Monday, July 18, 2011

Montequieu's Guide for Dictators

Dictators have been around for as long as we have had civilization. How do these dictatorships arise?  Do we ever have a need for dictators?  How do they stay in power?

Some societies, such as republican Rome, actually had laws establishing temporary dictatorships in desperate times.  In general, however, a dictator has concentrated all the government's power and this usually leads to bad governance and diminished liberty for the masses.   There is rarely anything good about living under a dictatorship. 

When is it appropriate to have a dictator? 

Montesquieu clearly does not support despotic governments, but he does admit that a given group of people need to find the form of government that is best suited for their particular needs.  The best government for a people depends on their own local situation (climate, industry, farming, religion, degree of liberty they can tolerate, manners, custom, commerce, etc).  For example, Montesquieu states taxes can be lower in a dictatorship since people has less liberty.  Conversely, democracies can tolerate the highest taxes because they have the greatest liberty. 

Montesquieu also states that the size of the country is important.  He states that it is, "the natural property of small states to be governed as a republic, of middling ones to be subject to a monarch, and or large empires to swayed by a despotic prince." Therefore a large country is easier to control as a dictator.

 I once had a friend from Pakistan who was telling me about why her country would never have a true democracy.  She said that it would just not work with their values.  It is easy to say that Pakistan and other  countries without pure democracies are backward.  However, we have to recognize that democracy may not be the best form of government all the time, for everyone. There is probably a good reason why the people in Pakistan cannot tolerate that kind of liberty and freedom that other democracies enjoy.  In fact the rest of the world may be better off having a less democratic Pakistan. 

According to Montesquieu, the key to a successful despotic government is maintaining fear in your subjects.  This is not a new idea; Machiavelli said that for a prince it was better to be feared that to be loved.  If people do not fear you they may rise against your government.  This is similar to the mutual fear that everyone has in the "state of nature".  Therefore, maybe dictators provide true equality?  No one is above suspicion....

Advantages to a dictatorship

Having Montesquieu's roles of executive, legislative and judicial concentrated in one individual allows the dictator to move decisively and unilaterally. This can be highly advantageous in desperate times, such as in war or when fighting a rebellion.  Dictatorships are also useful for smaller countries as Montesquieu explains, "Thence it follows that petty states have oftener a right to declare war than great ones, because they are oftener in the case of being afraid of destruction." Therefore weaker states (Germany and Japan in WW2, North Korea today) are more likely to wage war because their needs require this and it is justified - and also a dictatorship helps.

Modern Dictators

There are many well-known dictators today (Kim jong il of North Korea; Bashar al-Assad of Syria; Muammar Gaddafi of Libya, etc). All these dictators need to maintain fear in the populace to retain power.  Therefore, if they lose this attribute they will lose the ability to control to masses. An example of this is the "Arab Spring" in Syria and other countries. In Syria, Assad one day brutally suppressed protesters and the next day made vacuous concessions. He thereby diminished his ability to promote fear in the populace by weakening his position. The police have reflected this lack of authority by no longer issuing citations.  A dictator can never appear weak, lack confidence or be reluctant to use force, as per Montesquieu. 

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