Is Democracy or Authoritarianism a more effective style of Government?
Economic Development Comparative study
1. It used to be known that economic growth in authoritarian countries fostered democratization, but we are now seeing the opposite effect: the strengthening of authoritarian regimes. The theory was, that by everyone gaining more money because of the economic prosperity, the middle class would be more educated and start to demand democratization and liberalization of the government. This, however, is not always the case. The trend now seems to be that economic growth is helping these authoritarian dictatorships by giving the leaders more power via tax revenues and popular support by the people who also now have more money.
This article is fascinating as it bucks a widely assumed fact in political science, that economic growth leads toward more liberal and progressive thinking. This assumption, the article argues, only holds true in the long-term, but in the short-term economic growth only serves to give more power to autocrats, as the people’s happiness and GDP rise there is no reason to change styles of government or regime. From an economic standpoint there is no real argument that democracy is a better system than authoritarianism.
2. This study, from 1981 explores the proportion of state executives’ attitudes toward authoritarian values. 1,000 high level state executives from seven states, including all four categories (Southern, Industrial, Sparsely populated, and Frontier) were randomly given a survey with questions meant “…to probe executives’ attitudes toward authoritarian values” (74). There are four components of authoritarianism used in this study, “Conventionalism: rigid adherence to conventional middle-class values…Authoritarian Submission: submissive uncritical attitude toward idealized moral authorities of the ingroup…Authoritarian Aggression: tendency to be on the lookout for, and to condemn, reject, and punish people who violate conventional values…Power and ‘Toughness’: preoccupation with the dominance-submission, strong-weak, leader-follower dimension; identification with power figures; overemphasis upon the conventionalized attributes of the ego; exaggerated assertion of strength and toughness” (74).
The study admits that there is no consensus among these officials on authoritarianism, but does conclude that a large proportion support authoritarian values. This information is surprising, but does not seem misguided. People often talk about bureaucracies and how they can never get anything done. Maybe that futility has something to do with the democratic structure of these government institutions. There may be a reason these officials support authoritarianism as it is much easier for one person to do as he or she sees fit than having to run that decision by others.
Advantages of Authoritarianism
3. This article lays out the advantages of authoritarian rule as Quick Decisions, and Total control. These are what the author argues works about authoritarian regimes both for the autocrat, and his people, providing that he has their interests in mind. In the US, a Democratic Republic, the President has some authoritarian-like powers, including being the sole commander in chief of the armed forces, reserving the right to send troops wherever and whenever he sees fit. The framers thought this provision necessary because in a military situation there may not always be time to draft a piece of legislation and pass it in the appropriate ways, sometimes things just need to be done. This is an example of the type of quick decision that can be made across the board by an authoritarian ruler.
Instead of just being able to make this kind of decision in the military, like the President, an autocrat has total control, so he can make these choices about anything. Obviously if the ruler does not have his people in mind, this will spell disaster, but in a benevolent dictatorship where the people trust the ruler and he or she loves his or her people, an authoritarian regime can work beautifully. Under very specific circumstances can authoritarian societies work, however if these criteria are met, it can be even more effective than a democracy.
Philosophical View: Hobbes' Leviathan
4. Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, published in 1651, describes his ideal system of government, a sort of social contract to give one man, or body all the power, “The only way to erect such a common power, as may be able to defend them from the invasion of foreigners, and the injuries of one another, and thereby to secure them in such sort as that by their own industry and by the fruits of the earth they may nourish themselves and live contentedly, is to confer all their power and strength upon one man.” Hobbes offers an interesting take on authoritarianism and government that is not democratic, but not what we would think of as an autocrat. This benevolent dictator has been endowed with the trust of all the people in the commonwealth so long as every person in the commonwealth submit to his supreme authority, “This is more than consent, or concord; it is a real unity of them all in one and the same person, made by covenant of every man with every man.”
Hobbes speaks reverently of this just leader, saying, “… that mortal god to which we owe, under the immortal God, our peace and defence. For by this authority, given him by every particular man in the Commonwealth, he hath the use of so much power and strength conferred on him that, by terror thereof, he is enabled to form the wills of them all, to peace at home, and mutual aid against their enemies abroad.” Hobbes’ point is well taken, but is there a benevolent leader with whom societies can entrust absolute power in every generation? In theory this system of authoritarianism is the best possible scenario, the right decisions being made quickly by one person and everyone agreeing to those decisions, but that isn't quite realistic.
Opinion Piece: US China Comparison
5. In this Op-Ed for the New York Times, Thomas Friedman compares the governments of China and the US in 2009, saying that what is worse than a one-party authoritarian government is a one-party democratic system. Specifically, Friedman cites the energy debate going on in 2009 in this country, saying that democrats and republicans in congress couldn't agree and could get nothing done. He contrasts this gridlock with China, an authoritarian system with a “reasonably enlightened group of people” as leaders. He notes, “That one party can just impose the politically difficult but critically important policies needed to move a society forward in the 21st century” where the US was lagging in clean energy because of Democracy, China moved forward by being a benevolent, thoughtful dictatorship.
If the President in this situation had the same powers as the Chinese leadership there would be no debate and he would do what he thought was necessary. In a debate like this, something as sophisticated as energy conservation, is it important to have the people’s input? Can the average American really grasp this issue fully? I would argue that not all congressmen can grasp it.