Authoritarian rule as such does not drive development. Dictators did not turn countries like Pakistan, Nigeria or Argentina into thriving nations. It is true that developmental regimes have sometimes proved more useful in developmental terms, if the leaders paid attention to more things than serving themselves and staying in power. That is the exception, not the norm, though it has happened in several, mostly east and southeast Asian countries, including China.
Even the Chinese example, however, is not entirely convincing. Development did not take off in the People’s Republic as long as Mao Zedong was the top leader. On the contrary, his rule was a nightmare in every respect. Millions starved during the “Great Leap Forward”, and millions more were traumatised in the “Cultural Revolution” which started 60 years ago. Mao’s totalitarian despotism kept the country poor.
After Mao’s death, however, the Communist Party did start to run a developmental regime. Under Deng Xiaoping, it built infrastructure, promoted public health-care and education systems, opened up markets and created foundations for a diversified, dynamic economy. Living standards improved, and no one doubts that the vast majority of Chinese benefited. The regime argued it was taking care of social and economic human rights, but that the country was not yet ready for political human rights. One may dispute that this distinction makes sense, but it is evident that progress was made in social and economic terms.
Whether that is still the case in China, should not be taken for granted. Inequality has been rising in the past decades, with high growth rates disproportionately serving the better off. Moreover, the government has been tightening its grip under President Xi Jinping, which shows that it feels its own legitimacy is being eroded.
Before Xi, the government hat incrementally been liberalising in various fields of policy. There was an implicit social contract, with people accepting authoritarian rule in return for improving standards of life. Today, the leaders in Beijing are no longer convinced that they are delivering in this sense. Why else would they revert to more despotic ways?
Despotism actually is a break on development in an increasingly complex and multi-layered economy. The reason is that an advanced society has many sources of wealth and power – whereas in a rural society, control of the land is basically the only thing that matters.
Modernisation makes societies more complex. Capital can be invested in many different ways, and investors experiment with options. It does not help when the government tries to mastermind every decision. Science matters, because technology depends on it, and technology has a bearing on business, and government directives tend to disrupt both research and technical development. As business deals become more complex, moreover, the rule of law becomes more important, so courts need to be independent. For understanding the complex dynamics of society, freedom of expression and open media debate become ever more relevant. When such debate is stifled, decision makers become less well informed, and sub-optimal decisions become more likely.
Looking back at the cold war, it is clear that the one-party Soviet Union managed to keep up with the multi-party USA in military terms, but fell ever further behind in other areas, including economics, prosperity, environmental protection, sciences and others. The main reason was that, in a complex society, openness serves dynamism. It is also likely that political pluralism enabled the USA to end the military disaster it had started in Vietnam, whereas the Soviet Union simply could not acknowledge defeat in Afghanistan.
Under President Xi, China is now acting ever more assertive in military terms. For several reasons, this is not a good sign. Military spending does not contribute to improving living standards, for example. Sabre rattling, moreover, makes actual bloodshed more likely. Finally, it is important to understand that the strongman attitude is not a sign of strength. Authoritarian leaders often try to use nationalism to divert attention from domestic worries and find scapegoats for problems that are difficult to tackle.
It is often said that a benign dictatorship would be the best form of government if only dictators were really benign. Normally, they are not, not only to judge by Germany’s dismal experience with Nazis and Communists. Dictators are not normally benign even in China.