I observed that dictators often appoint highly educated and qualified technocrats as advisors or spokespersons.

For example,

  • Dr. Gowher Rizvi, advisor to Sheikh Hasina, Ph.D. from Oxford University.
  • Ibrahim Kalin, spokesperson of Erdogan, Ph.D. from George Washington University.
  • Bouthaina Shaaban, advisor to Bashar Al Assad, Ph.D. from the University of Warwick.
  • etc.

My question is, Do dictators find such people, Or, those people find dictators?

  • 1
    From what it appears that most of the people on the list are citizens of the countries where they are advisors. Why would you find it strange that a country would have a highly educated person in a position of advisor even if it was a dictatorship?
    – Joe W
    Sep 28 '20 at 21:30
  • 4
    How many advisors to democratically-elected leaders can you think of that aren't highly educated and/or qualified? I'd expect countries with less democratic process to have fewer qualified advisors, since there's less of a vetting process. But a few highly educated / qualified advisors isn't even a good contrapositive proof of democracy, since somebody has got to be qualified (if not educated) to run a complex government. Are you asking "why do educated/qualified people work for dictators"? Because there are plenty of easy answers to that, including fear/greed/opportunity Sep 28 '20 at 21:52

Do dictators find such people, Or, those people find dictators?

It's mutual.

Dictators need someone to "make the trains run on time" and operating a modern state is a complex enterprise beyond the capacity of the ambitious soldiers and politicians who usually end up as dictators to do without expert advice for very long. So, like any other executive leading a large organization, they hire people to fill these posts and look for people who can provide them with quality advice.

In many cases, their view of what quality advice looks like is quite mainstream. Many dictators are not particularly ideologically pure and they often don't have well worked out policy doctrines themselves, instead seizing upon a historical moment to take power when it arises. Hitler and Mao's manifestos were the exception and not the rule among dictators. Ideologically driven and thought out agendas are more common among small "d" democratic politicians and revolutionaries (who often fail entirely or have short lived regimes) in order to persuade large numbers of mid-level elites to join their movement.

In contrast, run of the mill dictators tend to be less ideological than political genius manifesto writers. They frequently step into a power vacuum marked by chaos, corruption and incompetence on the part of the democratically elected regimes that they replace, or the incompetence of their authoritarian predecessors whom they replace. Since dictators often rise to power based upon the gross incompetence of a predecessor, being able to show some level of competence is often a significant goal for the new dictator if the dictator wishes to hold onto power for long.

Skilled professionals need jobs and also believe in their ideas and long to test out those ideas. Dictatorships allow intellectuals to implement their ideas rapidly and uncompromisingly in a way that democratic political processes which tend towards incrementalism and traditional solutions to social and economic problems rarely do.

A famous historical example of this is the advice provided by famed democratic free market supporter and premier economist Milton Friedman who provided economic guidance to military dictator President Augusto Pinochet in Chile the 1970s. Friedman was heavily criticized for this and later attempted to publicly justify his involvement as a voice for positive change from within the regime in the long run (from the same link).

During the 2000 PBS documentary The Commanding Heights (based on the book), Friedman continued to argue that "free markets would undermine [Pinochet's] political centralization and political control.", and that criticism over his role in Chile missed his main contention that freer markets resulted in freer people, and that Chile's unfree economy had caused the military government. Friedman advocated for free markets which undermined "political centralization and political control".

  • +1. I think though it's important not to characterise the dictator as necessarily being a bit of an ambitious fool dependent on "experts". The "experts" themselves could no more run the whole state single-handedly than the dictator. The dictator may be perfectly able to make the trains run on time themselves if they applied their minds to it, but as you point out, their primary role is political management, and that will involve delegating many tasks, and it will also involve (as in any society) delegating the conception and digestion of policy ideas to an array of thinkers and advisers.
    – Steve
    Sep 29 '20 at 20:09
  • @Steve No, not a "fool", but, yes, someone dependent upon "experts". Dictators who hire esteemed academic experts rarely have the educational background and expertise to make policy decisions in a host of areas, any more than they know how to design the nuclear reactor or bridge that they support building. Dictators rarely come out of the equivalent of the French École nationale d'administration, and are rarely systemically schooled and trained for the job they now hold (except in quasi-monarchies like North Korea or actual monarchies like Saudi Arabia).
    – ohwilleke
    Sep 29 '20 at 20:15
  • yes, dictators lack the expertise to run society single-handedly, but so do "experts" individually, and all others considered individually. This is my point, that the tenor of your argument suggests a certain amount of ignorance on the part of dictators in particular, when in fact there is no evidence they are any more ignorant in general than their advisers. Of course any given adviser may have a specialism, but the dictator has their own specialism (in authoritarian rule). The mutual dependence that exists between multiple people is much the same for any mode of governance. (1/2)
    – Steve
    Sep 29 '20 at 20:51
  • And as you point out, in monarchies rulers are usually explicitly schooled. Even rulers who gain power through a military coup, are often militarily trained and experienced. By contrast, in democratic politics (here in the UK), the calibre of government minsters and advisers is often highly questionable. Indeed, democratic societies often have very complex webs of advisers and professional administrators, and the hallmark of authoritarian rule is not usually the intrinsic stupidity of the ruler, but the limited account they take of any other advice or interest besides their own. (2/2)
    – Steve
    Sep 29 '20 at 21:03

A simple factual analysis leads to the following conclusion: the autocratic power that dictators hold may not have been granted through a process reflecting the will of some concept of majority of the citizens in the country but, see, their decisions are not based on their whims or personal interests, but on solid technocratic advise - hence the PhDs. So there is a certain drive from the dictator's side to seek out technocrats.

In other words, it can be seen as a marketing tactic to make the political product "dictatorship" more palatable to end-users (or end-sufferers, as the case may be).

In principle, this does not eliminate the possibility that these technocrats are seriously listened to, and they may be listened to in matters "not politically sensitive". But historical experience says that in a dictatorship everything is considered "politically sensitive", so this possibility has rather low probability.

Note that we are talking here about "technocrats as personal advisors to dictators", not "technocrats as part of the wider government system".

Of course, elected officials in countries with representative systems, also tend to use technocrats as advisors. Casual observation indicates that the reason here is slightly different: Not so much to provide credibility to decisions taken, but to take away responsibility for them, if the need arises: if the decision is unpopular or is deemed a failure, well, it wasn't us, the technocrats told us to do it.

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