Dictatorship: An Alternative to Democracy?


By Ethan Hollander, Wabash College

If democracy was unable to stave off the crisis—if it was perceived as a cause of the crisis—then alternatives to democracy were going to gain steam. And that’s exactly what we’ve seen. So, what are the alternatives to democracy? And have they fared any better? Well, the clearest alternative to democracy is dictatorship. Is that a possibility?

Concept of dictatorship
A dictatorship can be considered as an alternative to democracy when dealing with crises. (Image: Jorm S/Shutterstock)

The Advantages of Dictatorship 

Some people argue that dictatorship is superior to democracy, especially in times of a crisis. The lack of accountability—that absence of institutions to check and balance a dictator’s dictates—since ancient times, people have argued that this allows dictatorships to take more decisive action. 

Let’s face it, democracy takes time—and it often produces watered-down compromises that don’t work as well as the carefully crafted vision of a singular leader or organization.

It’s also important to remember that dictatorship isn’t inevitably unwanted. A dictator might want what’s best for his subjects, not necessarily because he’s charitable, or because he knows that if people are well-fed, they won’t spend so much time plotting to dethrone him.

I’m reminded of that scene from the Monty Python movie Life of Brian, where the rebels are plotting to overthrow the Roman empire. As they complain about how oppressed they are, one of the rebel leaders yells: “Yeah, and what have the Romans ever done for us?”

And then this voice from the back of the crowd calmly says: “Well, they built the aqueduct.” Oh yeah, and the roads, and sanitation, and education, public health. The Romans did all of this. Soon, the whole rebellion is at risk of getting sidetracked by a bunch of would-be rebels realizing that, in addition to oppressing them, the Roman empire provided them with valuable public goods.

This article comes directly from content in the video series Democracy and Its Alternatives. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Democrats Versus Dictators

All jokes aside, dictators do have ways of making the trains run on time. They generally have more coercive power than democracies do, and they use it, not just to quash resistance, but to provide public goods that make people less likely to resist in the first place.

Concept of crisis and war
Dictators can deal with crises properly without being worried about many things. (Image: Zef art/Shutterstock)

Dictators can also look at the bigger picture, and think in the longer term. A democrat might have trouble convincing people to go along with a plan that won’t pay dividends until later. A dictator doesn’t have to worry about that.

Democracies, on the other hand, have to worry about pesky little things like civil liberties and private property. And that hinders how far they can go in a situation like a pandemic. China doesn’t have that worry. And that helps explain why China, the country where the pandemic started, was also one of the first countries to get it under control.

In short, dictatorships have tools that democracies don’t when it comes to using the powers of the state to respond to a crisis.

Downsides to Dictatorship

Megaphone and cardboard poster reads “WE NEED A CHANGE”
Dictatorships are not ok with new ideas, while democracies are. (Image: Ronstik/Shutterstock)

But dictatorships also face challenges. First of all, since dictatorships put such a premium on crushing dissent, smart people are often afraid to speak their minds. And the best ideas might never see the light of day.

China gave us an example of this, too.

Remember, the outbreak is believed to have started in China, and one of the first people to recognize how dangerous it was—and to sound the alarm—was a Chinese doctor, Li Wenliang. But instead of rewarding Dr. Li for sounding the alarm, the authorities hauled him into a police station and threatened him for “spreading rumors” and “disturbing the peace”. Dr. Li then became one of the pandemic’s first victims; he died of COVID-19 just a few weeks later. 

By contrast, democracies really can be marketplaces for ideas. The best ideas have a chance of being heard, regardless of how inconvenient they might be for the government.

Common Questions about Dictatorship as an Alternative to Democracy

Q: Is dictatorship necessarily undesirable?

Despite what one might think, dictatorship isn’t necessarily undesirable. A dictator can do his best for his subjects and may want what’s best for them, not because he’s benevolent or because he does so to prevent his subjects from planning to overthrow him. A dictator can provide his subjects with suitable facilities such as good education, public health, sanitation, roads, and so on.

Q: What are the differences between democrats and dictators?

One of the differences between democrats and dictators is that dictators have more oppressive power than democrats, and they use it not only against resistance but also to provide their subjects with public goods so that they become less likely to resist in the first place. Dictatorships can also use their coercive power to deal with crises, while democracies are not very good at that.

Q: What is the difference between dictatorships and democracies in terms of expressing opinions?

Democracies are superior to dictatorships in terms of hearing new ideas and opinions regardless of how inconvenient they can be for the government. By contrast, smart people in a dictatorship are not allowed to speak their minds, and expressing new ideas can be equal to death.

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