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Definition: autocracy from Philip's Encyclopedia

System of government in which a single person or small group of people wields absolute power. It is imposed and generally aimed at furthering the interests of specific individuals or groups. The term is applied usually to those regimes which came before the development of modern technology and state institutions which made totalitarianism possible.

Summary Article: AUTOCRACY from The Encyclopedia of Public Choice

Historically democracy has been a rather unusual form of government. At the moment about half of the human race lives under a democratic government with the poverty stricken citizens of India making up almost half of that half. This is historically unusual, but not unique. Many of the Greek city states, Rome in its early years, and most of the Phoenician city states were democracies with sharply restricted franchises. In addition, of the current non-democratic nations, almost all are dictatorships. This is also unusual. Mainly, autocratic governments have been hereditary monarchies. It seems likely that the existing dictatorships if they do not become democracies, will shift to hereditary monarchies in time. At the moment the rulers of North Korea, the area which used to be the Belgian Congo, and Syria are relatives of the previous autocrat. Libya, Iraq and Cuba show signs of moving in the same direction.

Since most of the existing autocracies are not hereditary, I will start by discussing them and then turn to hereditary monarchies later. The first thing to be said about non-hereditary dictators is that they have obtained their position by climbing the slippery pole. They are normally highly intelligent, personally brave, because the contest for dictatorships is dangerous, and rather unscrupulous. They have proven their mastery of intrigue and battle, albeit the battle is mainly within the bureaucracy. Still a number of them have engaged in the kind of battle in the bureaucracy which sometimes is fatal. Almost all of them have been efficient in disposing of their rivals by deadly or less than deadly means.

In all this is hardly a selection process that will lead to the noble and just reaching ultimate control. Still there is no reason to believe that the winners have bad motives. They are unusually ambitious, but not necessarily wicked in any other respect. They are as likely to choose a government policy that will benefit those subjected to the dictatorship as is a democratically elected president. In both cases intelligence, energy, ambition, and a lack of too many scruples are necessary. Once he has achieved power the autocrat will realize that the higher officials in his government would like to replace him. They are the instruments that he must use in governing but they are also his rivals. Keeping the system balanced so that he makes use of their talents while preventing one of them from making use of him as a stepping stone to ultimate power for himself is a difficult task, and one which he must master if he is to stay in power. Of course any knowledge of the history of such autocracies will show that not all of them succeed in that task.

Normally such a dictator has the best interest of his country and his citizens in mind, but it must necessarily take second-place to protecting his power. In this sense he is like a democratic president. The president normally aims at the good of his country, but he normally is more concerned with winning the next election. The two objectives do not necessarily conflict, but when they do, the president is apt to give winning election priority. Similarly a dictator will give preventing a coup or revolution priority over simply benefiting his subjects.

One thing that should be kept in mind dealing with either hereditary or non-hereditary autocrats is that their attitude to what are commonly called public goods is radically different than that of the ordinary person. For them many public goods are actually private goods. An improved road can be regarded as a public good from the standpoint of the citizens or the economic analysis, but it may increase the wealth or security of the autocrat and hence is a private good from his standpoint. This is of course one of the reasons why autocrats in fact provide so much in the way of public goods.

This should not be oversimplified, however. The autocrat like a democratic politician is aware of the fact that the road will benefit the country as a whole but also special-interest groups in it. Thus like a democratic politician he selects the public goods in part in terms of what they will do in benefiting influential individuals and groups who may repay that benefit by support. It is doubtful that by simply examining the road network or other collections of government expenditures on public goods one would be able to tell whether the government was a dictatorship or a democracy. If the democracy is not particularly corrupt, one could tell by examining such things as the Swiss bank accounts of the “President.”

Examining the personal life of the ruler is usually one way of telling whether he is a president or dictator. The dictator has far more facilities to keep things secret than does an elected president. He can have a spectacular mistress or even a harem, palaces much more elaborate than the White House, and take long vacations without the public finding out about them. Of course if he wishes to stay in power he will find that leaving his government to take care of itself for any length of time is likely to lead to his being replaced by one of his high-ranking subordinates.

The Oriental myth in which the ruler sits under a bare sword supported only by a thread is not a bad description of the life of such an autocrat. Many autocrats, Stalin and Mao Sze Dung are examples, have died naturally. Many others have died either by assassination or as the result of a successful coup. Finding it necessary to retire and live on their illicit gains in some place safer than their own country is also quite common. Trying to arrange a peaceful succession followed by a luxurious retirement is difficult.

The conventional wisdom assumes that dictators provide bad government. In the earlier part of my life, particularly during the 1960s, however, the orthodoxy held that certain dictators; specifically Stalin and Mao Sze Dung provided very much better governments than capitalist democracies. Many intellectuals genuinely believed that Ho Chi Min would give a better government than would any elected alternative. Yet, all such favored autocrats were mass murderers and all of them favored an economic system which, if at the time was fashionable, is now realized to be seriously defective. Ho's rivals in the South were victimized by street riots in the United States, that eventually led successive American governments to abandon them. In the case of one of them, Diem, President Kennedy actually organized a coup to get rid of him. Altogether uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.

We now turn to the more common type autocracy, the hereditary monarchy. It should be kept in mind that hereditary monarchies, if more stable than dictatorships, are by no means free of risk. Most of the readers of this encyclopedia will be more familiar with English history than other monarchies, and, as it happens, the English throne was one of the least stable in Europe. It was decidedly uncommon in England for a great-grandson to succeed to the throne peacefully. Most monarchies have been able to pass on their power with less difficulty so that three generations after the founder are reasonably common.

The hereditary king is in personality and ability quite different from the man who was fought his way up the slippery pole to dictatorship. In the first place the accidents of human heredity mean that the son of extraordinarily capable and ambitious person may well be quite stupid and lazy. Louis XVI seems to have been not very much above a moron in intellectual ability. He used to fall asleep at cabinet meetings. Since the United States was given its independence by his support, I suppose we should refrain from criticisms, though he was quickly abandoned by Thomas Jefferson once his purpose had been served. From the standpoint of France, however, Louis XVI was a disaster.

Of course, some hereditary monarchs are of outstanding capacity. Alexander the Great is an excellent example. But on the average hereditary monarchs do not have intellectual or character capacity greater than that of the average citizen. Typically, they receive special training as children intended to prepare them for royal careers. Unfortunately, this special training may educate them in expensive and entertaining ways of spending leisure time as well as in how to govern. In some cases, in fact training in luxury takes full priority over training intended to increase the competence of the future monarch. All this is rather similar to the training of the only son of a wealthy and powerful man in an open society. Altogether the hereditary monarch is quite a different person from the dictator who has achieved power by competition. It is not obvious which of them is better from the standpoint of the average citizen.

“The Prince” is largely devoted to advice to a sovereign ruler on how to retain power. Napoleon liked to keep his generals quarreling. Machiaveli would surely have approved. Mussolini moved his higher officials around and put some of them out of government for lengthy periods. He called this “changing the guard”. Once again he would have met the approval of the author of “The Prince”. Indeed most rulers do rotate the armed men who provide physical security. In Stalin's time the secret police officers who guarded him and his higher officials would not know where they were to serve on a given day nor with whom they would be serving. These two things were determined by random draws so that they could not conspire in advance to admit dangerous persons.

Precautions like these are more frequently encountered among non-hereditary autocracies than among hereditary monarchies. Nevertheless, crown princes have killed their fathers and dynasties have been overthrown. So at least some precautions are always necessary. It is not obvious that the cost of guarding an autocrat is greater than the cost of guarding presidents and legislatures. Indeed it seems likely that the total cost in terms of office space, living space when that is provided, and guards in Washington is greater than the equivalent cost in Berlin during the Third Reich. The guards serve a different purpose of course. The president does not fear assassination by a senator but by a conspiracy of low ranking people. Nevertheless he requires guards and so do the Senators, Congressman, and high civil servants.

The decision processes in democracies and in autocracies are quite different. In general, policy debates are conducted rather quietly in autocracies whereas they make a lot of noise in democracies. Further although autocrats sometimes tell their cabinet to vote on policies, the final decision is theirs. There is a myth that when Lincoln proposed the emancipation proclamation his cabinet all voted against. Lincoln then said, “Passed unanimously.” This is a myth but it does show the power that a central single person can have even in so-called democracies.

That the common man has little influence on policies in autocracies is normally regarded as a disadvantage of that form of government. There are, however, a number of cases in which democracies have been overthrown by autocrats with popular support. Both of the Napoleon's carried off such an operation. So did Mussolini. Normally however autocracies are established by well entrenched and armed minorities that displace democracies by means of coups d'etat.

The view that democracy is better than autocracy is a current orthodoxy. There are cases where everyone favors the autocracy. The citizens of Rome and modern historians think that Augustus Caesar provide a better government than the late Republic. Gibbon lists the period of the adoptive emperors as the happiest time in the history of the human race. Not everyone is as enthusiastic, but it must be admitted that they gave very good government. One of them was also a philosopher of such importance that his work is still taught in modern universities.

There appear to have been three comparatively short periods in which democracy was common before modern times. It is not clear but it looks as if the first civilization, Sumer, had democratic aspects; but these were quickly extinguished. The second was a classical period of Greece Rome and Phoenicia. This ended when the Roman Republic conquered the bulk of the other democratic systems. It itself was replaced by emperors. The third case is a large collection of democratically governed city-states in the Middle Ages. Most but not all of these were replaced by 1600 or earlier. Altogether autocracies were the dominant to form of government until very recently. Whether they will continue to account for about half of all governments, or rise to complete dominance or fall back to a minority form of government is uncertain. I have my own preferences; but there is no evidence that these preferences will prevail.

  • Tullock, G. (1974). The Social Dilemma: The Economics of War and Revolution. Center for Study of Public Choice Blacksburg.
  • Tullock, G. (1987). Autocracy. Kluwer Academic Publishers Dordrecht.
    © 2004 by Kluwer Academic Publishers

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