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Crazy rich autocracies: What are they doing better than democracies?

Some authoritarian regimes have figured out open economies, social safety nets, and how to make their people feel more happy and secure. It’s time to pay attention to what they do well.

The Central Business District and the Chinatown in Singapore, which has an autocratic government and is known for its cleanliness and low rates of crime. Edwin Koo/Bloomberg

W hy are we losing our grip on democracy?

It seems that everywhere we turn, from the world’s largest democracy in India , to once-promising democracies in Poland and Hungary , to our own , democracy’s very existence is under massive stress. It’s not just our imagination: Researchers have documented a rise in global democratic backsliding around the world .

Worse, nobody seems to know how to stop the trend of democracies morphing into authoritarian rule.

But Charles Dunst, author of the new book “Defeating the Dictators: How Democracy Can Prevail in the Age of the Strongman,” has an unconventional idea: Study authoritarianism’s considerable appeal.


Successful non-democracies, writes Dunst, an analyst at the Asia Society and the Center for Strategic and International Studies who has contributed several articles to Globe Ideas , are doing some things quite well. They’ve realized that combining transparent and corruption-free authority with an open economy and social safety net makes many of their citizens willing to forget about democracy altogether.

If democracy is going to prevail, he argues, it will have to learn to beat the world’s best autocrats at their own game.

When capitalism and democracy decoupled

The 21st century’s most successful propaganda film might not be China’s blockbuster “ The Battle at Lake Changjin ” or India’s polemical “ The Kashmir Files ” but “Crazy Rich Asians.” Kevin Kwan’s love letter to his homeland made Singapore look and feel like heaven. The city was the film’s uncredited star, stealing scene after scene with its cleanliness, vibrancy, memorable cuisine, and sheer livability.

This, Dunst recognizes, is how authoritarian regimes threaten democracies today — through their promise of a better life. Fifty years ago, democracy proponents could make a pretty easy sales pitch: Should we live in a society of democratic capitalism boasting apple pie and Levi’s jeans on every corner or a communist authoritarian world rich only in brutalist concrete and crushing ennui?


But when the Soviet Union fell, capitalism and democracy decoupled. Authoritarian governments around the world saw that communism was a dead end, so they opened their economies while trying to maintain their political control. In many countries, the transition was disastrous. But places like Vietnam and China made the switch with incredible benefits not just to their economies, but to their people too.

The skyline in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Christopher Pike/Bloomberg

What was their secret? Authoritarian regimes paired economic growth with a healthy dash of liberalism — some transparency, rule of law, and a social safety net. Just enough to sate their high-flying citizenry. That has allowed cities like Abu Dhabi and Singapore to score higher on happiness measures than Paris, Brussels, and most of their other democratic city counterparts.

A spate of recent bestselling books tackle the democracy challenge, but they tend to see authoritarianism as a sort of virus infecting the planet, with each country’s host a would-be demagogue determined to kill off their democracy. “ How Democracies Die ,” by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, showed how this can happen right under the noses of citizens. The message? Be vigilant against those who wish to destroy our country from the inside.

But just as our global crisis with liberalism peaks , a new threat comes not from within or from thoroughly authoritarian adversaries like China, but from quasi-free places with happy citizens and humming economies. Technocratic would-be autocrats need only point to Singapore’s corruption-free system and Dubai’s modern sheen to argue that democracy isn’t essential to societal bliss.


Of course, wealth alone won’t make people forget about freedom of expression or dismiss a longing for political action. And life for non-citizens in such places can be decidedly unhappy, if not outright oppressive. Yet, if Singapore or Dubai can be more livable and efficient than their supposedly superior yet crumbling democratic counterparts, autocracies really do have lessons for how America can build a better society.

They also show democracy proponents just how hard their job will be in the years to come.

For a government to maintain support, it must deliver on the basic promises of good governance. These include accountability and trust, good infrastructure and a safety net, and improving human capital — in short, building a society that helps people succeed but also lends a helping hand if they stumble. It’s no coincidence that some of the world’s best democracies (like Norway) and best autocracies (like Singapore) score highly on these criteria, and that democracies that slip, like the United States, see authoritarian creep.

But here’s the real trick that governments like Singapore’s have pulled off. It’s not that they run things well enough that their people don’t revolt against a one-party state, but that they run things well enough that most people don’t bother to think about politics at all. In today’s hyper-polarized society, how can that not sound attractive?

So how do we beat an autocratic sales pitch for what makes the most effective, secure, and livable societies? Even though authoritarian regimes are still more likely to commit abuses, the days of seeing things as good vs. evil are over. This is especially true for people who have fallen through the cracks of underperforming capitalist democracies.


The best way to counteract this trend, then, isn’t by blindly saying democracies will always be better, but by showing how autocracies place an iron ceiling on any country’s prospects. Democracies almost always outperform their authoritarian counterparts when they pursue similar good governance policies. For example, a democracy delivers better human development than an autocracy if the democracy is long-standing and legitimate .

Why? When citizens are allowed to pressure their governments for change, those governments make more positive changes for their citizens.

In other words, a true and well-performing democracy provides the richest soil for societies to bloom.

Dunst makes a convention-busting argument “for democracies to beat autocracy both within and abroad by learning to perform and deliver for our people once again.” It’s undoubtedly a tall order, but it is perhaps the most essential part of the democracy equation.

We’re quite prolific at promoting democracy abroad. But it’s equally important to remind ourselves what democracy, done right, can do for us in its best guises. It’s a lesson worth re-teaching every generation.

Jason Miklian is senior researcher at the Center for Development and the Environment at the University of Oslo and co-author of “The Vortex: A True Story of History’s Deadliest Storm, an Unspeakable War, and Liberation.”