Authoritarian leaders are not generally known for their meekness. Most, if not all will generally deprive their population of various civic liberties, attempt to stomp any opposition by any means available, punish people for political reasons, etc. Very well, it is easy for me to see why this is the case.

However, it is also often claimed that countries under authoritarian regimens tend to be poor, economically inefficient, dependent on unqualified labor and with much of their population struggling to meet their basic needs, such as access to medical care or even sufficient amounts of food. To put it bluntly, dictatorships are often said to reduce their population to Emaciated Slaves Struggling for Survival (hereinafter ESSfS). This is what I fail to understand.

The oft-cited CGP Grey video 'The Rules for Rulers' attempts to explain this phenomenon and it does seem persuasive. To summarize that argumentation: Dictators are dependent on their key supporters to maintain power. This group of key supporters are formed out of a small number of the dictator's immediate underlings, such as the general, the ministers, etc. Thus, virtually all revenue must be distributed among these key supporters. Should a dictator fail to distribute enough resources among their key supporters (and instead use these resources to, for example, improve the population's living conditions) then another pretender for power will swiftly appear and try to sway enough of the key supporters on their side by promising them more revenue; such a dictator is, therefore, very likely to be removed from power and replaced by an even worse tyrant. Also key supporters do not actually have any choice either, they must strive to get the greatest possible share of resources because they too are dependent on their own immediate underlings and must distribute as much money among them as possible. Furthermore, it is safer for dictators to see their population reduced to ESSfS, because if the people have their most basic needs met then they have some spare time, energy and resources to revolt; otherwise, they are unable to do so. Both reasons coalesce because if the elites are unhappy and the population is not reduced to ESSfS then the elites will often permit and inspire the population to revolt. Thus, contrary to intuition and propaganda, revolutions happen because the dictator fails to be cruel enough and serve the purpose of installing regimes that worsen, rather than improve the living conditions of the people.

Such a system is only possible, according to CGP Grey, if the country's economy is based on unskilled labor. This is because even ESSfS can be miners or farmers. If, however, a country's economy is based on a highly qualified workforce then such a country cannot be a dictatorship because ESSfS do not make good professors, engineers, etc.

Thus CGP Grey offers an alternative between an authoritarian regime dependent on unqualified labor whose population suffers under horrible living conditions and a democratic regime dependent on highly qualified work whose population enjoys good living conditions. Any regimes that attempt to occupy some middle ground between these two extremes, such as a dictatorship that does care for its population, a democracy dependent on unqualified labor or an economically failing democracy are unstable and will end up in a coup d'etat or a violent revolution.

My reasoning, however, is that ostensibly, keeping their countries poor should be against the best interest of dictators. If someone operates under the premise that, to quote a well know authority on the subject, "I am the state", then the wealth and strength of the state is also the wealth and strength of the dictator. The dictator should, therefore, invest in their country and grow it in order to multiply their own personal wealth and power.

Keeping their population reduced to ESSfS should be economically ineffective even if economy is based on unskilled work. Slave labor is always inefficient; even the Nazis learned this the hard way when they attempted to utilize their prisoners of war as slaves but got poor performance from them. Having workers die from poor conditions unnecessarily reduces the country's available workforce and should, therefore, also hamper total available revenue.

The argument that virtually all revenue must go to a numerically small elite seems persuasive, but myopic. The elites demanding that all available resources go to their private treasuries at the expense of the state as a whole seem to be tantamount to the proverbial sawing off the branch you are sitting on. The end result of such a behavior seems to be a poor and undeveloped country that cannot even support the wealth of the elites (who will become themselves poorer than moderately rich people in healthier countries), and that cannot hold its own during wartime (and consequently cannot even guarantee its own elites safety). History shows multiple examples of countries effectively disestablished by their own avaricious elites to a catastrophic result for these elites: the Western Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire or the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth to name just three.

To me it would seem that not only humanitarian reasons, but selfish pragmatism as well should dictate not to operate a kleptocratic government and instead to distribute a significant share of a country's revenue on multiplying the country's wealth rather than private riches.

It is also unclear to me how facts support this reasoning. Plotting GDP per capita vs. electoral democracy does not seem to show such hard rules: while democracies are indeed rarely very poor, dictatorships are spread more evenly, with hellholes such as North Korea or Zimbabwe on the one hand but very rich states such as certain Arabian states on the other hand (notwithstanding some of the other characterizations that may indeed make them rather difficult places to live in).

And yet the reasoning provided by CGP Grey is not limited just to this video: it is quite often heard in general.

Is the reasoning provided by CGP Grey correct, do dictators must reduce their countries' populations to emaciated slaves struggling for survival for the reasons CGP provided? And if yes then how to explain the existence of autocratic states with high GDP per capita?

  • 6
    Ugh. I dislike economic reductionism. Not to say there's nothing of interest in that video or this post, but it's such a myopic and dismal view of the world, leading eventually to mind-numbing nonsense. I can think of any number of political texts — Machiavelli's "The Prince", Lasswell's "Psychopathology and Politics", even (oddly) almost everything written by Marx and later Marxists — that would turn this argument completely on its head. But I'm not sure I want to get sucked down the rabbit hole of dealing with this. Jun 24, 2023 at 1:18
  • 1
    Chili under Pinochet became an economically prosperous country... though one can argue that the Pinochet's liberal economic reforms were his undoing. Overall, the problem is that centralized control never as good as markets, while markets imply liberty. Jun 24, 2023 at 10:17
  • @RogerVadim Spain from 1939 to 1975 under Franco served as an inspiration to Pinochet's own economic and government policy.
    – hszmv
    Jul 20, 2023 at 15:21
  • @hszmv you mean the Chicago boys had nothing to do with it? Ok. But it explains why Spain also quickly turned into democracy after Franco's death. Jul 20, 2023 at 16:06
  • @RogerVadim Honestly no idea. I was doing a quick wiki search on Franco Spain on Wikipedia and read in the Legacy section that Pinochet's regime was influenced by Franco's. Not knowing much about Pinochet's policies and origins other than his opinion on communists and helicopters, I can't comment.
    – hszmv
    Jul 20, 2023 at 17:56

5 Answers 5


Authoritarian rule is not necessarily characterised by dysfunctional rule, especially when a dictatorship is earned through popular support or struggle during the lifetime of the dictator (rather than bequeathed).

Implicitly, earned dictators often represent a whole generation that has experienced a particular struggle, and their moral and intellectual qualities have been forged and/or selected for by that struggle.

And despite being characterised as individuals, dictators often sit atop a network of similar associates who have experienced similar circumstances. When speaking pejoratively, these others might be referred to as the dictator's "cronies".

The question is what happens when the leadership is dysfunctional or unresponsive. In these cases, there is often no mechanism, other than serious organised political violence and revolutionary destruction, to evict the dysfunctional leader.

This inability to deal with poor leadership is probably a main reason why dictatorships are associated with chaos and regression, because when dictatorships go mad (and we are often talking about conditions of habitual misrule, rather than a single error), the dictator often retains charge of powerful repressive machinery, and the amount of damage the public then has to do to rip the dictator out of power is extreme.

For this reason, all successful regimes search for a formula that tries to keep those at the top informed of the temperature at the bottom.

However there's also another angle to this.

What we often think of as dictators today, are often the local representatives around the world of Western capital, and if they are called dictators at all it is often because they are deviating from the authority of Western capitalists (often because of local economic demands), and that deviation is then often followed with sanctions and other kinds of political and economic attacks designed to impose discipline on the dictator.

Sometimes then, dictatorships collapse into chaos not because the dictator has ceased to respond to public opinion, but sometimes because they are finding themselves forced to respond to public opinion against the interests of Western capital, and the West then retaliate by inflicting chaos.


Wealthy dictatorships are usually wealthy because they have access to natural resources that can be extracted with either unskilled labor or through foreign investors and then exported.

Their wealth doesn't come from the work of their citizens. It comes from other countries that buy their resources. The wealthy elites aren't supported by the domestic population. They are supported by their business partners abroad who want them to continue deliver resources.

  • The way I understand the CGP Grey video in question the job of the monarchs of Qatar, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates should be to ensure that almost all revenue from selling oil goes to the numerically small elites of their countries and not to the people. That much of these countries economies are based on selling oil should facilitate this. Allowing high GDP per capita should be a horrible decision, because wealthy people may revolt and the elites will be unhappy that too much wealth is owned by the people and not them the elites. So the monarchs of these 3 states should be overthrown
    – gaazkam
    Jun 25, 2023 at 12:36
  • Yet Qatar, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates allow their people to have a very high GDP per capita and still these countries seem pretty stable, definitely more stable than certain hellholes whose dictators make absolutely certain that GDP per capita stays very low as CGP Grey advises authoritarian rules should do in order to stay in power.
    – gaazkam
    Jun 25, 2023 at 12:38
  • 2
    @gaazkam 90% of the people in Qatar and UAE aren't "their people" but foreign guest workers who have a much lower quality of life than the actual citizens. The urbanization in Saudi Arabia is rather recent. I am curious how long the Saud dynasty will be able to remain dictators with an increasingly educated and wealthy population. Currently they try to remain in power through demonstrations of cruelty, like the "night of the beating" in 2017.
    – Philipp
    Jun 25, 2023 at 13:13


Prosperity and national strength is precisely the implicit contract the CCP has with the Chinese people.

"We will decide for you, for your best interests and to keep the country strong."

Carnegie, 2017

It’s often been said, including by my colleague Damien Ma in an excellent 2013 book, that China’s Communist Party has offered “prosperity without freedom” during the era of economic reform. To put this a bit differently, China’s people have been permitted by their Leninist rulers to grow rich and pursue material gains—so long as they accept the Party’s writ and forego organized challenges to its rule.

I've watched said CGP Grey video not so long ago. I thought it put more emphasis on engaging the management level just below the dictator, don't remember exactly it arguing that strongly that the population as a whole needed to be really poor.

I remember thinking it was a really interesting and intriguing way to look at dictatorships. Without claiming it is wrong, it certainly didn't strike me as the be all and end all of political science regarding dictatorships.

Political forms are frequently evolving and there aren't enough countries to run "hard stats" that account for all variables. Up until 10-15 years ago, the West thought that it was not possible to deliver scientific, financial and industrial performance without a minimum of political freedom: as a middle class and entrepreneurial class grew, it would demand political right (and the internet would assist that trend).

This was common wisdom from observing "advanced economy dictatorships" such as the USSR, Franco's Spain, which were chronic underperformers (add today's Russia to the list). China is for now at least challenging this wisdom.


I think the "emaciated slaves" imagery might be a little misleading.

There's some truth to the idea that power is a zero-sum game and for there to be a dictator with lots of power there needs to be a population with very little power. And some hierarchy by which that power is asserted, where the dictator is often merely the figurehead of a larger construct.

And as power can come from various sources, such as, access to resources and machinery, commanding authority over other people (charisma, confidence, threats, ...), expertise (education, intellect, ...), skills (of any kind including strength), abilities to move, communicate and organize aso. The attempt to get an edge over other people in terms of power might involve depriving a majority of people from these things.

However that doesn't have to mean that this takes the form of "emaciation". If the controlling class has guns the lower class hasn't and the upper class has bullet proof attire then you don't need them to be emaciated to be somewhat powerless.

Or if the lower class relies on products that they build as a collective, but where each individual worker lacks the expertise to build the whole thing, then you might not even need guns, but have created a system where people perceive the situation as them needing the system more than it needs them. Whether this ends up being the truth is a completely different question, one of your key positions might be a strong propaganda.

You can be made to feel powerless without being emaciated and you could be a slave without someone physically whipping you. So while there is likely a steep discrepancy in power among members of such a society, you shouldn't be fooled into thinking that the absence of emaciated slaves means that there is not authoritarianism or nor slaves struggling for survival.

I mean you yourself are presumably still struggling for survival despite probably not being emaciated. Or could you quit your job and not feel a sense of insecurity? It's a different kind of struggle but a struggle nonetheless and existential dread can be as relevant to survival as hunger.

Also it's possible that the ESSfS originate from a different dynamic, in that it's possible that, unlikely in CGP Grey's example, it's not the dictator coming first destroying the economic output to establish a power hierarchy. But that the economy is already shit. So that the power gap between the ruler and the ruled isn't large, but the overall standard of living isn't good either. So a potential tyrant might ascend on a platform of being the savior of the economy. And as physical strength ends up being a much bigger factor in making or breaking the system and in turn in keeping productivity and power they might resort to more desperate means.

Not to mention that this all presupposes that these dictators would care to build a stable lasting business model. That is self-sustaining and keeps the size of the population as it is.

However it's also possible that this is not the case at all. For example the source of income might not be within the country's population, so idk natural resources, stock pilled goods and privatization of assets, foreign interests, tourism or whatnot can provide funds, resources and a source of power that is not in need of a population.

So as they are not the source of profit, but just a nuisance and a threat to power, their lack of productivity might not be a concern.

Also in terms of the Nazis "death by labor" was one version of the genocide, so they didn't see it as a failing business model but rather as "win-win", the people died and they got something out of it. Yes that is a fucked up ideology.


Of course not. See Why do dictators always repress their people? Given that the answer to that question is "no", the answer to this question is also "no".

  • The answer? That question has twelve answers. Which one do you refer to?
    – Philipp
    Jun 25, 2023 at 8:38
  • The one I wrote. I could link it explicitly, I suppose.
    – Allure
    Jun 25, 2023 at 11:39

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