Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Benevolent Dictators

I previously blogged about Musharraf Pervez, the former president of Pakistan who rose to power during a bloodless coup, and I presented his administration as possessing a mixture of conflicting traits. Was Musharraf a benevolent dictator, compelled by circumstances to impose martial law and suspend the judiciary? Or was he personally corrupt, and did he institute political reforms and combat corruption only because he was compelled to? To what extent do the policies of heads of state reflect their personal values?

Bruce Bueno De Mesquita argues compellingly that policies most closely reflect the nature and structure of political institutions, not the characters of politicians.

All political leaders achieve and maintain power through the help of a winning coalition. This is simply a group of people who together have sufficient power and influence to seize control of the political apparatus, either through legal or extralegal means. The term ‘dictator’ grossly oversimplifies the system of corruption and patronage that binds the winning coalition together. Robert Bolt characterized this relationship between a leader and his allies when he depicted Henry VIII as declaring, “…there are those like Master Cromwell who follow me because they are jackals with sharp teeth and I am their lion.” The members of the winning coalition maintain the dictator in power because he dispenses patronage in the form of wealth, political appointment, and advantage in business.

It is just as true for democratically elected leaders as it is for dictators that they must appease the winning coalition that maintains them in power. The difference is in the composition of the winning coalition in democratic political systems vs. dictatorial political systems. Under feudalism the winning coalition consists of a group of regional war lords who control land and armies. Henry VIII’s winning coalition included reformation-minded clergy and an emerging merchant class, as well as the sons of the “blood-witted barons” of feudal times. In democratic societies, a winning coalition must include a large chunk of the voting population, so naturally the dynamics of that coalition are different from the dynamics of a coalition of a few powerful warlords.

 In all cases, the Leader must provide patronage to the members of the winning coalition in order to retain their support. Under democracy this means broad-based programs of social welfare. Consequently, even the the most savage-minded politician must spend heavily on public programs if he wishes to retain office in a democratic system. Conversely, in political systems where power is concentrated into a small number of hands the Leader must spend heavily to pay off those few powerful people who constitute a winning coalition. In such systems even the most fair-minded politician must rule in corruption, or be deposed.

 Don't forget: the people who succeed in politics are those who are willing to do what is necessary to succeed.

But are heads of state fully captured by their respective winning coalitions? What good then is it to be a president or a king? In truth, they are not fully captive. Leaders have a certain amount of political capital left over after they have paid off their coalition. It is the choices they make with this discretionary political capital that reveals their true nature. Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos used their discretionary political capital to rob the public coffers, while Mao engaged in massive social experiments. Arguably, Mao did more harm to more people, but his motives were perhaps purer.

An example to summarize with: what made the difference between Leopold II's benevolent rule in Belgium and his murderous rule in the Congo? The political institutions in place in each country. In Belgium, Leopold instituted classically liberal policies because his winning coalition was very large and could only be kept content with broad spending on social programs. In the Congo Leopold's power base was very small, essentially just a handful of warlords exactly equivalent to the blood-witted barons of feudalism. Consequently, his administration there was suitably medieval.

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