8

I think it's fair to say that with the possible exception of the richer parts of China, life under authoritarian regimes tends to be pretty terrible.
Sometimes that is by design, like in North Korea where people are starved on purpose in order to prevent them from thinking about other things.
But in places like the Soviet Union, at least under the later leaders, there appeared to be a genuine effort to increase the standard of living to prove that socialism is the wave of the future, although that ended in its eventual demise.
So I was wondering, on average, do authoritarian governments just suck at their job to provide basic standards of living for their people compared to their democratic counterparts because of a lack of natural selection, or do most of them keep living standards low in an effort to stay in power, or does this vary significantly from regime to regime?

12
  • 8
    where people are starved on purpose in order to prevent them from thinking about other things — citation needed.
    – gerrit
    Oct 14 at 15:35
  • 4
    We can certainly find examples of countries which became more prosperous under authoritarian governments. For instance Singapore, Chile under Pinochet, even Nazi Germany before Hitler went to war. Likewise there are examples of countries that became less prosperous under democratic governments, such as post-WW2 Britain.
    – jamesqf
    Oct 14 at 16:38
  • @gerrit I'm not an expert why what other reason would they have to refuse food aid? Oct 14 at 17:19
  • 4
    I've talked with many Russian and Chinese people who like their current government, because they have seen the general economy of their country improve under that government, and they consider that the resulting huge improvement of their quality of life matters more than democracy and freedom.
    – Stef
    Oct 14 at 17:24
  • 1
    @user2741831 A country may refuse aid from others because they want to not appear weak to their citizens (and this is especially true for authoritarian regimes who's demonstrated similar wants in the past).
    – NotThatGuy
    Oct 14 at 18:16
28

Authoritarian governments don't "suck at their jobs", because their job is a different one than that of a democratically elected government.

In order to stay in power, a democratically elected government needs to win elections. Which means that a major part of their "job" is to keep the voting population happy (or at least their clientele - they only need about half of the votes, after all, or even less if they organize the right election system). Providing them with a high standard of living, a large degree of personal freedom and personal security is a good way to do that, so maintaining those is a high priority for democratically elected representatives. Another part of their job is to keep the economic elite, political interest groups and media happy. One reason is because these people finance and support their election campaigns, and a good campaign is able to convince voters to vote for politicians even though it isn't in their best interest. Another reason is that a good relationship with these groups makes it easier for the government to create and enforce policy which benefits their voters, and makes those policies which don't benefit them more palatable.

But an authoritarian government has different priorities. In order to stay in power, they need to keep those people happy who help them to stay in power. And those are not the simple people on the street. Their "job" is to appease the military leadership, the public administration and the economic elite of the country. Because when these people aren't happy, then the authoritarian government will soon find themselves removed by a putsch organized by these people. The quality of life of the lower class, on the other hand, isn't a priority for them. Their votes are meaningless, so a peaceful political transition is not going to happen. And with the military and law enforcement on the side of the government and unencumbered by concerns for human rights, a violent revolution has little chance to succeed either.

You might have noticed that I mentioned the "economic elite" as an important interest group for both democratic and authoritarian government forms. But those are not actually the same, because their needs are very different. Let me elaborate on that further.

You might notice that the economy of democratic countries is often based on skilled labor. They are usually based on services, creating technology and highly-automated manufacturing. Ensuring a high level of education is critical for maintaining the strength of such an economy. Further, people employed in these industries are not easily replaceable. A low standard of living might result in a brain-drain: The most skilled laborers emigrating elsewhere. So maintaining a high standard of living is important for keeping skilled laborers and attracting skilled laborers from other countries. So maintaining a high standard of living is also an economic priority for such a country.

The economy of authoritarian countries, on the other hand, is often based on industries which require mostly unskilled manual labor. Industries like agriculture, resource extraction or manual manufacturing. Workers in these industries are easily replaceable, so they don't require expensive education or healthcare. Which means that the economic elite won't pressure the government to invest into these.

For further watching, I recommend this video: CGP Grey: The Rules For Rulers.

11
  • 15
    @user2741831 Why do you believe that growing up in a poor country makes politicians care about the poor people? Keep in mind that most politicians in authoritarian countries did not grow up poor. The majority originate from the small but wealthy upper class in their respective countries. So that's usually the in-group they identify with.
    – Philipp
    Oct 14 at 9:32
  • 11
    Even if the best schools in that country are still poor, the rich can send their children to be educated elsewhere. A number of schools in the UK have dictators as alumni. Apparently 27 prime ministers or heads of state were educated in UK universities
    – Caleth
    Oct 14 at 9:41
  • 4
    I just want to add that if people are interested in the subject then The Dictators Handbook is an excellent read. It also offers paths to move away from these systems to less corrupt systems. Oct 14 at 12:32
  • 5
    It seems optimistic to assume there are any politicians whose election is in the best interest of their constituents. Oct 14 at 13:36
  • 5
    @user2741831 both democratic leaders and dictators may be good or bad at their job. In both cases there are factors that may tolerate not so clever one in power, at least for a while. In both cases there IS some kind of competition and risk, this is why one can't say that democratic leaders or dictators are necessarily smarter. We generally see smart dictators (Putin), not so smart (Kim), the same with democratic leaders but I'll spare the examples. We also don't have a distinct line between dictators and the democratic leaders.
    – fraxinus
    Oct 14 at 16:20
11

It completely depends on the regime

Lenin made a genuine attempt to improve the lives of the Russian people. Stalin, much less so. But even then, however bad life was under Soviet rule, people were starting from a baseline of feudal repression under the authoritarian rule of the Tsarists. And Stalin's oppression needs to be read in the context of the survival of the Soviet state, which was his overriding concern.

Hitler approached this from a different angle. Unlike Stalin, Hitler's policies were intended to improve the lives of a majority of Germans, compared to the era of hyperinflation and poverty which preceded his rule. And he succeeded with it too, until the war went bad and the Red Army rolled over most of Germany.

Pol Pot and Mao Tse Tung had a different failure mode again, rooted in ideology. They started from an ideological base that peasants should be honoured, but then they made a false leap of logic to conclude that everyone should be forced to become peasants. Of course that destroys medicine and education, and the lack of trade makes you vulnerable to famines. But more than that, they made their own error of implicitly devaluing peasants themselves by assuming that being a peasant required no skills and anyone could just be thrown at the job. As anyone who's ever met a farmer can tell you, this is profoundly incorrect. So their failure was an overly-restrictive ideology combined with bad reasoning and naive ignorance.

On the other hand, Lee Kuan Yew ruled Singapore for over 30 years as the founding Prime Minister of the country. Whilst his rule was certainly authoritarian, he successfully turned the country into a developed nation with a well-established rule of law, very low levels of corruption, and full integration of ethnic, religious and LGBT minorities. The quality of life for people in Singapore was undeniably improved over his time in office. He serves as a useful counter-example that "authoritarian" does not necessarily mean corrupt or incompetent, and authoritarian regimes do not inevitably fail.

But of course, in the majority of cases authoritarian rule is simply a way for the political elite to maintain super-luxurious living standards at the expense of their (usually impoverished) people. North Korea is the obvious example, of course, but many countries in Africa and South/Central America have been or continue to be run this way.

12
  • Thanks. I like both answers but I'm accepting this one because it adresses the question better. I thought Singapore wasn't quite an authoritarian dictatorship, just a democracy with really big asterisks. Oct 14 at 17:22
  • 1
    @user2741831 Every country that has industrialized has done so under some form of authoritarian regime. Japan Taiwan China Singapore South Korea USA UK Germany France Soviet Union Industrialization involves a lot of changes that aren't very "nice" to a society. Oct 14 at 18:17
  • 1
    @user2741831 Thanks! Singapore's problem is similar to Communist countries in that whilst it's a democracy in the sense that people can vote, the choice of who's eligible to be elected is very limited, and the leadership is generally uncontested. So very big asterisks, yes. ;) In practise, a benign dictatorship can be the best of all worlds - the challenge is ensuring it remains benign.
    – Graham
    Oct 15 at 7:46
  • 1
    @Philipp: Yes, I'm sure most of us know that. Consult a dictionary as to the meanings of majority and minority if you don't understand :-)
    – jamesqf
    Oct 15 at 16:33
  • 1
    @jamesqf Violence and criminal damage are not the same thing as protesting. Lying that peaceful protests were violent, or violently suppressing peaceful protests, are a pretty good indication of authoritarianism in action.
    – Graham
    Oct 18 at 12:34

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .