Why Are Democracies More Powerful than Dictatorships?


By Ethan HollanderWabash College

Political scientists have long observed that democracies tend to be wealthier than dictatorships. And part of the reason for this is that democratic governments are held accountable for their actions in a way that dictatorships are not. How is that achieved? Read on to know more?

Wooden blocks read "DEMOCRACY"
The actions of democratic leaders are limited by citizens with an ability to boot them out of office. (Image: ELUTAS/Shutterstock)

Democracy Versus Dictatorship

If the dictator takes your tax money and spends it on a lavish palace, there’s not a whole lot you can do. Democratic leaders, on the other hand, have powerful incentives to spend your money wisely: If they don’t, they won’t get reelected.

Elected leaders have a tendency to pursue policies that promote the general welfare—not because they’re better people, but because they’ll be punished if they don’t.

Monarch’s Absolute Power Can Make Investments Risky

Kings in the Middle Ages often had to pay higher interest rates to moneylenders than any ordinary nobleman would, which is strange—I mean, you’d think that the king would have more resources, and would, therefore, be only more able to cover his debts. But because the king was so powerful, moneylenders sometimes viewed him as a credit risk. 

They feared that, when the time came to repay the loan, the king might go back on his word. This ended up hurting kings, who often had trouble finding people who were willing to lend them money. And it hurt the moneylenders, too, because they were probably, in many cases, too scared to do business with this potentially lucrative customer.

Ironically, kings were seen as a risky investment, not despite their absolute power, but because of it. And this led to suboptimal results for kings and moneylenders alike. In fact, there’s evidence that Britain’s dominance in the 18th and 19th centuries resulted from the fact that Britain’s monarchs were less powerful than their counterparts elsewhere in Europe.

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

Britain: A Strong Kingdom, Weak Kings and Queens

Britain was strong. But the British monarchy was weak. Unlike the monarchs of Spain, or France, or Austria, the British crown was subject to certain limitations: Its power was counterbalanced by Parliament, and by other institutions in British society.

The pre-1801 Union Flag United Kingdom of Great Britain
Ironically, Britain’s Empire was powerful in the 18th and 19th centuries, despite the fact that the British monarchy was weak in that era. (Image: Hoshie/Public domain)

As a result, Britain’s kings and queens couldn’t just confiscate wealth when it was in their short-term interest to do so. Other countries’ monarchs couldn’t credibly commit to the same “good behavior”. They were too powerful for their own good.

Limited Power

In short, Britain’s monarchs could credibly commit to being trustworthy players within the British system, not because they were nicer people than France’s Louis XIV or Russia’s Peter the Great, but because their power was limited.

These limits on British royal prerogative allowed capitalist, industrial interests to flourish—and made Britain the superpower of its day. Therefore, one reason Great Britain became the world’s dominant power in the 18th century was because the British king, unlike his contemporaries, was held accountable by other institutions in British society—most notably, the parliament. In short, Britain was powerful because the British monarch was weak.

Democracy Is All about Accountability

Well, it turns out that this theory works in a broader sense, too—not just between king and parliament, but between government and its citizens. When we vote, we have the opportunity to replace our leaders with people who will rule in our interests. 

Our leaders have to spend our money wisely, they have to represent us, and in theory, they even have to tell the truth—because if they don’t, we have the power to replace them. In other words, democracies have the potential to be stronger than non-democracies because their leaders are weak.

A dictator can promise to rule in the public interest, but his commitments aren’t credible because there isn’t much the public can do if he doesn’t rule in the public interest. Democratic leaders have less latitude. Their actions are limited by citizens with an ability to boot them out of office. That weakness is an asset for the countries they lead.

But, as citizens, we have to remember that our commitment to keep our leaders in check is only credible if we pay attention to how they rule. Apathy and ignorance can harm a democracy every bit as much as a leader with tyrannical ambitions.

Common Questions about Why Democracies Are More Powerful than Dictatorships

Q: Why were many moneylenders in the Middle Age afraid of lending money to kings?

Even though kings in the Middle Ages often paid higher interest rates to moneylenders than any ordinary nobleman did, moneylenders sometimes viewed them as a credit risk; as they feared that, kings might go back on their word when the time came to repay the loan. This ended up in severe results for kings such as those of Britain’s, as they became somehow weak by the 18th and 19th centuries. This paved the way for democracy in some way.

Q: Why was Britain a superpower in the 18th and 19th centuries, despite having a weak monarchy?

Because Britain’s monarchs acted as trustworthy players within the British system. This was, of course, not because they were nicer people than their other European counterparts, but rather because their power was limited. The limited power for leaders is something essential for every democracy, and since every democracy tends to be wealthier than a dictatorship, Britain became wealthy and powerful in that period.

Q: How are democracy and accountability linked?

In democratic societies, leaders are elected by the people. So people always have the power to replace their leaders with other ones who will rule in their interests. Therefore, leaders have to spend public wealth as wisely as possible and represent people, even sometimes having to tell the truth, because if they don’t, they will be removed easily.

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