The case for a benevolent dictatorship

The reason why dictatorship is seen in such a bad light in comparison to democracy is that its worst examples are used to define it. With that being said, how do you defend dictatorship?

DISCLAIMER: This post contains content that may be objectionable. It is mainly purposed for competitive debate education. It should not be taken as professional advice. 

Singapore. What most people know it for its majestic skyline, being a booming financial hub, and having the highest literacy rates in the world. What it’s not as known for is its political system. Although Singapore is registered as a parliamentary democracy, there has only ever been one party ruling over it, the People’s Action Party, which was first controlled by Mr. Lee Kuan Yew.

I used to be one of those debaters who shrieked whenever I had to defend an anti-liberal, anti-democratic leadership, but with just a bit of simple analysis and case studies, it’s not that big of a challenge.

In fact, 5900 years of the history of human civilization was under absolute dictatorship. Most of the time people lived well, development and continuation of human civilization were great. Meanwhile, modern democracy was born less than 100 years ago and does not have many years to prove for it.

The reason why dictatorship is seen in such a bad light in comparison to democracy is that its worst examples are used to define it (e.g. Hitler and Stalin). Obviously, these are isolated examples which do not apply to this article as their leaders are far from good. Meanwhile democracies are defined by only its best examples (e.g. Canada, New Zealand, USA), while their bad examples (e.g. Brazil, Argentina, Greece) are never mentioned. With that being said, how do you defend dictatorship?

What is the actual difference between a democracy and a dictatorship?

We have to understand what the idea behind both systems are. The heart of a democracy is simple: people get rights to free speech, political rights to vote, and anyone can become a politician. Leaders are usually given only a limited time to lead (Presidents or Prime Ministers usually serve 4-5 year terms).

On the other hand, a dictatorship, benevolent or not, is a government where the leader is unelected and has absolute power, with no time limit as to how long they can lead.

But, if you really think about it from the point of view of a regular citizen, the difference between the two might not be that glaring. In both forms of government, you still have basic human rights like freedom of movement, healthcare, education, work, and more.

The most common thing that comes to people’s heads when they talk about a democracy is the “right to speak up” or “political rights”. Even though most Westerners will always portray a dictatorship as a system where the people have no rights to speak up and are continuously oppressed, in a “benevolent” dictatorship, that might not necessarily be true.

For example, people still get rights to freedom of speech in countries like Singapore and China. In Singapore, public protests and assemblies are actually allowed specifically at Hong Lim Park. Just like democracies, public protests are allowed as long as they do not cause public disturbance, vandalism, or other common crimes. So, citizens still somewhat get a right of expression.

The second thing democracy claims to do best is to give citizens a say in policy-making. While it might be true, in most countries, policies are still made in parliaments and decided by officials elected by the incumbent government and opposition parties. Those people in those seats are still the people who get to make and decide the policy, not necessarily the citizens, meaning that not everyone gets represented as democracy claims.

Furthermore, oftentimes policy gets so jumbled up in the discussion that it does not truly represent the population. But finally, sometimes too much discussion on policies become counter-productive, causing more polarization which in turn, cripples efficient policy-making even more. Even in the a democracy, where voters try to vote out the incumbent when they are upset with the policies, the harm has already been done and they have to wait until the next election cycle.

The final argument for a democracy is that parties have political incentives to cater to the citizens, but these incentives are symmetric. The rhetoric of all dictatorships is that they will take good care of the citizens as long as they remain in power, otherwise, their power could be toppled.

So ultimately, it is not true that a democracy always trumps a dictatorship just because people are ‘given rights’. Many of those rights exist within a dictatorship as well, especially in a benevolent one.

The many flaws of democracy

The idea of democracy and giving a ‘voice’ to the people might sound populist, but fortunately for you, a populist system does not mean that it is one without its flaws. In fact, democracy has many of those.

For starters, the heart and core of democracy itself, voting, is very problematic. Even though nowadays most voters are literate, they still are not well-informed enough to keep up with the latest change in the countries politics. They are still subject to selecting candidates based on cults of personalities instead of actually researching on them. In some of the worst cases of democracies, elections can be won purely by primordialism (voting based on commonality of race, skin tone, or religion).

Secondly, policy-making often takes a very long time but still comes out wonky. Because of how long it takes to debate everything out in parliament, from multiple politicians and multiple parties, gridlock in legislatures is common, meaning that the rate at which policies are passed is very slow, wasting valuable resources and time. But furthermore, policies often are not that representative because of how many different opinions there are. These problems are inherently unique to the democratic process.

How does a benevolent dictatorship solve these problems? 

It first addresses the issue of poorly informed voters. Assuming that the dictator is indeed “benevolent”, like Mr. Lee Kuan Yew or Paul Kagame from Rwanda, there is no need to change a leader every 4 or 5 years because a good leader is already in place.

Moreover, it accelerates policy-making for the better. Let’s consider Singapore as a case study. The secret to its clean streets, world-class healthcare, timely public transit, strong economy and well-respected institutions lies in its benevolent dictatorship. When the People’s Action Party has 6 decades of uninterrupted power, and no opposition party to slow things down, they can just get things more things done in a shorter period. This means that policies can be sustained over multiple tenures, and don’t have to switch hands every political cycle, which often ends up disastrous, e.g. President Trump cancelling out a lot of President Obama’s policies.

So, that concludes the case for a benevolent dictatorship. In short, democracies are not actually as representative as the neoliberal narratives of today say, and democratic processes come with many flaws, especially in developing countries. Benevolent dictatorships accelerate policy-making and are much more efficient, while still serving the most common interests of citizens which benefit all i.e. economic rights. Hopefully, the next time you have to vilify democracy, it won’t be as startling.

Related motions

  • As a post colonial state, This House supports a benevolent dictatorship over a representative democracy.
  • This House prefers benevolent dictatorship to weak democracy.
  • This House prefers a world in which postcolonial African states had prioritised achieving economic and land reparations (e.g. active land redistribution, quotas, cash transfer programs) over enshrining civil and political rights (e.g. rights to protest, vote, free speech, form associations, etc).

Further reading

The information in this article is a compilation of several sources, which are listed below. We recommend you read them for further understanding of the topic.

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