad part was that he kept the country backward for a long time and only near the end of his power did he start to improve the country.
posted by JJ86 at 6:36 AM on November 21, 2006

Dictatorship has the same inherent human resource problem as democracy: by and large, the people who apply for the job (dictator, senator, dog catcher) aren't the ones who are qualified for it, and the people who are qualified know better than to apply.
posted by FelliniBlank at 6:42 AM on November 21, 2006

IMO, the best current example of a Benevolent Dictatorship is Apple Computer. Yes, there's a board, and there are shareholders, but for both good and ill, Apple is a projection of Steve Jobs's will. There have been ups and downs, but it's hard to argue the effect he's almost single-handedly had on the computing and entertainment industry.

For that "tipping point", watch what happens when he retires.
posted by mkultra at 7:39 AM on November 21, 2006

Even if Apple became a "bad dictatorship" in the corporate sense, I think the recriminations for dissent as a customer or employee of Apple computer are a good deal less lethal than the recriminations for dissent in a bad political dictatorship.
posted by Good Brain at 8:53 AM on November 21, 2006

Actually they're perfectly analogous- you get fired, summarily removed from the existing structure.

In a dictatorship, you just happen to get fired upon.
posted by mkultra at 8:58 AM on November 21, 2006

Aside from SCDB, which was a little Male-Answer-Syndrome, no one here has done even a passable job of answering the question.

The real way to get at it is to look at arguments made for and against dictators throughout history. Luckily, there are a bunch in books you should already have read.

We'll start with Plato's Republic. In it, Plato argues tha the best form of government is under a Philosopher King, and the worst form is a Tyranny. The Philosopher King is imbued with the wisdom to fully understand and execute justice. The regime is best because he is the perfect embodiment of that knowledge and his role is defined by doing the best for the state. The governments that follow (as Philosopher Regencies inherently devolve into other forms of government) are Aristocracy, Oligarchy, Democracy, Tyranny. The tyrant is the worst government and worst soul because he doesn't act according to the nature of his position.
We'll skip Aristotle's Politics since it's been a while since I read it, and I read it with an eye toward promoting democracy, not dictatorship. But SCDB is right in saying that the dictators of Rome should be examined, though it's easy to argue that Augustus was the last great man to come out of the Republican era, rather than the first great man of the Imperial era (with the emphasis shifting to favor the oligarchy of the Senate).
The next two people you should read are Machiavelli and Hobbes. Machiavelli presents the practical concerns of a regent, and that can be the explication of the effects of monarchy. Still, Machiavelli prefers a republic, so his view might be taken with a grain of salt (it was also written to be deeply flatering, so keep that in mind too).
The single most important man in the history of arguments for dictators is Thomas Hobbes, and his book is Leviathan.
In it, Hobbes starts with first principles, defining a state of nature where all men are essentially equal in their ability to kill one another. Proceeding from this, and granting that reason shows us that violent deaths are the worst thing that can happen, we should look to create a system that will prevent us from dying violently. Hobbes argues that the only way to be sure of this is a strong sovereign who is the living embodiment of the state. This Leviathan can muster every cell of the body politic for self-preservation, and by being guided by Christian (though Hobbes' Christianity is odd) principles, can be the most effective bullwark against the threat of death. Essentially, dictators are necessary when there is a legitimate exterior threat that promises iolent death for significant portions of the populace (though Hobbes argues that they arise naturally through man's actions, and thus are always necessary). Republics and democracies are inefficient and more likely to be suborned by competing interests and human passions.
But really, the best answer is to READ HOBBES. It's tough, but I believe it's free out on the net somewhere. And it's totally worth it.
posted by klangklangston at 9:31 AM on November 21, 2006

This is an anecdote and not a philosophical argument, but it might be useful.

My high school Spanish teacher was from Paraguay, and was pro-Stroessner. He based this opinion, simply enough, on law-and-order grounds. According to him, Stroessner kept things safe and crime low. His perception anyway, for what it's worth.
posted by furiousthought at 10:00 AM on November 21, 2006

The fundamental con to the dictatorship is that, regardless of the qualities of the individual dictator, it deprives citizens of their freedoms. This might happen to a greater or lesser degree in various instances, but it's impossible to avoid if one wants to capture the pros that are set out above. Some folks consider this an acceptable price to bear (Hobbes); others fall more into the "there's a tipping point" camp.

I think Amartya Sen's Development as Freedom sets out a pretty convincing case that the best way to improve people's lives is to enhance freedom, broadly understood to be the ability and opportunity to choose lives that they value. In a nutshell, by making people better off, you make them more free, and by making them more free, you make them better off; freedom is both the end and the means of development.

That would suggest that dictatorship and an enhanced quality of life are fundamentally at odds, at least on a theoretical level. One can imagine a dictatorship that was created in order to force a better standard of living into existence quickly, but I'm having trouble thinking of an actual such case which resulted in a society I'd want to live in. I also can't imagine a benevolent dictatorship being stable -- it seems that either the government would never need to throw its weight around, and the people would get used to a lack of intervention, making them resistant and hostile should the dictator decide to decree something, or he'd throw his weight around a lot, making them unhappy and unsafe.
posted by nickmark at 10:54 AM on November 21, 2006

The problem with dictatorships from a practical point of view is that they're inherently stupid. Since everyone is afraid to tell a dictator unpleasant truths, they become increasingly detached from what's really going on in their country. (Nicholas II is an excellent example.) The only way a government can have any idea what problems exist and need to be fixed is to get regular, unignorable input from the people down below who actually have to deal with those problems; elections are a clumsy and expensive means of providing that input, but they're what we have.

The moral problem with a dictatorship, as nickmark says, is that it deprives citizens of their freedoms, but people who "want to know the pros and cons of dictatorships" don't tend to be interested in such answers.
posted by languagehat at 11:50 AM on November 21, 2006

It isn't always the case that a dictatorship is stupid. There was a string of Roman emperors who were superb. They're known to history as the "Five good emperors" and that period of about 90 years was another golden age.

Another historically interesting example of a dictatorship is the Papacy. It tries to eliminate the fundamental problems of dynastic descent, and the problem of disputed succession leading to civil war.

There was no dynasty because the pope was supposed to be chaste, and upon the death of the pope a successor was chosen by the college of cardinals.

It also tries to eliminate the problem of personal corruption by prescribing the lifestyle of the Pope. And the cardinals were supposed to choose a good leader each time.

It didn't work perfectly, of course. There have been periods in which there were two popes, each of which declared the other to be a usurper (and the antichrist). There have been popes who did have children (though never officially acknowledged). There have been stupid popes, and corrupt popes. But on balance it has worked better than any other dictatorship system I know of, and it's lasted longer than any other I know of.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 2:54 PM on November 21, 2006

The problem of a dictatorship (or, to be historically accurate with terminology, an authoritarian regime; a dictatorship was considered part of republican government before the 20th century) is that state power is not inherently neutral. (Caveat lector: this is a sketch of the Marxist position.) It is the state of a section of society, and rules in the interests of that section. In agricultural societies, the government represents the landowning classes. In capitalistic societies, it represents the capitalist class. In the bureaucratic "socialist" states of the 20th century, it represented the ruling bureaucracy, which was functionally a capitalist class. You can't separate out "dictatorship" from "dictatorship for some interest."

For the most part, authoritarian governments have stood over societies of peasants and/or a mix of peasants and industrial workers. Their role has been to keep "law and order," that is, to keep property relations as they are. If you are in a group that is in power, or does not challenge the power structure, such as small artisans or shop owners, then a dictatorship of this sort can be beneficial -- prosperous and orderly. If you're a worker or a peasant, it means that you had better keep your head down or it might get chopped off.

In general, dictators tend to attract certain followings from the middle classes and the "lumpen" (dispossessed) classes, who stand to benefit from the dictatorship, as a supplement to their social basis among the ruling classes. This requires a good dose of ideology (in the Marxist sense, where ideology means the "common sense" created by the ruling class), which often takes viciously nationalistic or ethnic or religious forms, and that means that dictatorships often inflict atrocities on ethnic, national or religious minorities.

Fundamentally, these dictatorships come to power because they are necessary to maintain the power structure in society, and they extract a high human cost in return. In the modern sense, a "benevolent" dictatorship is a myth that is soaked with oceans of blood.
posted by graymouser at 3:24 PM on November 21, 2006

It isn't always the case that a dictatorship is stupid.

Yes it is. I didn't say the dictator was stupid; many of them are extremely smart, which exacerbates the problem (smart people always think they know more than they actually do and are reluctant to listen to people they think are not as smart). I said the dictatorship is stupid: it cannot possibly get the input it needs to rule well. Obviously this does not always result in the collapse of the system; inertia and luck count for a lot. Your favorite Roman emperors were lucky.
posted by languagehat at 3:47 PM on November 21, 2006

I suppose I should make clear that I don't want to live under a dictatorship and I don't want to force such a thing on anyone else.

Having said that, I think it's important to see anything clearly. Most dictatorships are stupid, but that is not an inherent feature of dictatorships. It's not theoretically impossible for dictatorships to "get the input they need to rule well."

In practice, the reason most of them have that problem is twofold: first, they severely restrict the portion of the population which is permitted to be part of the decision-maker caste, and thus waste the majority of their human capital. Second, there is indeed a tendency to shoot bearers of bad news, so there is a degree to which they do tend to not have accurate information about their situation.

But both of those are matters of degree. And that's another reason why the Papacy is an interesting case study. For one thing, for most of its history any Italian man could potentially become pope. He had to join the priesthood, and prove himself through decades of work for the church, but he did not, for instance, necessarily have to derive from a noble family.

It was mentioned above that dictatorships always represent some sort of interest that they work to advance. In the case of the Papacy, that interest was advancement of the church. Candidates for the top spot proved themselves by their effectiveness as priests and by their piety. Of course, there was also politicking going on, and the process was not necessary always completely honest, but that was the basic idea. That was quite different than other authoritarian regimes, who represented noble families, or represented landed interests, or represented industrialists, or whatever. The loyalty of priests was supposed to be to the Church itself, and to become a bishop or archibishop, and then to be selected as a cardinal (from which group nearly all popes were eventually chosen) you had to have proved your loyalty to the church through long and hard service.

As to not being able to get hold of information, in the middle ages the Church had better information about the state of Europe than anyone else did.

If a dictatorship tries to control everything from the very top, it's virtually guaranteed to be a failure. But few large governments of any kind are run that way; most decisions are delegated to a permanent bureaucracy, and the degree of effectiveness of that bureaucracy is a big factor in the success or failure of the system as a whole. Part of why the Roman Empire worked as well as it did, even during the reigns of Caligula and Nero, was that they didn't actually make most of the decisions.

A permanent bureaucracy can also be stupid and corrupt and inbred, but that's also a matter of degree. They can also be clean and efficient, and there have been some amazingly effective bureacracies in history.

And yet again the Papacy is an interesting example of that. First, it didn't try to control everything; much was left to various nobles who nominally ruled various principalities. The "bureaucracy" was made up of men who (in principle) foreswore earthly pleasures and dedicated themselves to God, and that seems to have improved the average quality and dedication of the bureaucrats. (Which is to say that they got fat and corrupt, but not as fat and corrupt as many others.)

[I suppose I should also mention about this point that I'm an atheist.]
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 7:38 PM on November 21, 2006

Hmm... Mose well run military forces in history have been dictatorships, but some military forces have been very good at collecting the information they need and very intelligent about responding to it.

Oddly enough, the modern American military is not a dictatorship, in the classic sense. And that's part of why it is so formidable.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 7:41 PM on November 21, 2006

[Languagehat] said the dictatorship is stupid: it cannot possibly get the input it needs to rule well.

Singapore? Frederick the Great’s Prussia? ‘Cannot possibly’ is a high bar.

[SCDB said:] Oddly enough, the modern American military is not a dictatorship, in the classic sense. And that's part of why it is so formidable.

A tiny, tiny part, and almost irrelevant in the context of the difference in its budget and that of its foes.
posted by Aidan Kehoe at 9:08 AM on November 22, 2006

Singapore? Frederick the Great’s Prussia?

If you think those places are/were well ruled, I guess we'll just have to agree to disagree. If you consider "continuing to exist for a while" as the definition of being well ruled, you're setting the bar awfully low.
posted by languagehat at 10:53 AM on November 22, 2006

languagehat, I suspect Sen would argue that the deprivation of freedom is not simply a moral problem (though it is that). Rather, it's also a very practical one -- dictatorships don't work well because people aren't free. In the terms you laid out, the government can't get the input it needs to rule well because people don't have the freedom to express their needs and desires (whether by elections or a free press) -- so lack of freedom is a contributor to ineffective government.
posted by nickmark at 11:30 AM on November 22, 2006

… dictatorships don't work well because people aren't free.

Dictatorship and freedom are not mutually exclusive. Those city states in the Persian Gulf that have been growing like weeds for the last few decades are as free or freer than, say, Germany, and their systems of government invests all power in the Emir; the Emir simply chose not to be a tyrant, and that worked out really well. The main asset of Dubai, for example, is how it’s governed—its oil revenues are minimal.
posted by Aidan Kehoe at 8:53 AM on November 23, 2006

It's orders of magnitude more difficult for a non-Arab to own property or a business in Dubai; it's essentially a modern feudal state. Oh, and they summarily execute drug offenders.

How is this "more free" than Germany?
posted by mkultra at 9:40 AM on November 23, 2006

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