Benevolent Dictatorship: Is there such a thing?

26 December 2003

A "benevolent dictator" is a kind of an oxymoron, isn't it?

First of all, let's say, Democracy is a system founded on the premise that (1) absolute power corrupts individuals and institutions and that (2) representation dilutes power and therefore mitigates the corruptive tendencies of governing entities. In essence democracy is founded on an innate acknowledgement that individuals can never be truly 100% "benevolent".

(Note that the term "corruption" is used in the broader sense of a degradation of the effectiveness of a functional entity).

Let's also say that democratic processes are costly in terms of (1) administrative resources -- i.e. conduct elections and maintain legislative bodies, (2) weakening of continuity of strategic vision -- i.e. because of interruptions and changes in leadership, and (3) complications to decision-making specially during crisis circumstances.

The viability of a democractic system therefore is characterised by a balance between the Cost of Democracy and the Cost of Potential Corruption of a Governing Entity. This means that the more benevolent a leader, the less democracy we need and the less benevolent a leader, the more democracy we need. In effect, we can, on one end, be comfortable sacrificing individual liberties in exchange for expeditiousness and decisiveness in governance if and only if we can trust leaders to act purely in the interests of the greater community. At the other end of the continuum we can be willing to shoulder the relative costs and complex bureacracy of an ultra-representative "democracy" (such as the Philippines') when we absolutely cannot expect our leaders to act beyond their selfish interests.

Successful democracies are somewhere in the middle of this equation. They have reasonably trustworthy leaders and reasonably bureacratic governance.

Benevolent Dictatorship, therefore, is not a matter of advocacy as is often brought to question whenever we praise the virtues of, say, Lee(Kuan Yew)ism or Mahathirism. It is merely but one state (for that matter it is an extreme state) in the continuum of the inversely proportional relationship between benevolence and degree of democracy that I described in the preceding paragraph.

Which brings us to a question posed by a rather short-sighted individual:

And what about the democratic institutions that were installed by westerners like the U.S.? How would a dictatorship fit in that mold were there are checks and balances between these institutions?

The answer in the context of what was explained above is this:

If we manage to find among our lot of 80 million souls a truly benevolent dictator, then there is no point in being a democratic country.

Now if we find that the whole point of democracy is not being realised, i.e. it does not mitigate degenerate exercise of power by less-than-benevolent leaders as what is happening, say, in the Philippines, what do you think is the logical next step?

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