Is some form of authoritarianism superior to democracy as a political model to hasten economic development and stability? The question derives from the economic successes of authoritarian regimes in China, Singapore among others. More specifically, is pragmatic authoritarianism called for under certain national circumstances?
Pragmatic authoritarianism is a term of recent coinage for what political scientists used to call benevolent dictatorships, enlightened despotism, or dictablandas in the Spanish witticism. That is, pragmatic authoritarianism describes a model of government in which “an authoritarian leader exercises absolute political power over the state, but does so for the benefit of the population as a whole.” The term has been used to label regimes such as those of Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore, Augusto Pinochet in Chile, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in Turkey, Josip Broz Tito in Yugoslavia, and others.
What is most troubling is that pragmatic authoritarianism seems to be gaining popularity as an alternative preferable to democratic governance. This popularity is, in part, due to the success of China and other authoritarian governments in adopting pragmatic market-oriented reforms generating significant economic progress without relinquishing power. Pragmatic authoritarianism is a very attractive model for dictators wishing to perpetuate their authoritarian regimes. Cuba’s totalitarianism may be devolving in this direction.
It is important to note that whereas, older versions of authoritarianism were highly personalist, pragmatic authoritarianism is a more developed form of dictatorship where governance becomes more institutionalized. It is also more ideologically pragmatic than its Leninist foundations. Institutionalized pragmatic authoritarianism provides a more structured succession of leadership, and pays more attention to social welfare.
The institutionalization of authoritarianism also offers a functional problem-solving governing mechanism without having to deal with the irritations of democratic governance. Pragmatic authoritarianism offers despots ideological flexibility, efficiency, and durability.
Over the years, I have made it a point to visit regimes practicing various forms of pragmatic authoritarianism such as China, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and others, to explore whether these models offer a better alternative for development than democratic regimes. The unqualified answer is no. These collectivist regimes impose unacceptable costs to our individual dignity.
I am told- and this is outside any field in which I can claim expertise- that Asian cultures, in general, have many words that symbolize the collective, and few or no words that reflect individual rights. Presumably, this inherent language limitation impacts how Asian cultures perceive and process information regarding individual vs collective rights.
The point is that, cultural characteristics may be an important consideration in evaluating how different models of governance address our perceptions of dignity. Authoritarian regimes restrict the citizenry’s right to self-expression, suppressing free-speech and freedom of the press. This offends our personal Western dignity, but may be less of an affront in Eastern cultures. Nonetheless, we find democracies and pragmatic authoritarianism in both, Western and Eastern cultures.
When pragmatic authoritarianism tramples on individual dignity, it offers instead a sense of collective national dignity that demands greater respect for the nation itself. Pragmatic authoritarianism asserts the nation, not the individual.
By not having to be concerned with the dignity or freedom of the individual, authoritarian regimes can fast-track economic changes. Authoritarian regimes can also force a less uneven distribution of economic benefits than democracies normally do. These characteristics make them attractive to some. But these are not good reasons to prefer pragmatic authoritarianism over democratic governance.
Sustained economic growth requires innovation, and innovations flow from personal freedoms, initiatives, and respect for our dignity. Democracies are flexible and posses a remarkable ability to change course, both politically and economically, when things are not going well. Authoritarian regimes stifle creativity, and are reluctant to undertake changes that may undermine their authority. Sustained economic growth requires democratic governance. Unfortunately, nations often define democracy in collectivist terms, and show an unthinking reflex towards authoritarianism.
Pragmatic authoritarianism offers no basis of political legitimacy other than its collectivist ‘nation first’ rhetoric. Democracy places a premium on our individual dignity and recognizes who we are as individuals via the ballot box. Democracy’s superiority rests on its respects for individual rights.