Monday, March 08, 2010

Why Does Benevolent Dictatorship Have To Be An Oxymoron?

It all started with a link I shared on my facebook page a few days ago, to an article from The Economist on the US healthcare bill and the challenges before the Obama administration in getting the job done. In the comments that followed, we discussed the inability of democracies in general to take strong decisive action quickly, and how differently something like the healthcare bill might have played out in a place like China. Somewhere along the line the topic turned to dictatorships and I posed the question that forms the title for this post. My question sparked off a debate in the ensuing comments and that's when I thought that an open blog is a better place to have that debate than a restricted facebook page. But before I got into open debate on this subject, I wanted to conduct a small experiment. I wanted to find out if people thought about this question in the same manner as I did.

Could it be that my question is misunderstood to be an assertion that a dictatorship can never be benevolent? That's not what I had meant, but it occurred to me that if I had used the word "did" instead of "does" it might have given than impression. Could it be that the question as it now stands is being confused with another question -- one with "did" in place of "does"? I wasn't sure. So before launching into open discourse through this blog, I decided to test responses of people in general to the way the question might have been phrased. That test was carried out through a 'teaser' which I posted at my mini-blog on Saturday, inviting readers to respond with their interpretations of the two similar sounding questions. As evident from the comments on that post, most people understood the two questions in more or less the same way as I did.

One comment went directly to heart of the matter, undistracted by the main thrust of that post (which was to elicit subjective interpretations of the question) and undeterred by the instructions in bold type. And I agree wholeheartedly with that comment. In my opinion, the idea of a benevolent dictatorship doesn't have to be an oxymoron at all. However, there is no mistaking the fact that it has been one right through our troubled history. Our collective level of maturity (or lack thereof) as a species, up until our current stage of our evolution, has rendered it an oxymoron. This is a generalization, and of course, there will always be exceptions. If we look at the history of the world, dictators who were bad guys (the general rule) stack up way higher than dictators who were good guys (exceptions that prove the rule). And this has made 'fascist dictatorship' a pleonasm and 'benevolent dictatorship' an oxymoron. But does it have to be so? It is not impossible to envisage a future for mankind in which we evolve into more mature beings in this respect. A future in which dictatorships, if any, would generally be of the benevolent kind, and tyrannical despots would be the exceptions. This is my perspective for this debate -- I want to explore what makes us the way we are in the present, and what needs to change to make that future happen. It's really not about whether or not certain specific regimes in certain specific countries are or aren't benevolent dictatorships, and if so, what that proves or disproves (though my facebook debate did tend to go down that path).

To me the crux of this debate lies in understanding the turn in the grain of human nature that makes (most) people behave differently when they acquire power. This is not just about dictators. This is also about people who become hugely successful in a short period of time, and therefore experience a kind of empowerment that they had never experienced earlier (much like dictators when they seize power). Abraham Lincoln once noted: "Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man's character, give him power" (to which I'd append "or give him overnight success"). And then we have that old adage: Power corrupts and absolute Power corrupts absolutely. It seems that the tendency for moral standards to drop when intoxicated by the power to realize any desire of one's choosing is a well known and widely accepted attribute of human nature as we know it today. So what makes this happen?

Anyone who has just recently come into a position of authority would remember their experience of the rush -- the heady feeling of wielding power. This is as valid for dictators and political leaders as it is for other individuals in civil society (businessmen, artists, athletes, etc.) who are suddenly successful and who achieve fame and recognition overnight as it were. The knowledge that one enjoys an unprecedented amount of power, which gives one the ability to exercise one's will on a range of issues (each of which has a greater impact on more things) does indeed produce an intoxicating feeling. In my opinion, this state of mind is triggered by two twin driving factors: the removal of constraints and the availability of choices. However, this comes with a price tag. The freedom to do pretty much as one wishes, coupled with the empowerment to make those wishes a reality, brings its own complexity.

I recently came across an interesting article that quoted Clay Shirky (a teacher, consultant and writer focused on the social and economic effects of Internet technologies) who in his keynote address at a conference, said "Abundance breaks more things than scarcity does. Society knows how to react to scarcity." Highly insightful, to say the least, and in the context of studying the psyche of a human who is suddenly empowered, it helps understand the mindset of someone who all of a sudden has before them an abundance of choices around just about anything within their purview and no explicit accountability to any specific authority other than themselves. Coupled with the fact that their sphere of influence and control has also rapidly expanded in a short time, this significantly raises the level of complexity that the mind has to deal with. This creates tremendous anxiety as a talk on TED that I watched some time ago explains.
The ability to deal with that anxiety is predicated by two main pre-requisites: intelligence and maturity. Intelligence enough to recognize the choices, analyze possible responses to situations, understand the implications of each response, and so on, and the maturity to recognize the responsibility implicit in each action, and most importantly, the maturity to be rooted in a value system and to maintain its robustness as the incumbent grows into the position of power. This is where most dictators (and many instantly successful people) have failed. This is what makes them anything but benevolent as they grow more and more powerful. And therefore, this is what has made benevolent dictatorship an oxymoron, generally speaking.

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