The dangerous long-term weakness of authoritarian leadership

A strong leader can put the house in order. Authoritarian figures with a vision have some successes on their names, notably in East Asia. But their cheerleaders often underestimate how much their achievements were possible because of broad support. As Paul Krugman pointed out in his 1994 Foreign Affaris article debunking uncritical celebration of the ‘Asian miracle’, in the short run, authoritarian leadership allows quick mobilisation of previously under-utilised production factors. For more complicated reforms you need more complicated power structures.

In the long run, authoritarianism is a recipe for weak and feeble regimes. When a regime gets power, it is sure of its hold and can act boldly. It has just managed to build a coalition among the groups that hold power with enough support to bring it firmly into power. However, as time goes on, that mandate is not renewed. Still, society is not frozen in time and, especially when you rapidly modernise your country, the balance of power shifts. Since civic society has been muzzled, it is not a reliable source of information. As the grounds shift under you, as the distance to the moment of ascension to power grows, the regime’s feeling that it is in full command shrinks. Insecurity grows.

In fact, insecurity is the hallmark of authoritarian regimes.

The initial leader is strong in his mandate. Often he may have won the support of genuine elections. This changes once the time for successors comes. These people do not have an individual mandate. They therefore often lack the power to make bold moves. If you emerge from the party establishment, what exactly is your mandate for rapid reform? The point is not that this mandate is absent—it may very well be there—but that you do not know what mandate you have.

Heng Swee Keat will never be as free to push through controversial policies as Lee Kuan Yew, who won real elections against outside opponents, not just a closed-doors contest within the regime. Xi Jinping’s ‘personality cult’ has been instigated precisely to solve that problem: he was put in his position by party elites, his ‘selectorate’, and his grand schemes make him acutely aware that he needs a broad popular mandate to be effective. To the extent that Emmanuel Macron came to power out of a intra-elite contest in France, his ability to enact his big reforms is also limited by the lack of popular participation in ‘his’ power bargain.

Holding the reins of power depends on a bargain with those factions who hold the keys to power. To make sure that this configuration remains up to date, regular bargaining is necessary. In liberal democracies, elections fulfil this role—even when increasingly imperfectly. In authoritarian states proper power bargaining is impossible, because the question of who is in charge has already been answered. When the leader cannot change, in democracy or dictatorship, the game of politics is about not who will get power, but who will support power. Theresa May should go, because her insecurity means that by now her attention is absorbed by that game. To an extent it is possible to play this game, but over time it creeps into every policy-decision. The act of governing is subsumed by the pursuit of power, and the ruler’s efficiency dissipates until the bargain is renewed.

The argument for democracy is its mediocrity

Any review of the argument for democracy as the best form of governance as a matter of tradition starts with Churchill’s citation in the House of Commons of the quote that Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others. I oblige. Its popularity shows how wary many people have become of democracy. Gone is the faith of Enlightenment that the sublime wisdom of the people would lead us to a glorious future once education would have been sufficiently perfected. Instead a disenchanted Churchill-like the-alternatives-are-worse attitude has taken hold of an elite that vaguely remembers being told that democracy is morally superior, but is increasingly hard-pressed when having to say exactly why. Even a partial challenge arising in the nineties from the Asian Values debate already caused great panic. Only the Asian Financial Crisis saved the democrats when it appeared just in time to undermine the credibility of the Asian Values proponents.

Now the world is turning multipolar, the challenges to the democracy of the West will only gain in strength. This time it will take more than a short financial crisis to dislodge the counterarguments. Meanwhile, the structural problems facing the West only seem to become worse and worse, while the success of extreme right and populist politicians show a powerful desire for a strong leader to solve all the woes in one fell swoop. Unfortunately, less and less people are prepared to boldly state the case for the compromise-based, inclusive democracy we need. That is the following:

The argument for democracy is that it produces mediocre outcomes.

It might sound rather disappointing and of course: democracy as a provider of information from bottom to top, and as way for the bottom to be represented up high are both essential as well, but they are both not the ultimate argument for why democracy is the best form of governance. The latter point might even at times be present in other regimes when the leadership is particularly charismatic.

It is very tempting to look at so many success cases of developing countries where strong leaders seem to have produced such impressive results. The smart and capable strongman seems to have lead his country to improbably heights by developing a system that is not entirely democratic But without checks such a system also allows the leaders to drive the country into the ground once their excellency starts to fade and the products of meritocracy become less suitable.

History is about cycles. nunc obdurat et tunc curat Leaders and their genius rise and fall. Bad judgements follow good judgements. In democracies, too, good governments can be followed by bad governments. What is important is whether a system is capable of dampening the extremes of the inevitable highs and lows. In an autocratic or oligarchic system really smart people might in theory be able to achieve greater things more rapidly than you see happening these days in the ‘mature’ democracies. But those very same systems also allow less qualified leaders to destroy many things more rapidly than is possible in a proper democracy

The points democracy is so often criticised for are precisely what creates this dampening effect. Socialisation into party machinery and the lagging effect in representation of shrinking societal support for a party sometimes seem archaic, but they create stability. Taking a true democratic decision requires taking into account views from a large majority of the people, necessitating compromise. Media and societal forces can make the government more cautious, but also ensure it goes not too far beyond what its citizens are comfortable with.

Say there is a plant which grows best when the temperature is as high as possible, but dies immediately when it goes below zero even once. There is country A where the temperature during the day is 15° C and at night 5° C, and country B where during the day it is 35° C but at night -5° C. Land A surely is preferable if you want to have at least something left to grow. The days in country B are much warmer and the average temperature is 15° C, 50% higher than country A’s meagre 10° C. Still, even if it were one million percent better, in country B our precious plant dies when night falls.

Surely, the outcome of a democratic process might not always inspire the greatest enthusiasm. But a meh view of politics is still much better than the thrill you get from the swift and well-executed destruction of your economy. When choosing a system to govern a country, it is imperative to think long-term, to think beyond the current generation. And that is precisely where its tepid results start to shine.

Long live democracy’s mediocrity!

NB: I purposely ignore the debate in developmental studies about democracy versus autocracy in developing economies. That is an entirely separate discussion besides this more general argument about democracy long-term.
NB2: Yes, this is a pro-stability post: I could write a whole separate post on how revolutions often end up benefiting mostly the mobile higher classes and only hurt the downtrodden they are supposed to help, because they more than anyone are helpless without any system. (Unless the system is designed to kill or dehumanise them.)