Authoritarianism: Efficiency or Freedom?

With the rise of China, the spotlight on the Russians after their alleged interference in the 2016 United States election, and provocative missile tests by the North Korean regime, political watchers have started paying more attention to authoritarian, non-democratic regimes that have significant clout in the world today. The purpose of this article is to understand why authoritarianism is a political structure worth entertaining as a system of governance, especially since democracy seems to be the political structure of choice in many countries.

The layperson’s understanding of authoritarianism harks back to the times of the monarchy and more recently, to the dictators of the 20th century: Josef Stalin, Kim Il Sung, Muammar Gaddafi and Robert Mugabe may be some names that come to mind. Most of these individuals are military leaders – fired up by their own ideologies and their ideal vision of state governance – who rose to power through coups. Given that there exists many a non-democratic regime in the contemporary world, it is worth nothing that numerous ideological confrontations in history has been drawn along the lines of who is democratic and otherwise. One need not look further than the Cold War, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. This begs the question: why do states structure themselves as non-democracies if democracy is purported to be such an advantageous political structure? The answer seems to be two-fold: for more efficient and consistent policy making.

A non-democratic system of governance helps build an efficient system that enables leaders to make decisions without much opposition. At face value, this sounds like the government will end up passing a policy which grossly disenfranchises unrepresented segments of society. On the other hand, a singular and united decision-making body allows for time sensitive measures and bills to pass without opposition parties holding policy agendas hostage in exchange for their vote on essential bills. For example, the supermajority of the PAP in Singapore’s current parliament ensures that any bill tabled by the government will pass, including bills that may need to be passed quickly. One such example was when the government was able to
quickly table a bill that requested the President to approve withdrawing from the country’s reserves in the aftermath of the 2009 sub-prime mortgage crisis. The funds withdrawn went into funding cash-strapped firms and reskilling programs for retrenched workers, and was repaid to the reserves by 2011. As a result, Singapore remained resilient through a global economic downturn. Although Singapore’s economy contracted -0.6% in 2009, it rebounded with a 15.2% growth in 2010. Due to the government’s ability to quickly pass bills that aided in economic activity, the economy managed to recover quickly without a sustained period of recession.

The primary pitfall of multiparty democratic representation is exemplified in the ongoing gun debate in the United States (US). While Democrats have been attempting to push through gun reform for decades, Republicans have demonstrated a marked commitment to the powerful National Rifle Association, a gun lobby that puts significant campaign finances into the pockets of those who are seeking re-election in a litany of red states. Even when faced with an entire auditorium of angry Floridians who were flabbergasted by the ease with which 19-year old Nicolas Kruz –
a known psychopath – could get assault weapons, Senator Marco Rubio stuck to his guns and re-emphasized his commitment to the gun lobby by refusing to mention that he will not accept further cash donations from the NRA. Just the day before, Florida’s Congress – comprising more of Republicans than Democrats – voted to not even debate gun control laws, and instead debated the censorship of pornography, citing it as a hazard to children. It is this commitment to self-preservation and party lines that inhibits the ability of many lawmakers to table or vote for legislation that has the potential to save lives. It remains that efficient lawmaking at times becomes an issue in a multiparty democracy because it is greatly influenced by party lines and the preservation of personal political careers.

Non-democratic processes such as the removal of term limits ensures that a single entity with a single ideology stays in power for a prolonged period. If this entity is rational, the said entity will be able to bring about ideologically consistent reform in the long-term. This is exemplified in the one-party rule of China versus the political pendulum that is the Indian legislative branch. Recently, China’s Congress ratified a law which removed term limits for President Xi Jinping. Many watchers called this a bold move – one which
improved the stability of Chinese politics. They elaborated that the landmark measure will ensure that policies ratified are consistent with Xi’s public policy platform. This prevents those with different ideologies from gaining power and undoing hard-earned reforms. Take the example of the Indian government: the current party in power, the Bharat Janatiya Party (BJP), has come to power after a Congress party rule of roughly 10 years. They have spent their first 3 years in office undoing the laws of the Congress party, which was known for rampant corruption and economic mismanagement. In the seesawing of Indian political history, newly formed governments spend time undoing the policies of the previous government before implementing the ideologically antithetical laws of its own party before voter disenchantment and a transition back to the party that it originally wrested power from. This seesawing is inefficient and is a colossal waste of time, given that valuable time is spent tugging the state in two ideological directions while the state languishes. A non-democratic system of rule with no elections and one ruler can avoid this seesawing, and will ensure that a country’s policy position is consistent.

Ultimately, there does seem to be some theoretical benefit to non-democratic political structures and processes, given the efficiency and consistency of its policy makers and platforms respectively. These may be important especially during periods of instability when democracy – being an inherently participative medium – results in widespread instability. Examples of this include
anti-corruption protests in South Africa, and protests against the Tigraina ex-Prime Minister of Ethiopia, Hailemariam Desalegn. These events erode international confidence in and the reputation of these countries. It is worth noting that consigned to the ash heap of history are periods of dissatisfaction that are successfully addressed with a military solution. In the foundational years of a newly independent country, non-democratic rule seems to bring about some level of benefits in the form of political stability and consistency, as a high level of security and social control allows for leaders to focus on matters of the economy. However, as societies mature, it seems prudent that countries gradually transition into becoming democracies at a time where their populace is mature enough to engage in democratic discourses and processes. The point at which a people arrives at this state, however, is another contention worth exploring.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are not fully representative of the author’s or this review’s. The author is aware that there is a litany of counter arguments to authoritarianism, grounded in democratic theory and freedoms. This author is also fully cognizant of how some leaders may cling on to power for the sake of power through purges, nepotism, and networks of patronage. But given that this exposition is an intellectual exercise aimed at considering the theoretical benefits of a non-democracy, these counter-arguments, while wholly valid, will be filed away in a dusty cabinet of time-old arguments that most democratic states hold to be self-evident.

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