Why autocracies don’t work

Richard Javad Heydarian
Do countries like the Philippines need to revert back to autocracy in order to address fundamental challenges such as poverty and (lack of) law and order?

A specter is hunting the democratic world – the specter of autocratic nostalgia.

With interest groups and oligarchs coopting democratic institutions, average citizens are desperate for a secular savior, who will put an end to the dysfunction and insensitivity of everyday politics. Thus, the illusion of “autocratic miracle” – the misplaced belief that a strong, decisive leader can singleheandly save a whole nation – has gained ground across the world’s oldest democracies such as America and largest democracy, India.  

In fledgling democracies such as Indonesia and Peru, which have experienced rapid economic growth in recent years, “strongman” figures and offspring of former dictators have, quite counter-intuitively, come eerily close to power. In Indonesia, Joko Widodo (“Jokowi”), whose progressive brand of governance catapulted him to the heart of Indonesian politics, came dangerously close to losing the 2014 presidential elections to Prabowo Subianto, a notorious Suharto-era holdover. 

In Peru, Keiko Fujimori is broadly expected to win the presidency, with her father still languishing in jail. Here in the Philippines, Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr is just one step away from claiming the vice-presidency in the Philippines, which suffered three decades of disastrous dictatorship under his father.

Davao’s tough talking mayor, Rodrigo Duterte, who has been dubbed by Filipino sociologist Randy David as a “political outsider” par excellence, is in an even more dominant position in the Philippines’ presidential race. Both Marcos and Duterte, in their own ways, have promised decisive, single-minded leadership to address the Philippines’ greatest challenges. 

Endemic corruption, lack of inclusive growth, and policy paralysis has certainly contributed to the gathering storm of “grievance politics”, which is undermining both new and established democracies. But one can’t deny that the myth of autocratic miracle is also responsible for the contagion of strongman syndrome across democracies, especially in the developing world. 

The question, however, is: Are autocracies superior models of governance, especially in the 21st century? Do countries like the Philippines need to revert back to autocracy to address fundamental challenges such as poverty and (lack of) law and order? Or, alternatively, what is instead needed is a new “Progressive Era” of systematic reform towards establishment of a genuine democracy and robust state institutions, which can cope with the vicissitudes of globalization and complex 21st century governance challenges? 

The Confucian ethic  

A significant section of the voters across all troubled democracies have (mistakenly) come to believe that the solution to their national problems is electing strongman rulers who could shake up the system. Showered in (fact-proof) nostalgia, a growing number of voters have come to fondly remember the autocratic past when Fujimori, Suharto, and Marcos were in power – overlooking the dictators’ manifold failures. To be fair, however, there were economically successful autocratic leaders. 

But most Third World autocrats were no visionaries like Park Chung-Hee, who turned poverty-stricken South Korea into an industrial giant, nor were they an obsessive micro-manager like Lee Kuan Yew (LKY), who turned a middling city-state into a global logistics hub. As leading Filipino economists such as Ronald Mendoza have shown, the Marcos regime, in particular, was largely an indubitable economic disaster. 

To put things into perspective: In the 1960s, the Philippines was a leading Southeast Asian economy, but that was, as correctly put by LKY, mainly because “America had been generous in rehabilitating the country after the war.” By the time Ferdinand Marcos – who promised to make the nation “great again” – captured the presidency, and later declared “martial law”, the Philippines’ import-substitution-based economy was on the downhill.

Two decades later, far from becoming “great again”, the Philippines was mired in widespread poverty and insurmountable debt. The country is still paying the price of the disastrous economic legacy of the dictatorship era, eloquently captured by the authoritative works of leading Filipino sociologist, Walden Bello. No less than LKY, the philosopher-king of Singapore, was among Marcos’ harshest critics, openly criticizing the scandalous decadence and chronic corruption that afflicted the Marcos regime.

While lay observers focus on personalities, and myths of great statesmanship, social scientists look at quality of institutions. A more careful look at the “success” stories among (former and current) autocratic nations reveals a much more nuanced explanation for the economic miracles across former autocratic regimes such Japan, South Korea and Taiwan and current autocratic regimes such as Singapore, China, and Vietnam.

In his magisterial work, Origins of Political Order, Francis Fukuyama (2012: 116) argues that the modern state was first established in China. “Modern state institutions were gradually implemented all over China in the later years of the Zhou dynasty [1200-220 B.C], but nowhere more so than in the western state of Qin,” he explained. 

Competent and empowered bureaucracy – reflected in effective tax-collection and war-making capacity – combined with visionary and (often) ethical leadership represented the core elements of powerful Chinese dynasties, which established one of the most enduring civilizations on earth. Over 2,000 years, the Chinese bureaucratic culture would spread across the Sino-sphere, influencing the trajectory of state development in Greater China, the Korean Peninsula, Vietnam, and Japan. Today, practically all of Asia’s economic bright stars belong to the Confucian sphere.

Strong state v. strongman  

In the 1960s, the Philippines and South Korea were almost on the same level of economic development. The visionary Park Chung-hee, albeit ruthless and undemocratic, used his autocrat grip on the Korean bureaucracy to discipline the oligarchs, institute comprehensive land reform, regulate financial markets, and establish the foundations of a modern economy by astutely combining strategic protectionism with export-oriented industrialization.

In certain ways, he was a classic Confucian-Legalist leader blessed with a relatively competent and coherent bureaucratic apparatus. Park, a former member of the Japanese Imperial Army, drew lessons from Tokyo’s Meiji Restoration, which (itself drawing on the experience of late-developing countries like Germany/Prussia) turned an agricultural backwater into an industrial powerhouse.

In Taiwan, Chiang Kai-shek and the Koumintang Party also followed key elements of Japanese and Korean economic strategy, ranging from land reform to development of infant industries and an export-oriented manufacturing sector. In the case of Singapore, LKY built on the British-era bureaucracy, augmenting its elements of meritocracy and toughening measures against corruption. Within few decades, he turned a city-state into a global entrepôt, attracting large-scale capital and great minds from across the world. 

In contrast, Marcos, who oversaw a hollowed American-style bureaucracy, ended up relying on greedy cronies, who only cared about their own interests, as well as misguided economists, who uncritically followed neo-classical economics without any appreciation of the special needs of late-developing countries. A lawyer with minimal understanding of development economics, and drenched in decadence and corruption, Marcos was no Park – and neither a LKY nor Chiang Kai-shek, for that matter – when it came to economic development. 

Under Marcos, the Philippines, in terms of per capita income, went from almost twice richer than South Korea to 11 times poorer (Studwell 2013). Towards the end of the Marcos era, Deng Xiaoping drew on the success stories in fellow Confucian states, eventually turning China into a global economic powerhouse. Vietnam – under the “Dổi Mới” policy, a local twist to Beijing’s “socialism with Chinese characterizes” – followed a similar course after the end of Cold War with considerable success. 

Meanwhile, South Korea and Taiwan – similar to Japan in the mid-20th century – transitioned towards democracy, not long after the Philippines’ 1986 “People Power” Revolution against Marcos. Blessed with competent bureaucracy that oversaw appropriate economic policies, South Korea and Taiwan maintained their economic vigor and managed to become advanced post-industrial societies. In fact, Japan’s most impressive economic gains were made right after its transition to democracy in the mid-20th century. 

These countries’ success wasn’t a function of their regime typology, but instead the quality of their state institutions, their Confucian culture of ethical leadership, and their optimal usage of what Joseph Stiglitz calls “development policy space” during the Cold War years. Without competent bureaucracy, however, none of these countries would have been able to implement, on a sustained and effective basis, necessary reforms for national development.

Non-Confucian autocrats like Malaysia’s Mahathir were certainly more benign and less disastrous than Marcos. A careful look, however, reveals that (oil-rich) Malaysia, which has a relatively small population compared to most of its neighbors, purchased short-term growth under the stewardship of Mahathir (1981-2003) at the expense of long-term institutional decay, economic imbalances, and political instability.

As University of Chicago’s Dan Slater aptly puts it, “The current mess in Malaysian politics is the making of his greatest nemesis, Mahathir”, who oversaw his office as “a haven of autocracy” where “[e]thnic tensions had been reopened to political manipulation,” while the “economy was worrisomely indebted” and “capable leaders” were purged, paving the way for the country’s “sad national decline”, which has reached its zenith in recent years.

The current Malaysian government is grappling with a billion-dollar corruption scandal, with Malaysian politics turning more polarized than ever. In Breakout Nations, Ruchir Sharma eloquently underlines (post-Mahathir) Malaysia’s weakening economic fundamentals and stunted development potentials, which are largely a product of its extractive-exclusive institutions.

The way forward 

Junta-ruled Thailand, which not long ago was a rowdy but economically-vibrant democracy, is now the slowest growing economy in the region. In contrast, a democratizing Myanmar has morphed into one of the brightest economic stories of our times. As authoritative studies show, democracies on average perform better than autocracies, which lack internal checks and balances and are prone to abuse by decadent leaders (Przeworski et al. 2000).

From Argentina to Libya, autocratic regimes have been largely a catastrophe, and, as David Dollar of Brookings institute explains, tend to fall into the “middle income trap” even if, by chance, they managed to make gains at lower stages of development.

Democracies, in contrast, nurture institutions and place constraints on abusive practices. Astute observers like Moises Naim (2013: 2) have pointed out how the physics of power has transformed – making it “easier to get, harder to use – and easier to lose” – to a point that 20th century-style autocratic rule is almost impossible in today’s world. No wonder then, prominent scholars such as Harvard Professor Stephen Walt have called for abandonment of futile and often catastrophic pursuit for “great leaders”. 

The Philippines, in particular, has experienced its worst economic record during the years of dictatorship, while its stellar macroeconomic performance in recent years has gone hand in hand with media freedom, good governance initiatives, and heightened scrutiny of public officials and state policies. In short, democratic deepening has gone hand in hand with economic boom.

The problem, however, is that the Philippines is largely an oligarchy-disguised-as-democracy. What it needs is to become a genuine “deepened” democracy – not relapsing into autocratic rule.

The countries’ elected offices are dominated by political dynasties, which control 73 out of 80 provinces in the country. As many as 70% of Filipino legislators hail from political dynasties. The economic landscape is equally oligarchic: the 40 richest families gobbled up to 76% of newly created growth in recent years. Recent growth has barely ameliorated double-digit poverty and unemployment rates.

Aside from civil liberties, which are innate to human nature, ordinary citizens should also enjoy basic economic rights and have an actual say in the decisions of the state.

Instead of flirting with autocracy, which is prone to cronyism and megalomaniac leadership, the Philippines needs to focus on reform-oriented leaders, who are committed to establishing a competent and empowered bureaucracy, fight against special interest and oligarchic co-optation, and adopt the right kind of policies that create inclusive, sustainable growth. 

Like America in the late-19th century, which saw major reforms that made the country both more democratic and economically vibrant, the Philippines also needs its own Progressive Era.

As Fukuyama explains in Political Order and Political Decay, it was the enlightened members of the middle class – who collectively fought against corruption and empowered the bureaucracy – that turned Jacksonian America into an industrialized and vibrant polity, which soon became the world’s most powerful state – and an indispensable nation.

Asia’s most successful economies have gone through both democratic and autocratic phases, but what made them successful was mainly their strong bureaucratic institutions combined with development policy acumen. Enlightened leaders simply built on pre-existing institutional assets. What the Philippines needs more than ever is a strong state, not a strongman. – Rappler.com