Acceptability under Authoritarian Governments            

(This is a current extract from the Patterns of Power Repository.  An archived copy of this page is held at http://www.patternsofpower.org/edition02/6317.htm)

Authoritarian governments don’t always fail to benefit the population, and their long-term hold on power depends on their acceptability:

·      Some have performed well – better than many democracies – in terms of economic growth, health and education.[1]  China, for example, is delivering economic growth by allowing some features of capitalism to emerge under its authoritarian umbrella.

·      An authoritarian government can meet all of the provisions of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Appendix 1) with the single exception of article 21.3 (elections).

·      Strong leadership is seen as desirable in some cultures.

·      Oppression can keep a population in subjection for a long time but hated regimes are ultimately overthrown – so it benefits an authoritarian regime to be acceptable if it wishes to ensure its long-term survival.[2] 

·      An authoritarian government can ensure stability by preventing the different ethnic fragments of a country from developing adversarial political factions based on ethnicity – attempts to bring democracy might allow the emergence of identity politics, as reviewed later in this chapter (  Both Yugoslavia and Iraq demonstrated how easy it is for a multicultural society to slide into civil war in the absence of strong government. 

In practice, authoritarian governments vary in how much freedom they permit and the extent to which they respond to the wishes of the population: 

·      It is possible to provide some degree of separation of legal powers (5.2.8), by ensuring that the judiciary and the enforcement agencies have equal status and organisational independence from each other.

·      Having a strong central government doesn’t preclude the delegation of some powers to regional or local bodies, as is described later in this chapter (6.6.2).

·      China, for example, has been “making public consultations, expert meetings and surveys a central part of decision-making”,[3] in ways which might offer a template for authoritarian governments to become more responsive. 

Authoritarianism can therefore deliver governance which might be acceptable on the basis that it is delivering what people want, and it might appear to be the most stable option.  And most people place a higher priority upon peace and security than upon having the right to vote. 

© PatternsofPower.org, 2014                                                 

[1] In Making Autocracy Work (op. cit.), Timothy Besley and Masayuki Kudamatsu analysed the performance of authoritarian governments in economic growth, health and education and found that “there are more very good autocracies and more very bad autocracies compared to democracies” (on p. 3 of the pdf publication of this article) and they produced graphs of the performance distribution of autocracies and democracies and tables listing the best performers.  The article was available in May 2014 at http://eprints.lse.ac.uk/3764/1/Making_Autocracy_Work.pdf.

[2] In Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville described benevolent monarchy in these terms:

"When kings find that the hearts of their subjects are turned towards them, they are clement, because they are conscious of their strength; and they are chary of the affection of their people, because the affection of their people is the bulwark of the throne.  A mutual interchange of good-will then takes place between the prince and the people, which resembles the gracious intercourse of domestic life.  The subjects may murmur at the sovereign's decree, but they are grieved to displease him; and the sovereign chastises his subjects with a light hand of parental affection.” (p. 134)

This quotation was from the Penguin edition; it appears on pp. 359-360 of the PDF version which was available in May 2014 at http://www2.hn.psu.edu/faculty/jmanis/toqueville/dem-in-america1.pdf.

[3] Mark Leonard, the executive director of the European Council of Foreign Relations, has studied recent Chinese experiments in governance.  The quotation comes from his essay China's New Intelligentsia, published in Prospect magazine in March 2008.  It was available in May 2014 at http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/magazine/chinese-intelligentsia-intellectuals-think-tanks/. He has also published a book on the subject: What Does China Think? 

His perspective has been challenged, though, by Hu Ping in Democracy Journal Issue #9, Summer 2008, in an article entitled How China Is Read.  Ping argues that the picture portrayed by Mark Leonard is not representative.  The article was available in May 2014 at http://www.democracyjournal.org/9/6621.php?page=all.