Dictators and democrats: selected and edited from the Inroads listserv.

Author:Chodos, Bob

Are there times when dictatorship is a better option than democracy? The combination of a provocative David Brooks column in the New York Times and the dysfunctional politics of Bangladesh (see page 130) sparked a debate on this topic on the Inroads listserv in February. Some highlights follow.

From: John Richards | February 9

David Brooks is one of the New York Times journalists I read regularly. On February 7 he wrote about Machiavelli and drone strikes against terrorists in Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan, etc. He continued with a speculation about human nature and politics:

When Barack Obama was a senator, he wasn't compelled to confront the brutal logic of leadership. Now in office, he's thrown into the Machiavellian world. He's decided, correctly, that we are in a long war against Al Qaeda; that drone strikes do effectively kill terrorists; that, in fact, they inflict fewer civilian deaths than bombing campaigns, boots on the ground or any practical alternative; that, in fact, civilian death rates are dropping sharply as the C.I.A. gets better at this. Acting brutally abroad saves lives at home. Still, there's another aspect of Machiavellian thought relevant to the drone debate. This is a core weakness in his thought. He puts too much faith in the self-restraint of his leaders. Machiavelli tells us that men are venal self-deceivers, but then he gives his Prince permission to do all these monstrous things, trusting him not to get carried away or turn into a monster himself. Our founders were more careful. Our founders understood that leaders are as venal and untrustworthy as anybody else. They abhorred concentrated power, and they set up checks and balances to disperse it. Our drone policy should take account of our founders' superior realism. Drone strikes are so easy, hidden and abstract. There should be some independent judicial panel to review the kill lists. There should be an independent panel of former military and intelligence officers issuing reports on the program's efficacy. If you take Machiavelli's tough-minded view of human nature, you have to be brutal to your enemies--but you also have to set up skeptical checks on the people you empower to destroy them. I am currently working in Bangladesh. I will not bore you with details of this country's politics except to say it feels far closer in political culture to 16th-century Florence than to 21st-century Scandinavia. My own conclusion is that it would be better for Bangladeshi to gamble on a benign prince--who admittedly may not turn out benign--than on democracy for the time being. But I am a foreigner and I do not speak publicly of this.

Meanwhile, is Brooks right to defend drone strikes? Is the East Asian version of authoritarian development inherently inferior or superior to the--very flawed--version of democracy practised in South Asia? Can democracy as we respect it truly function in any country with low literacy and a per capita GDP less than 10 per cent of Canada's? I'm interested in hearing from those who teach and study political philosophy.

From: Jan Narveson | February 9

As a longtime student of democracy, I definitely agree that democracy (that is, giving people the vote and letting that determine who rules) is not a good idea for all cases. Certainly low literacy and poverty are prime inhibitors of whatever democracy does have going for it. But also, everyone should have firmly in mind the amazing case of Hong Kong, which under very liberal and benevolent British despotism for 54 years became one of the wealthiest and freest nations in Asia. This was by no means an illiterate nation, though it was desperately poor at the start (that is, after the Japanese surrender in 1945). We could learn a lot from that case, I think.

From: Philip Resnick | February 10

There is the Machiavelli of The Prince, with his realpolitik view of the nature of princely rule. And there is the Machiavelli of The Discourses, with his extolling of the virtue of a republic, specifically the Roman Republic, as a far superior form of government. Which is the real Machiavelli? Princes and their advisers have naturally leaned towards the former; re publicans, and their democratic counterparts, naturally to the latter.

Are enlightened rulers to be preferred to flawed democracies? The 18th century had its share of enlightened despots--Frederick, Catherine, Joseph II--and their intellectual defenders, such as Voltaire. But deeper wisdom lay with Montesquieu, who in The Spirit of the Laws distinguished three types of regime. Republics at their best were characterized by virtue, monarchies by honour, and tyrannies by...

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