The Good Autocrat

The Good Autocrat

Mini Teaser: A stark contrast exists between the tyrannical rulers of the Middle East and the benign despots of East Asia. The precepts of Enlightenment thought dictate freedom for all, but Confucian leaders offer a heretical alternative to Western ideals.

by Author(s): Robert D. Kaplan

IN HIS extended essay, On Liberty, published in 1859, the English philosopher John Stuart Mill famously declares, “That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.” Mill’s irreducible refutation of tyranny leads him to—I have always felt—one of the most moving passages in literature, in which he extols the moral virtues of Marcus Aurelius, only to register the Roman’s supreme flaw. Mill writes:

If ever any one, possessed of power, had grounds for thinking himself the best and most enlightened among his contemporaries, it was the Emperor Marcus Aurelius. Absolute monarch of the whole civilized world, he preserved through life not only the most unblemished justice, but what was less to be expected from his Stoical breeding, the tenderest heart. The few failings which are attributed to him, were all on the side of indulgence: while his writings, the highest ethical product of the ancient mind, differ scarcely perceptibly, if they differ at all, from the most characteristic teachings of Christ.

And yet, as Mill laments, this “unfettered intellect,” this exemplar of humanism by second-century-AD standards, persecuted Christians. As deplorable a state as society was in at the time (wars, internal revolts, cruelty in all its manifestations), Marcus Aurelius assumed that what held it together and kept it from getting worse was the acceptance of the existing divinities, which the adherents of Christianity threatened to dissolve. He simply could not foresee a world knit together by new and better ties. “No Christian,” Mill writes, “more firmly believes that Atheism is false, and tends to the dissolution of society, than Marcus Aurelius believed the same things of Christianity.”

If even such a ruler as Marcus Aurelius could be so monumentally wrong, then no dictator, it would seem, no matter how benevolent, could ever ultimately be trusted in his judgment. It follows, therefore, that the persecution of an idea or ideals for the sake of the existing order can rarely be justified, since the existing order is itself suspect. And, pace Mill, if we can never know for certain if authority is in the right, even as anarchy must be averted, the only recourse for society is to be able to choose and regularly replace its forever-imperfect leaders.

But there is a catch. As Mill admits earlier in his essay,

Liberty, as a principle, has no application to any state of things anterior to the time when mankind have become capable of being improved by free and equal discussion. Until then, there is nothing . . . but implicit obedience to an Akbar or a Charlemagne, if they are so fortunate as to find one.

Indeed, Mill knows that authority has first to be created before we can go about limiting it. For without authority, however dictatorial, there is a fearful void, as we all know too well from Iraq in 2006 and 2007. In fact, no greater proponent of individual liberty than Isaiah Berlin himself observes in his introduction to Four Essays on Liberty that, “Men who live in conditions where there is not sufficient food, warmth, shelter, and the minimum degree of security can scarcely be expected to concern themselves with freedom of contract or of the press.” In “Two Concepts of Liberty,” Berlin allows that “First things come first: there are situations . . . in which boots are superior to the works of Shakespeare, individual freedom is not everyone’s primary need.” Further complicating matters, Berlin notes that “there is no necessary connection between individual liberty and democratic rule.” There might be a despot “who leaves his subjects a wide area of liberty” but cares “little for order, or virtue, or knowledge.” Clearly, just as there are good and bad popularly elected leaders, there are good and bad autocrats.

THE SIGNAL fact of the Arab world at the beginning of this year of democratic revolution was that, for the most part, it encompassed few of these subtleties and apparent contradictions. Middle Eastern societies had long since moved beyond basic needs of food and security to the point where individual freedom could easily be contemplated. After all, over the past half century, Arabs from the Maghreb to the Persian Gulf experienced epochal social, economic, technological and demographic transformation: it was only the politics that lagged behind. And while good autocrats there were, the reigning model was sterile and decadent national-security regimes, deeply corrupt and with sultanic tendencies. These leaders sought to perpetuate their rule through offspring: sons who had not risen through the military or other bureaucracies, and thus had no legitimacy. Marcus Aurelius was one thing; Tunisia’s Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, quite another. Certainly, the Arab Spring has proved much: that there is no otherness to Arab civilization, that Arabs yearn for universal values just as members of other societies do. But as to difficult questions regarding the evolution of political order and democracy, it has in actuality proved very little. To wit, no good autocrats were overthrown. The regimes that have fallen so far had few saving graces in any larger moral or philosophical sense, and the wonder is how they lasted as long as they did, even as their tumultuous demise was sudden and unexpected.

Yet, the issues about which Mill and Berlin cared so passionately must still be addressed. For in some places in the Arab world, and particularly in Asia, there have been autocrats who can, in fact, be spoken of in the same breath as Marcus Aurelius. So at what point is it right or practical to oust these rulers? It is quite possible to force through political change, which leads, contrary to aims, into a more deeply oppressive, militarized or, perhaps worse, anarchic environment. Indeed, as Berlin intimates, what follows dictatorial rule will not inevitably further the cause of individual liberty and well-being. Absent relentless, large-scale human-rights violations, soft landings for nondemocratic regimes are always preferable to hard ones, even if the process takes some time. A moral argument can be made that monsters like Muammar el-Qaddafi in Libya and Kim Jong-il in North Korea should be overthrown any way they can, as fast as we can, regardless of the risk of short-term chaos. But that reasoning quickly loses its appeal when one is dealing with dictators who are less noxious. And even when they are not less noxious, as in the case of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, the moral argument for their removal is still fraught with difficulty since the worse the autocrat, the worse the chaos left in his wake. That is because a bad dictator eviscerates intermediary institutions between the regime at the top and the extended family or tribe at the bottom—professional associations, community organizations, political groups and so on—the very stuff of civil society. The good dictator, by fostering economic growth, among other things, makes society more complex, leading to more civic groupings and to political divisions based on economic interest that are by definition more benign than tribal, ethnic or sectarian divides. A good dictator can be defined as one who makes his own removal less rife with risk.

While the logical conclusion of Mill’s essay is to deny the moral right of dictatorship, his admission of the need for obedience to an Akbar or a Charlemagne at primitive levels of social development leaves one facing the larger question: Is transition from autocracy to democracy always virtuous? For there is a vast difference between the rule of even a wise and enlightened individual like the late-sixteenth-century Mogul Akbar the Great and a society so free that coercion of the individual by the state only ever occurs to prevent the harm of others. It is such a great disparity that Mill’s proposition that persecution to preserve the existing order can never be justified remains theoretical and may never be achieved; even democratic governments must coerce their citizens for a variety of reasons. Nevertheless, the ruler who moves society to a more advanced stage of development is not only good but also perhaps the most necessary of historical actors—to the extent that history is determined by freewilled individuals as well as by larger geographical and economic forces. And the good autocrat, I submit, is not a contradiction in terms; rather, he stands at the center of the political questions that continuously morphing political societies face.

GOOD AUTOCRATS there are. For example, in the Middle East, monarchy has found a way over the decades and centuries to engender a political legitimacy of its own, allowing leaders like King Mohammed VI in Morocco, King Abdullah in Jordan and Sultan Qaboos bin Said in Oman to grant their subjects a wide berth of individual liberties without fear of being overthrown. Not only is relative freedom allowed, but extremist politics and ideologies are unnecessary in these countries.

It is only in modernizing dictatorships like Syria and Libya—which in historical and geographical terms are artificial constructions and whose rulers are inherently illegitimate—where brute force and radicalism are required to hold the state together. To be sure, Egypt’s Mubarak and Tunisia’s Ben Ali neither ran police states on the terrifying scale of Libya’s Qaddafi and Syria’s Assad nor stifled economic progress with such alacrity. But while Mubarak and Ben Ali left their countries in conditions suitable for the emergence of stable democracy, there is little virtue that can be attached to their rule. The economic liberalizations of recent years were haphazard rather than well planned. Their countries’ functioning institutions exist for reasons that go back centuries: Egypt and Tunisia have been states in one form or another since antiquity. Moreover, the now-fallen dictators promoted a venal system of corruption built on personal access to their own ruling circles. And Mubarak, rather than move society forward by dispensing with a pseudomonarchical state, sought to move it backward by installing his son in power. Mubarak and Ben Ali were dull men, enabled by goons in the security services. The real story in the Middle East these past few months, beyond the toppling of these decrepit regimes, is the possible emergence of authentic constitutional monarchies in places like Morocco and Oman.

Both of these countries, which lie at the two geographical extremities of the Arab world, have not been immune to demonstrations. But the protesters in both cases have explicitly called for reform and democracy within the royal system and have supported the leaders themselves. King Mohammed and Sultan Qaboos have moved vigorously to get out in front of popular demands by reforming their systems instead of merely firing their cabinets. Indeed, over the years, they have championed women’s rights, the environment, the large-scale building of schools and other progressive causes. Qaboos, in particular, is sort of a Renaissance man who plays the lute and loves Western classical music, and who—at least until the celebrations in 2010 marking forty years of his rule—eschewed a personality cult. The characteristics, then, of the benign dictator are evident, at times hewing to propositions set forth by the likes of Berlin: freedom may come as much from stability as from democracy; leaders must adhere to the will of the people, they need not in all cases be chosen by them. Yet in the Middle East these dictators remain the exception to the rule, and this is why quasi monarchies of the iron-fisted Assad or the crazed and tyrannical Qaddafi are now under assault.

THE PLACE where benevolent autocracy has struck deep and has systematic roots is Asia. Any discussion of whether and how democracy can be successfully implemented might, because of the current headlines, begin with the Arab world, but the answers such as there are will, nevertheless, ultimately come in from the East. It is in those Asian lands that conventional Western philosophical precepts are challenged.

The ideology by which Asian autocrats stand in opposition to the likes of Mill and Berlin falls—to some extent—under the rubric of Confucianism. Confucianism is more a sensibility than a political doctrine. It stresses traditional authority, particularly that of the family, as the sine qua non of political tranquility. The well-being of the community takes precedence over that of the individual. Morality is inseparable from one’s social obligation to the kin group and the powers that be. The Western—and particularly the American—tendency is to be suspicious of power and central authority; whereas the Asian tendency is to worry about disorder. Thus, it is in Asia, much more so than in the Middle East, where autocracy can give the Western notion of freedom a good run for its money. The fact that even a chaotic democracy is better than the rule of a Mubarak or a Ben Ali proves nothing. But is a chaotic democracy better than the rule of autocrats who have overseen GDP growth rates of 10 percent annually over the past three decades? It is in places like China, Singapore, Malaysia and Vietnam where good dictators have produced economic miracles. These in turn have led to the creation of wide-ranging personal freedoms, even as these leaders have compelled people against their will on a grand scale. Here the debate gets interesting.

Indeed, probably one of the most morally vexing realizations in the field of international politics is that Deng Xiaoping, by dramatically raising the living standard of hundreds of millions of Chinese in such a comparatively short space of time—which, likewise, led to an unforeseen explosion in personal freedoms across China—was, despite the atrocity of Tiananmen Square that he helped perpetrate, one of the great men of the twentieth century. Deng’s successors, though repressive of political rights, have adhered to his grand strategy of seeking natural resources anywhere in the world, wherever they can find them, caring not with which despots they do business, in order to continue to raise the economic status of their own people. These Chinese autocrats govern in a collegial fashion, number many an engineer and technocrat among them, and observe strict retirement ages: this is all a far cry from the king of Saudi Arabia and the deposed leader of Egypt, sleepy octogenarians both, whose skills for creating modern middle-class societies are for the most part nonexistent.

Park Chung Hee, in the 1960s and 1970s, literally built, institutionalized and industrialized the South Korean state. It was Park Chung Hee’s benign authoritarianism, as much as the democracy that eventually followed him, that accounts for the political-economic powerhouse that is today’s South Korea.

Then, of course, there is the founder of current-day Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew. In 1959, Lee became prime minister of what was then a British colony. He retired from that post over thirty years later (though he continued to exert significant power until very recently). As the British prepared to withdraw in the 1960s, Lee attached Singapore to Malaya, helping to form Malaysia as a bulwark against Indonesian expansionism. When racial tensions between ethnic Malays in the Malay Peninsula and ethnic Chinese in Singapore made the new federation unworkable, Lee seceded and the independent city-state of Singapore was born. When Lee assumed power, Singapore was literally a third-world malarial hellhole beset by ethnic tensions and communist tendencies; it was barely a country in any psychological sense and it certainly could not defend itself against powerful neighbors. Lee turned it into a first-world technological dynamo and transportation hub, with one of the highest living standards worldwide, and with a military that is among the best anywhere pound for pound. Along the way, a strong national consciousness was forged in the vein of a twenty-first-century trading state. Lee’s method of government was not altogether democratic, and his intrusion into people’s lives bordered on the petty and anal-retentive: banning spitting, the use of tobacco and chewing gum. The press, of course, was tightly controlled. Whenever criticized, Lee scoffed at how an uninhibited media in India, the Philippines and Thailand had not spared those countries from rampant corruption; multinationals love Singapore in large measure because of its meritocracy and honest government. Yes, Singapore is green with many parks, and so immaculate it borders on the antiseptic. But it is also a controlled society that challenges ideals of the Western philosophers.

For Lee has provided for the well-being of his citizens without really relying on democracy. His example holds out the possibility, heretical to an enlightened Western mind, that democracy may not be the last word in human political development. What he has engineered in Singapore is a hybrid regime: capitalistic it is, but it all occurred—particularly in the early decades—in a quasi-authoritarian setting. Elections are held, but the results are never in doubt. There may be consultations with various political groupings, yet, in fifty years, there is still little sign that the population is fundamentally unhappy with the ruling People’s Action Party (though its majority has fallen somewhat). Unsurprisingly, Lee makes liberals supremely uncomfortable. Fundamentally Mill, Berlin and many other Western philosophical theorists and political scientists—from Thomas Paine and John Locke to Francis Fukuyama of late—hold that people will eventually wish to wrest themselves from the shackles of repressive rule. That the innate human desire for free will inevitably engenders discontent with the ruling class from below—something we have seen in abundance in the lands of the Arab Spring. Yet, Confucian-based societies see not oppression in reasonably exercised authority but respect; they see lack of political power not as subjugation but as order. Of course, this is provided we are talking about a Deng or a Lee and not a Pol Pot.

To be sure, Asian autocracies are not summarily successful. Elsewhere, political Confucianism is messier. In Malaysia, Mahathir bin Mohamad lifted his people out of abject poverty and easygoing cronyism to mold another high-tech, first-world miracle; but he lacks virtue because of the tactics he employed as methods of control: vicious campaigns against human-rights activists and intimidation of political opponents, which included character assassination. The Vietnamese Communist leadership has lately overseen dynamic economic growth, with, again, the acceleration of personal freedoms, even as corruption and inequalities remain rampant. Think for a moment of Vietnam, a society that has gone from rationing books to enjoying one of the largest rice surpluses in the world in a quarter of a century. It recently graduated in statistical terms to a middle-income country with a per capita GDP of $1,100. Instead of a single personality with his picture on billboards to hate, as has been the case in Egypt, Syria and other Arab countries, there is a faceless triumvirate of leaders—the party chairman, the state president and the prime minister—that has delivered an average of 9 percent growth in GDP annually over the past decade. Nevertheless, Vietnam’s rulers remain fearful of public displays of dissatisfaction spread across the Internet. And there is China: continental in size, it produces vastly different local conditions with which a central authority must grapple. Such grappling puts pressure on a regime to grant more rights to its far-flung subjects; or, that being resisted, to become by degrees more authoritarian. So terrified is its regime of its own version of an Arab Spring that it has gone to absurd lengths to block social media and politically provocative areas of the Web.

HERE IS the dilemma. Yes, a social contract of sorts exists between these citizens and their regimes: in return for impressive economic-growth rates the people agree to forego their desire to replace their leaders. (Truly, East Asian autocracies have not robbed people of their dignity the way Middle Eastern ones have.) But even as such growth rates continue unabated—to say nothing of if they collapse or even slow down—at higher income levels, this social contract may peter out. For as people become middle class, they gain access to global culture and trends, which prompts a desire for political freedoms to go along with their personal ones. This is why authoritarian capitalism may be just a phase, rather than a viable alternative to Western democracy.

To be sure, once the basic issues of food and security have been addressed, pace Mill and Berlin, democracy retains a better possibility of getting it right than autocracy. This is because virtuous autocracies are hard to come by and usually rely on the genius of personality; whereas democracy, regardless of the personalities involved, is systemically better positioned to lead citizenries along the path of development. Of course, we will have to wait until China’s economic growth slows down, or, failing that, continues until enough Chinese have more access to global culture. Only then can we really begin to draw conclusions about whether democracy represents the final triumph of reason in politics.

The genius of both Rome and America lies ultimately in their institutions, which allowed in the first place for their freedoms. True, the history of Rome—and particularly the death of the Roman Republic—is not in the least uplifting relative to the cause of political expression. But it was Rome’s ability to provide a modicum of stability to parts of central Europe and the entire Mediterranean basin—and thus further the cause of personal freedoms (mind you, by the dismal standards of the era)—that is key to its achievement; and something which, in turn, is owed to its imperial superstructure. And as that superstructure became too unwieldy, an emperor like the gruff soldier Diocletian could allow for the division of the empire itself into several administrative parts, thus furthering its life span. America, for its part, is unique in its division of federal, state and local power over a vast continental landscape, allowing for the full expression of its boisterous democracy. Say what you will about the deficiencies of the United States and particularly those of Rome, but they both indicate a very difficult truth central to the outcome of the Arab Spring: it is not about the expressions of freedom in Tahrir Square so much as it is about the building of legitimate institutions to replace illegitimate ones. And because institutions are hierarchical—and social media like Twitterand Facebookdismantle existing hierarchies—revolutions enabled by new technology do not necessarily lead to the building of governing organizations. Criticism is not enough, someone must wield power; hopefully in a way less coercive than before.

Meanwhile, the Arab Spring has raised the pressure on autocrats the world over to truly be good—or at least better. Though, even if they are, they can never ultimately get it right, as demonstrated by Mill’s example of Marcus Aurelius.

Image: Pullquote: As Isaiah Berlin intimates, what follows dictatorial rule will not inevitably further the cause of individual liberty and well-being. Essay Types: Essay