The False Allure of Authoritarianism

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One interesting side-effect of the pandemic currently sweeping the globe is that it’s giving a good name to authoritarianism.

Suddenly our political leaders, from city councillors to premiers, to prime ministers, are being hailed by society as heroes because they’re implementing draconian measures aimed at ruthlessly stamping out anything remotely resembling improper social distancing.

The more they’ve emulated Joseph Stalin in this regard the more we like them.

Consider, for instance, how his bold handling of the virus crisis has totally revamped the image of Ontario Premier Doug Ford.

Recall, that just a few months ago the mainstream media was portraying Ford as an oafish, callous, incompetent barbarian who took perverse pleasure in gutting the province’s precious social programs.

Now, by contrast, in the eyes of the media, he’s the toast of the town, he’s a Winston-Churchill-style statesman, he’s a man even the left-wing Toronto Star is praising.

Why the change?

Well, it’s because Ford took quick and decisive action to implement emergency measures that essentially shut down Ontario’s economy and placed virtually the entire population under house arrest.

Now, don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying Ford did anything wrong.

After all, in doing what he did, Ford may have helped to blunt the impact of the virus in Ontario – in short, he acted like a strong leader at a time when we needed a strong leader.

And yes, in times of crisis we want leaders to cut through the red tape, we want leaders to rise above all the petty bickering and stalemates that often mark democratic politics, we want leaders who will take forceful and immediate actions to keep us safe.

It’s a part of human nature.

Indeed, the ancient Roman republic incorporated this sentiment into its political system.

Whenever the republic faced a serious threat, the Senate would grant to one of its members full dictatorial powers for a period of six months.

So yes, for both practical and emotional reasons, authoritarianism is sometimes needed.

Yet, there’s also an inherent danger in flirting with dictatorial rule; once leaders get a taste of despotic power, they often don’t want to give it up.

The Roman republic, for example, basically ended when Julius Caesar decided to declare himself “Dictator for life.”

What’s more, there’ll always be those who’ll prefer dictatorship to democracy, arguing if an authoritarian ruler can more efficiently solve serious problems in times of crisis, it can also more efficiently solve serious problems in times when things are good.

In fact, thousands of years ago, the Greek philosopher Plato denounced Athenian democracy as anarchic and argued that society would be better off if only the wisest ruled.

It’s a mindset that has even lasted into our modern age.

Keep in mind in the 1930s people would praise Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini for making “the trains run on time.”

Or more recently, there’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s famous comment about how he admired the efficiency of China’s communist dictatorship.

But are dictatorships really more efficient than democracies?

Maybe they are in the short term, but I’d argue the evidence suggests that, for all its faults and problems, a free market democracy, based on individual freedoms is still the most efficient system for running a society.

And to prove my case, I’m going to cite economist, Friedrich Hayek, who is famous for coming up with his theory of “spontaneous order.”

Simply put, Hayek argued that since national economies were so extremely complex and had so many complicated moving parts, the only way to efficiently set prices and allocates resources was to allow individuals to make their own economic decisions based on their own economic self-interests.

Let the magic of supply and demand do its thing.

Such a system, Hayek argued, was much more efficient than a command economy, one where some dictator or government committee decided upon economic priorities, since such decisions were often based on either imperfect information or on whims rather than on the needs of the people.

The collapse of the Soviet Union helped prove Hayek’s case.

Of course, the other advantage of democracy is that we can replace our rulers and reform our institutions without resorting to violence.

So my point is, even though it’s natural in these scary times to sing the praises of authoritarian rule, let’s keep things in perspective.

In the long run, democracy and free markets will keep us safe and prosperous.

And yes, I know such a view might seem obvious, but given the current mood of the world, I just think we need a little reminder.

Photo Credit: CBC News

More from Gerry Nicholls.     @GerryNic

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