Benevolent dictators versus leaders with personality

Do benevolent dictators exist? And do democratically elected leaders always deliver better outcomes for their peoples? Authoritarian North Korea has unequivocally not delivered economic benefits for its citizens in the way that more democratic neighbours have. But recently, China’s mix of authoritarianism with a pinch of capitalism seems to at least be delivering growth, although whether its people are truly benefiting from it is another question. Democracy can certainly be a messy business, and can be slow too – witness the US’s difficulties in agreeing its budget in 2011: a process that almost resulted in Government being “shut down”.

The Limited Power of Voting to Limit Power, by researchers Hong Geng, Arne Robert Weiss and Irenaeuss Wolff describes the results of some experiments designed to examine how the way leaders behave when they are in power is affected by how they got there. First of all, some caveats: these are stylised experiments, with small groups of people, that ignore the possibility of re-election. In addition, some of the effects the researchers found are small relative to the sample sizes: but the fact that the same effects were seen across experiments with both Chinese and German participants suggests some interesting patterns:

1) Leaders who didn’t have to go through an election process (i.e. were dictators) were no more selfish that those who were elected.

2) Candidates who competed on personalities rather than election pledges were more selfish when they got into power, and less likely to “govern” in the interests of the voters.

The latter result is particularly interesting, especially given the concern that politics has become more personality-based, with politicians expected to show their human side: smiley politicians have an advantage over more dour rivals. The authors of this paper suggest that being elected on the basis of personality could induce a feeling of self-entitlement in the new leader, that isn’t present when someone has been elected solely because of their election pledges and promises. 

By contrast, the first result, on the possible existence of benevolent dictators, seems less likely to be a general result. In the real-world, it seems likely that dictators also have a sense of self-entitlement, either because they were brought up to the job within a political dynasty, or because they have accomplished some feat to wrest power by other means. These effects are hard to replicate in a stylised experiment.

But is there anything we can do to move away from personality-based politics? In a world where it takes time and effort to compare manifestos, personalities can seem, and probably are, a short-cut to making a decision about who to vote for. And differences in policies and their effects are difficult to get a handle on, and not helped by the way they are presented by different politicians. Is it even reasonable to expect voters not to be interested in politicians’ lives and personalities?

The full paper is here.

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