There’s this tendency to associate autocratic leaders with economic prosperity but that couldn’t be further from the truth. A new study analyzed economies under the rule of dictators from all over the world in the last 150 years and found that dictators are most often linked to weaker economies than democratic states.
“In an era where voters are willingly trading their political freedoms in exchange for promises of strong economic performance to strongman figures like Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin or Recep Tayyip Erdogan, it’s important to understand whether autocratic leaders do deliver economic growth,” Dr. Ahmed Skali, an economist at RMIT University, said in a statement.
“Our empirical results show no evidence that autocratic leaders are successful at delivering economic growth in any systematic way.”
It is true that some dictators have had some very good runs. Lee Kuan Yew, who ruled Singapore with an iron fist between 1959 and 1990, oversaw a flourishing economy (6.50x increase in GDP per capita since taking office) in a nation that would later become the seat of Asia’s best health and education systems. Then there’s Sayyid Muhammad Idris bin Muhammad al-Mahdi, the king of the United Kingdom of Libya, who ruled his country from 1951 to 1969. During that period, Libya’s economy saw a 9.78x increase in GDP per capita.
However, Skali and colleagues at RMIT University and Victoria University have found that the vast majority of autocratic rules are associated with weaker economies. Autocrats whose countries experienced larger than average economic growth were found only as frequently as you would predict based on chance alone. Meanwhile, autocrats overseeing poor economic growth were more frequently found than a coin toss would predict.
“Taken together, these two results cast serious doubt on the view that autocratic leaders are successful at promoting economic growth,” Skali said.
Besides economic growth, the researchers also analyzed the effects of other areas of policy, such as whether autocratic leaders were good at reducing unemployment or improvement healthcare than their democratic peers. “That was not the case,” Skali said.
What’s more, the researchers found little to no evidence that dictators directly had any influence on their country’s growth trajectories in the 5-10 years after taking power. So it seems that even successful dictators that oversaw growing economies just found themselves in the right place at the right time. In contrast, the economies of poor countries run by autocratic leaders dropped quickly and significantly after the dictator came to power.
In other words, dictators seem to have had little positive influence on their countries but tended to have a lot of influence when it came to driving down their nation’s economies and public services.
If this is true, why are so many people fond of dictators and the ‘good times’ under their rule? Victoria University behavioral economist Stephanie Rizio, one of the study’s co-authors, explains that humans, as social primates, are inclined to accept and even seek out the authority of a single individual — the alpha primate.
“Perhaps this is why we routinely attribute group-level outcomes to the actions of leaders, even when leaders have no control over outcomes, which may lead us to be accepting of autocratic leadership styles,” she said.
The study is published during a time of rising “strongman” figures in the world’s political scene, such as Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan or Hungary’s Viktor Orbán. As more and more people subscribe to autocratic views, these findings should serve as a wake-up call.