Autocracy Now by James Inwood

“If a land is rebellious, its princes will be many; but with a prudent man it knows security.” Proverbs 28:2 

A nation once elected a new, revolutionary government. Its promises were as extraordinary as its incompetence, and country descended into chaos. A military coup overthrew the republic and replaced it with a dictatorship. The new leader implemented a program of economic reform and refused to let revolutionaries threaten the peace. The nation grew more prosperous and free than any other in the region, but the people still hated the dictator for usurping the republic, eventually forcing him from office. Who was right? The despot who rejected populism, or the people who rejected despotism?

This, by the way, is the story of Augusto Pinochet, dictator of Chile from 1974-1990 and a key U.S. ally in the Cold War.

American conservatives are uncomfortable with autocracy. Our traditional government is a constitutional republic, and history has taught us to distrust kings and dictators. But is this fair? Parliament passed the infamous Intolerable Acts, not King George. Most of America’s foes have been popularly instituted or constitutional states. Further, the Western Tradition is one of monarchy, not American-style republicanism; the few classical experiments in popular rule ended terribly. The ages agree with Homer: “A multitude of rulers is not a good thing. Let there be one ruler, one king.”

The traditional is not necessarily just, however. Americans have held this axiom since the Revolution: “Governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” A “self-evident truth” only to contemporaries
of the Founders, the idea runs contrary to the millennia of politics before the Declaration. What good is an invented axiom? Indeed, this assertion conflicts with more than tradition: it contradicts the government of the very cosmos.

God rules the universe as its king; rule among men is justified by something other than popular consent. There are three possible theses for the justification of such government: the ‘What’, ‘How’, and ‘Who’ questions of the Lord’s universal government (‘Where’ and ‘When’ are inapplicable to deities). The ‘What’ argument notes that God rules perfectly. The ‘How’ argument contends that God respects human freedom in His rule, and so requires no consent. The ‘Who’ argument is that of Christian scripture: the Creator is sovereign. For government by imperfect man, authority is reduced to competence by the first argument, respect of liberty by the second, and the earthly extension of God’s work –justice– by the third. Conveniently, each of these options is satisfied under the name of “ruling well”. This principle relies on the regime’s members, for the wise and virtuous rule better than fools and fiends. A government’s composition depends on its number. As officials accumulate, the state adheres more to the citizenry, just as larger samples better represent a population. While narrower states like oligarchy or autocracy may vary from the whole, democracy must draw from the common. The average man is corrupt and foolish, so democracies feature the same attributes and officialdom must be narrowed.

Republicans seek to solve this problem by “refining” the errant popular will through representation and constitutional restrictions. But this offers only modest improvement; the people choose the lawmakers and the constitution depends on the goodwill of those it is supposed to bind. Still dominated by the masses, these governments necessarily fall into all the problems of democracy. This process can only be delayed when the republic is as undemocratic as possible.

Autocracy, on the other hand, liberates the state from the masses and other impediments to good rule. An autocrat may be the best among men; democrats and republicans must be common. He may implement justice without the approval of interested parties. Institutions do not stall him when he pursues policy, so neither legislatures, courts, nor factions can prevent the autocrat from doing good. His firm hand – not a legion of committees – is the best guide to a well-regulated administration of the law. This same latitude can produce the worst regimes as well as the best, but history contains many possible solutions. For example, the dictator could impress an ideologically republican society into universal acclamation and utilize adoptive succession, like Augustus and the Five Good Emperors. A thoroughly indoctrinated guard, unlike the intrigue-prone Praetorians, may provide the answer to checking a fallen despot—since tyrannicide is sometimes virtuous.

History lends credence to this theory; most renowned leaders were somewhat autocratic. Great kings, emperors, or even presidents, are typically men who bent the state to their will, imposing necessary reform or standing firm against encroachment. Though nominally “president”, they doubtless did more than preside, playing the autocrat despite their supposed republicanism.

More concretely, “Four Tigers” of the Pacific demonstrate this principle. South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore saw tremendous growth and modernization in the aftermath of the Second World War because their rulers imposed liberal taxation and free trade against the wishes of the people. Each saw massive and sustained progress, the British governors even exceeding the prosperity of their proudly republican fatherland.

In the Middle East, many Persian Gulf despots have encouraged free trade and virtually abolished taxation. As a result, their average incomes are often far greater than republican Israel, despite the latter’s educated workforce, tourism, and American aid. Although oil is indeed the key driver of their growth, the same is true of poverty-stricken Venezuela, whose left-wing republic has planned the nation out of prosperity.

Even communists like Josip Broz Tito of Yugoslavia can make good dictators. After he seized power, experience convinced him that Bolshevism was deeply flawed, so he broke ties with the Soviet Union and launched a program of domestic reform. He granted greater civil and economic liberties than any other socialist government and opened Yugoslavia to international trade and migration. He only retained Marx’s internationalism to keep the bickering Balkans together. His death in 1980 left Yugoslavia to inept men who led the nation into internecine warfare.

These examples and others demonstrate a classic truth of the Western tradition: autocracy works. While democracy and its republican cousin make the state a reflection of the passions and prejudices of the masses, autocracy permits great men to do justice and secure peace without having to appease the common man. Many of these examples are imperfect –avoiding tyranny remains the paramount concern– but such imperfections should not deter men from embracing the rule of the one, the best of governments.

James Inwood is a junior studying the liberal arts.

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