Cause and Effect in European Politics and Law

Authoritarianism Cannot be a Role Model. Period!

Adelina Marini, August 20, 2014

There are not a few temptations to search for reasons why authoritarian government models are successful in the economy. Quite a lot of articles, research and books have been written already about the successes of totalitarian economies. The latest publication on the matter is a comment by respected Reuters columnist Edward Hadas. In an article titled "Do autocrats and strong economies go hand in hand?", he cites the decision of voters, for instance in Turkey, to support an authoritarian leader like Recep Tayyip Erdogan only because he provides them with prosperity. If Chinese President Xi Jinping would ever decide to hold elections, it is very likely the Chinese to support him despite the fact that he seems much more authoritarian than his predecessors, Mr Hadas presumes.

In Russia, President Putin, too, enjoys a growing popular support despite his now undoubtedly totalitarian image. And the numbers, indeed, count in such a temptation. Throughout most of the time in the past two decades, Turkey's gross domestic product has been growing with a solid pace. Erdogan has been in power for 13 years and during that period the only decline of the economy was in 2009 because of the global financial crisis. Similar is the situation in Russia, although it is growing with much more modest pace. These two states, however, are authoritarian democracies while China is a pure authoritarian regime, which enjoys tangibly higher numbers of growth. Since 2009, according to World Bank data, the Chinese economy has been growing by more than 7% every year, as there were periods of double digit growth in the past two decades. The standard of living of the citizens in the three states has doubled and in some cases it has grown more times in a decade.

Edward Hadas calls the new totalitarian regimes neo-authoritarianism and provides arguments in support of the thesis that these regimes have much more serious economic successes than the liberal economies. According to him, if an authoritarian government is well-intentioned and competent its ability to act could deliver some serious economic difference. Unlike the liberal democracies which sometimes produce non-productive balances as is the case in the USA, for example. There, President Barack Obama is often blocked by the Republicans in Congress and mainly by the much more conservative movement within the Republican party - the Tea Party. And the US is not the only example where economic development is a victim of inter-party bickering and disagreements. In spite of the democratic blockade, though, the American economy is growing and unemployment is falling.

Neo-authoritarianism, Edward Hadas writes, has big disadvantages, too, stemming from the lack of restraining factors like, for instance, strong non-governmental organisations that fight against corruption and graft. Today's "strong leaders" are much less megalomaniacal than Hitler and Stalin but, nonetheless, they are still prone to grandiose ambitions. Besides, generally, these regimes do not have economic goals but others. Putin and Xi are nationalists, while Erdogan has a cultural and regional agenda, writes the Reuters columnist. According to him, the new authoritarian economies "probably" have more negatives than positives, "That, however, does not mean the arrangement is doomed", concludes the author.

After I read this article I expressed outrage on Twitter that positives of authoritarian regimes are even discussed because they have too big records of human rights violations and oppressions against the achievements of the human civilisation after thousands of years of evolution. My indignation attracted Mr Hadas for discussion. We started it on the social network and then we finished it by exchanging e-mails. He suggested that I might not have understood well the point of the article and presumed it could be his fault. He explained that to many liberal economists the authoritarian regimes are economically doomed but that this is to some extent wishful thinking because it is evident that authoritarian regimes can manage economies well for decades. And here, indeed, the World Bank data serve as evidence. The neo-authoritarian economies are much more different than the communist economies, lile the Bulgarian before 1989, Mr Hadas continued. They are even much more like the modern liberal economies because they have a strong state interest, strong private companies, some private enterprises are strongly encouraged.

Compared to liberal economy, the neo-authoritarian regimes have pluses and minuses as for the time being the minuses prevail. This, however, can change if dictators find a way how to avoid paranoia and megalomania which create economic conflicts and wasteful investments. Edward Hadas also told me he omitted the political aspect in his column because the article was supposed to be an economic. "If we want to oppose authoritarian governments (and I do, I really do), we should do so directly, because they are oppressive. We should not hide behind economic arguments, which we may not win", he concluded.

I completely agree and this should have been included in the article, because I believe that it is very dangerous to talk about the positives of the totalitarian approach. Despite the famous remark "It's the economy, stupid!", the economy is not everything. Beyond it there are a lot and very important human achievements like fundamental rights and liberties, rule of law, respect for minorities, freedom of speech and expression, which can only thrive in a democratic environment. If a full fledged comparison is made between liberal democracies and authoritarian regimes, it will show very clearly that the achievements of the former are incomparably more than the enviable economic growth of the latter. Moreover, in spite of the economic downturns, the democratic economies are much more sustainable while the authoritarian economies risk a collapse if the dictator is gone.

Totalitarian and authoritarian regimes, as well as communist dictatorships, have been condemned in a special resolution of the European Parliament in 2009 precisely because of the many crimes against humanity they perpetrated. There is no economic price that would be worth paying to limit fundamental rights and freedoms.

Authoritarian and totalitarian regimes need to be treated in the same vein as the Holocaust. Today, decades later, it is perceived as a sign of aggression to diminish the Holocaust. In the same way, I believe, it is a matter of deep disrespect for the victims of totalitarian regimes to discuss any positives someone might see in them. This is completely irresponsible, especially bearing in mind that the economic success of dictatorships or authoritarian democracies is already attracting copy cats. And that is happening in the Mecca of liberal democracy and market economy - Europe - less than 30 years since the fall of the Berlin wall - a milestone in European history.

In July, Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban quoted namely the economic successes of countries like China, Turkey and Russia while unveiling his plans to reject liberal democracy to the benefit of an illiberal new regime. His argumentation is not purely economic, but he views the 2008 crisis as a tipping point, just like the first and second world wars, for a regime change. We live in very instable times when taboos and illusions are being broken. However, the crimes of totalitarian regimes are not an illusion, but a fact. I have no reasons to believe that the new totalitarian regimes are much of a difference. They need to be condemned not encouraged. Behind the numbers there are real people some of whom have never enjoyed the benefits of solid economic growth because they dared to have a different opinion and who wanted to live on the basis of rules not on the basis of the dictator's bidding.

Talking about the positives of totalitarianism is very dangerous in countries with fragile democracy as most of the the new EU member states are. In some of them, because of systemic poverty people start remembering some illusionary benefits in the past and vote for populist and often xenophobic or nationalistic political formations. This is happening today even in sustainable democracies in Europe.

That is why, the authoritarian regimes should be condemned no matter of their ostensibly good achievements because these achievements have a cost. This cost, though, is not measured in GDP percentage points but in human lives. As we say in Bulgaria, in the house of the hung you do not talk about rope. I agree that we need a debate about how to repair our economies and how to return the perspectives of prosperity. This, however, should not be for the sake of liberal democracy and market economy. The path behind us is proved to be the wrong one.