Bryan Caplan  

Popular Dictators: Who Could Pass the Democratic Test?

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Some call Putin a dictator, yet few deny that he would win a fair election. If you look around the world, how many bona fide dictators could say the same? Let's start with:

Kim Jong Il
The Communist Party in China

Give me your predictions: What vote share would they get?

OK, here's the next question: What do the electable dictators have in common? Some leading candidates:

1. The electable dictators deliver peace and prosperity. This is a common explanation for Putin's popularity. It would also presumably predict that the Chinese Communist Party has little to fear from democracy.

2. The electable dictators give the people the policies they want. Rational choice theorists might assume this just re-states #1, but they're wrong. War-mongering and scapegoating are often popular; so are wealth-destroying economic policies. Mubarak has given Egypt peace, but most Egyptians I've talked to tell me that free elections would put bloody-minded Islamists in power. (Aside: Here's my forthcoming paper about the mechanisms that lead dictators to heed their subjects' wishes).

3. The electable dictators are the best brain-washers. Would Kim Jong Il suffer a crushing defeat, or an overwhelming victory? It's a tough question. But if you think that a man who rattled nuclear sabers while his people starved en masse might win a free election, it says volumes about political man.

4. Alternative theories? Please share.

It might surprise you, but even I think there is a lot of truth in #1. Democracy yields a lot of disappointing results, but it rarely rewards leaders for sharp declines in living standards or drawn-out wars.

At the same time, #2 is also a big part of the story: At least since the dawn of modern communications, successful dictators are usually demagogues.

As for #3, I see a lot of variation. In the 20s and 30s, Communist propaganda moved the souls of millions; but by the 70s it was a giant waste of rubles. If I had to bet, I'd say that despite all the juche propaganda, North Koreans would throw Kim Jong Il out on his ear. The real challenge would be to convince the voters that after sixty years of terror, it was finally safe to say no to famine.

Gordon Tullock has often wisely remarked that social scientists spend little time studying dictatorship even though it has almost always been the predominant form of government. If we can answer my questions here, I think we will have learned some deep lessons about not only dictatorship, but democracy, and human nature itself.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (15 to date)
Jan Zaborskx writes:

I think there is one interesting trait of dictators and that is they pose as the ones who are willing to take over the responsibility of the common people for their own lives. Which may appear as odd to the Western society, but imagine countries where there is no (or very little) legacy of democracy, where people are used to authoritative regime in which they were never bearing responsibility for one's life (which works for North Korea, Zimbabwe, China, Bhutan and even Russia and its former satellite states). In the case of these countries you could even talk about dictatorship as an extreme form of conservativism - people simply adhere to the traditions, because they are used to how dictatorship works and can navigate it. Reluctance to change one's ways shouldn't be dismissed as a reason for people not objecting too much to dictatorship.

Nathan Smith writes:

Castro -- no reelection, maybe 10% of the vote.
Kim Jong Il -- impossible to organize election without liberalization; with liberalization the regime would fall.
Mugabe -- would probably lose a free election, but narrowly.
Mubarak -- probably would lose if opposition could organize, but might win by becoming the leader of an Anybody-but-the-Muslim-Brotherhood coalition.
The Communist Party in China -- monopoly of power would not last long if political space opened up.

What vote share they would get depends on such factors as:
(a) the credibility, popularity, and organization of the opposition, or lack thereof;
(b) the demand for freedom relative to other things, such as perceived security and prosperity;
(c) what the purpose of the dictatorship is perceived to be-- for example, is it needed to restore order, or to fight corruption, or to defeat guerrilla rebels, or to drive Israel into the sea?

I think there's a widespread presumption in favor of democracy worldwide, and dictators need a special reason for being in power in order not to be perceived as illegitimate. Prosperity can cut both ways: people may be thankful to the dictator for it, but prosperous people may be less willing to trade economic gains for political freedom.

Putin has a very strong reason to be in power from the point of view of the Russian people: he saved Russia from the chaos and worse-than-Great-Depression economic collapse of the 1990s. Without much of an ideology, he's not ideologically vulnerable. The Chinese Communists have presided over even more prosperity, but they've done so by running the country by economic policies largely antagonistic to their ideology, and their ideology is a weakness. Mugabe represents the blacks against the whites and gets support from that no matter how he misrules; also, the electorate is desperately poor and largely illiterate. Mubarak would get a lot of reluctant support from people who are more afraid of the opposition Muslim Brotherhood than of him. Castro is a pathetic, anachronistic barrier to engagement with the United States, who has self-evidently ruined the country.

r.m.daza writes:

Peace & Prosperity? I respectfully disagree. Electable dictators bring order. But so do prisons.

1] Peace and Prosperity is given to supporters. Supporters vote. The person the supporters have voted for have in the past demonstrated what happens to those don’t support and vote. I witnessed this when I lived in Egypt for a year (Mubarak). For popular = get rid of unpopular

2] How do you get a majority? Eliminate the minority- not necessarily kill them, but marginalize them. Dictatorship can be parties. My mother grew up in one of those. Recently (she is now an American citizen) I asked her why she does not vote. She told me that growing up, she was told who to vote for. She was passive about it “that the way things were.” So why not throw the Molotov cocktail? “Nobody will pay attention to you.” En masse? “For what, chaos?”

Not peace, not prosperity: predictable order and uncertain and expensive opportunity costs.

3] Dicatator Smcictator! How about effective parallel sectors and private sectors. I know enough Egyptian politics (specifically politically central Cairo) to know that The absence of Mubarak will not invite Islamists. The Islamic sector is decentralized and in the city tends toward social services and not militancy (that is reserved for townships along the Nile). Egypt has an estimated population of 7 million Coptic Christians affluent, educated, and urban. Egypt’s militant Brotherhood have lost luster due to a Moderate faction and an underground. Bottom line: it depends on how Mubarak leaves. Of the Brotherhood wins, they are not “bloody-mined.” Most likely scenario: A coalition between the moderate brotherhood (who are allied with various legal parties) an the NDP opposition parties. Will militants react? Yes, but it will have no success populated Cairo, Alexandria, or Port Said. Though, I would suggest skipping that trip to Aswan or Luxor for a while after.

4] I think that electable dictators have in common is having popular support only because it successfully quieted the opposition (not brain washed) who have no private control over common knowledge generating institutions making it hard to secure credible commitment in spreading risk and sharing the costs that come with dissent and whose alternatives are uncertain with high short term opportunity cost. Formal opposition is kept unorganized to signal credible and cheap rebellion. Without this, dependency on current regime will compel you to support it, but it does not mean the leader is popular.

Stewart writes:

Given the existence of systemically biased voters, what does it mean to pass the Democratic test?

Mason writes:

I have spent some time in South Africa, and there is a very strong anti-Mugabe sentiment there.

The main (only) reason SA is not more proactive in his overthrow is that he contributed heavily to the downfall of Apartheid (if you want to call that a reason for more suffering).

If SA is contemplating action things must be bad, so I don’t think he would come close to getting 50% of the vote, maybe 10% - How many votes can you buy with stolen land, but no food? question - what is lowest amount of support a dictort must maintain?

shayne writes:

General concurrence with Jan. But I would also add that Democracy, on its own, does not assure or even lead to freedom, or rejection of dictatorship. Democracy only provides citizens a very limited and structured level of control over government. The more important consideration is who gets to directly control the means of producing wealth and how does that impact citizen's governmental voting. One must look at what the voters can use as a basis for casting their votes for government.

The U.S. system that has evolved provides not only the individual right to limited and structured citizen control over government (democracy), but also nearly unlimited and unstructured control over the means of producing wealth - exactly commensurate with the individual's share of ownership in those means of producing wealth (U.S. capitalism). That is absolutely unique in the world, even today. The entire concept of state-ownership is a denial of the right of owners (capital providers) to control of their assets. Even if individual rights to proceeds are somewhat preserved, right to control is assumed by the state. Even in England, Germany and other Western European nations - which have a form of capitalism - individual investors, who supply the majority of the capital for corporations (means of producing wealth), are not allowed majority control over boards and management.

But even though the right to control, as well as right to proceeds of/from the means of producing wealth exists in the U.S., there are few in the population who vote their shares. For that matter, there are few (something under 50%) who vote in general government elections. Control is a responsibility as well as a right - and most even in the U.S. won't exercise their responsibility and right. The uniqueness is, they can if they choose to. Not so in any other nation - the option isn't available and never has been.

Consider the current situation in Iraq as a case-in-point. The Iraqi people had true democratic elections not long ago. Who/what did they vote for and on what basis did they vote? Generally, they voted for the very same tribal, local, religious leaders that had been in place all along. So what was their basis for voting that way? It appears to be to maintain a status quo, AND possibly gain proceeds (or promise of proceeds) from the oil wealth that had been state owned property under Saddam. The current ineffectual nature (stalemate) of the democratically elected Iraqi government centers on how the new regime should redistribute the oil proceeds only. It is NOT about ceding state control. The Kurdish north and Shia south are oil producers and wish to retain control and proceeds within their regions. The Sunni center does not have oil production and fears being denied proceeds. But nowhere, in any of the discussion is there any indication that the government would or should cede control and proceeds of those oil assets directly to Iraqi citizens - make them the shareholders (controllers), in the same sense they would be under U.S. law. Additionally, there is probably no reason to think the average Iraqi citizen would even want those rights. After all, they've never had such rights, most wouldn't know what they are or how to best exercise them, and would probably even be frightened by them.

Consider though, if the Iraqi government were to take all of the oil-producing assets and create a publicly traded corporation. Then, distribute full ownership shares (in the U.S. model) equally amongst all Iraqi citizens. A stop-gap legal measure would probably have to be implemented that would preclude transfer of shares - under any circumstances - for two to five years, in order to allow the new shareholders to begin to understand the value of what they hold. Secondarily, the corporation should be set up initially to distribute earnings to shareholders directly in the form of dividends. The Iraqi government would only have a right to tax proceeds to fund government, just as in the U.S. system, but not be the first recipient and re-distributor of the wealth - or the controlling entity.

While I hold no hope of such a system being proposed or implemented in Iraq, I can certainly see how such a system, and its related income distribution system/control structure, would affect how Iraqi's vote for government in the future.

another bob writes:

4. Eliminate or silence the opposition. The dictator might get 50%+ of the vote, but, only 20% of possible voters actually vote. (Putin?)

it seems to me that there's a big difference between one-party-rule and one-man rule (or cult of personality).

in one-party (china, USSR) there is some process for negotiation among economic, social and political sectors albeit within a monopolistic organizational structure. in cult-of-personality (russia/putin?, n.korea/kim?. zim/mugabe?) information flow is all downward.

one-man rule promulgates real stupidity, is highly instable, requires more and more repression to maintain and so the inevitable outcome when the despot dies is chaos. this tends to make the despot even more "popular" while he's alive eventhough his results are monumentally bad, as he's the only alternative to total chaos. when one-man rule fails, there's no election, there's an explosion.

one-party rule generally provides some structure that allows for some amount of economic, social and political negotiation though the results are the usual bureaucratic dumbness. but, the alternative to the group of titular leaders is not chaos, it's another group of titular leaders or multiple groups of bureaucrats vying for power. the one-party is not as popular since the alternative is not as chaotic. but, one way for the fractured one-party system si settle their differences is to hold an election. the former one-party is now discredited, so a sure loser. but, through coalitions they might retain some privileges. so, the alternative to one-party could be an election not an explosion.


Robin Hanson writes:

Perhaps citizens approve of the image the dictator projects to the world about their country. Russians want the world to see them has strong and determined, and Putin projects that image well.

Floccina writes:

Castro – IMO I do not know much about this but I would guess that he would loose but not by a huge margin.
Kim Jong Il – IMO he would loose by a huge margin.
Mugabe – IMO he would loose by a big margin.
Mubarak – I do not know enough to guess.
The Communist Party in China – They might win.

Back when the Sandinistas where heading in the election that they lost all the media was saying that the Sandinistas would win big, but my wife, from Honduras, said that people in Central America would lie to the poll takers out of fear. She guaranteed me that the Sandinistas would lose. I said no way all those polls were wrong, but she was right. When I get home tonight I will ask her if Castro would win.

Shayne wrote:
The Sunni center does not have oil production and fears being denied proceeds. But nowhere, in any of the discussion is there any indication that the government would or should cede control and proceeds of those oil assets directly to Iraqi citizens - make them the shareholders (controllers), in the same sense they would be under U.S. law. Additionally, there is probably no reason to think the average Iraqi citizen would even want those rights. After all, they've never had such rights, most wouldn't know what they are or how to best exercise them, and would probably even be frightened by them.

This makes me think of Americans like Mark Hershey, King Gillett, Henry Ford, Benjamin Franklin, who were elites who tried to make a better world for the common man. Then there was William Penn and the Quakers, Penn provided a place for the Quakers to settle and tried to tax them but they were all pacifists and so would not collect the taxes for him. They tried to make a better world without using force. Did these people contribute significantly to the USA? Are there similar actors in dictatorships or are they crushed?

shayne writes:

To Floccina:

The U.S. system allows individuals such as Ford, Gillette, and the like folks you mentioned produce enormous wealth, both for themselves and for their markets, and do so by their own hand. No special charter or dispensation from a dictator, monarch or other government entity is required. In order for the "elites" to produce wealth for themselves, they must only have produced and delivered something of value (wealth) for others. It is an inherently voluntary and peaceful process. Note that the U.S. system also allows individuals to fail by their own hand.

I hadn't heard the Quaker/Penn story you related. I wonder if the reluctance of Quakers to collect taxes wasn't due more to their not perceiving any benefit to paying Penn than any pacifist bent. I mind taxes less when I can actually perceive a tangible benefit. In other words, I don't mind paying a reasonable price for a product or service I understand the value of. I suspect the Quakers were/are of the same mind.

Joel writes:

Thaksin Shinawatra of Thailand had not yet managed dictator status but he was on his way and extremely popular(untill the military booted him).

Lee Kwan Yew of Singapore.

John Goes writes:

By what definition is Putin a dictator?

Barkley Rosser writes:

The Castro question is a complicated one, and involves a matter raised by Robin Hanson, international image. Nathan Smith's forecast of him getting only 10% is probably way too low, but Floccina is probably right that he would not win. However, it would probably have more to do with how old and decrepit he is, plus accumulated unhappiness with economic stagnation, than his dictatorial tendencies, especially now that he has relaxed some about the Catholic Church.

If a dictator is viewed as standing up for a nation against a perceived enemy, he can get away with a lot. In this regard, one of the greatest forces for keeping Castro in power has been the fervent opposition of the US to him, our efforts to get rid of him, dating back to the Bay of Pigs invasion, and the long-running economic embargo against Cuba, which in an election he would be able to use against the economic stagnation argument: it is all the fault of the US, he would say, and many would believe him.

The US supported Batista, who was a dictator and not a nice one. While there has been a lot of economic stagnation, the numbers on education and health in Cuba are not all that phoney, as many like to think. Their infant mortality stats are about the same as in the US, and their health and education leves are way ahead of all but a few Latin American countries. It is not an accident that Chavez has imported Cuban doctors. Castro's Cuba is a fading system, and probably he would not get reelected, but there remains a lot of pride and real affection for him throughout much of Cuba, and nobody should underestimate it.

nu writes:

depends on the opposition for:

The Communist Party of China
and may be Mubarak
and people like Lee Kwan Yew, Museveni or Zenawi

Kim Jong Il and Mugabe in 2007 would loose (yes, i believe Mugabe probably would have won in 2002).

One always has to remember that voter choices are somehow limited (or too open like in Nicaragua where Ortega won even if he had a lower score in 2001).
What people like Putin, Chavez or Castro should be most scared of is someone who may "one-up" them: a candidate that represents their positive but better.
And that's why they repress dissent.

Barkley Rosser writes:

Hmmm, posted something that did not get up. My mistake or censorship? Will try again.

Another aspect of this can be called the "revolutionary leader/hero" effect that applies to dictators who can be viewed as having led a revolutionary upheaval against foreign powers and oppressors, especially those associated with an ideology claiming to be "progressive" or whatever. Such leaders gain credibility and admiration through their "father of the (new version) of the country" propaganda that propagates through the educational system, and which their successors cannot match, especially regarding the charisma involved.

Of those listed, only Mugabe (now running possible the planet's worst economic disaster) might wear this mantle, besides Castro. For the major 20th century communist/socialist states the list of these is basically Lenin, Tito, Mao, Kim Il Sung, Ho Chi Minh, and Castro. Of these dinosaurs, Castro is the only one left.

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