There are many pros and cons of both autocratic and democratic government, not to mention, many obvious differences. Surprisingly, there are also some similarities between these two unique governing styles. Autocracy as defined by the Merriam Webster online dictionary is, “A government in which one person possesses unlimited power.” Opposingly, democracy as defined by Danzinger, professor and former chair of the department of political science at the University of California is “A governance by leaders whose authority is based on a limited mandate from a universal electorate that selects among genuine alternatives and has some rights to political participation and opposition” (173).
Most leadership characteristics can be categorized into these two groups further separating them into two distinct leadership styles. An autocratic leader tends to lead with an iron fist similar to the style of a totalitarian government, whereas a democratic leader tends to take a slightly softer approach governing with consent and compliance from the people. Throughout this paper I will provide an analysis of basic characteristics of both autocratic and democratic government and leaders, as well as a brief overview of the positive and negative aspects of both governing systems. Each governing style is made to work within its own environment, governing its people and doing what is best for its country.
Autocracy requires a lack of separation of powers, so the absolute ruler cannot beopposed by any other powerful source. For example, a checks and balances’ system would deter an autocratic government because the leader would not have absolute power. Autocracies can take the form of a totalitarian/dictoral government, where a country is under the rule of one person. Many times, autocratic rulers work to better their countries only because it in turn provides great advantages for the rulers themselves. “An autocratic government is one that maximizes the net income the ruling clique extracts from the remainder of the population; this extraction, in turn, is the difference between the tax revenues the regime collects and the amounts it spends on public services, military activities, and interest.” (Niskanan, 182).
Basically, out of the increase in output that results from the net income extracted from the population, the leader obtains more resources for his or her own purposes than for the general public. Also, since the public population is a source of tax-income for the leader, the leader then has incentive to protect his or her people from warfare, terrorist attacks, etc. Hence, the monopolization of income tax can actually have a positive affect on the general public. The public is also benefitted because they obtain the income they have made that has not been taken in taxes.
A commonly used phrase people use when talking about autocratic governments is, “An absolute ruler fails absolutely,” but is this necessarily the case in an autocratic government? Unlimited power of a ruler may only be considered dangerous if it falls into the wrong hands. The term autocracy has become synonymous with the title of dictator, however, not all dictatorships are necessarily a negative form of government. For example, Hugo Chavez, leader of Venezuela has created the Bolivarian Revolution, “A close replica of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal-a progressive income tax, public works, social security, cheap electricity-makes him wildly popular with the poor. And most Venezuelans are poor” (Palast 42). On the other hand, many people argue that Chavez is in fact a bad leader. A common view of the American government portrays Chavez as a threat to global oil prices and regional economy. Just like there is a good and bad side to autocratic leaders, there are many pros and cons when closely examining an autocratic government.
Many may argue that an autocratic style of government is corrupt and unjust. However, there are many positive aspects of autocracy. Decisions are made quickly without strenuous contemplation from other political powers. For example, if a dictator wanted to pass a law making it illegal to wear blue jeans in his or her country he could pass the law without consent from anyone else. If a president wanted to make the same law, it would have to be overseen and contemplated by numerous other parties before passing. Not only is an autocratic government quick to make decisions, it also defines a clear bottom line. Topics of controversy are not left up to the interpretation of the public, and differing opinions are not expressed because the public population of an autocratic government is generally discouraged from expressing individual opinions.
Unfortunately there are also many negative aspects of autocracy. Mainly, it has the potential to ignore the needs of the majority. Ultimately, all decisions are left up to the leader, creating a potentially skewed outcome as far as the needs of the public go. The views and norms of a whole state can be held solely in the hands of one person and needless to say may have quite a negative effect. Irrational decisions can also be made, with virtually no hope of being stopped. If an autocratic leader happens to be having a bad day and makes an irrational and harsh decision, it may have a negative impact on all of the country.
One may wonder why the citizens of an autocratic government would tolerate such a harsh and extreme leader, why not just overthrow him?The same logic of collective action that ensured that there are no social contracts in the historical record whereby large groups agreed to obtain the advantages of government also implies that the masses shall not overthrow an autocrat simply because they would be better off to do so. Historical evidence from at least the first pharos through Saddam Hussein indicates that resolute autocrats can survive even when they impose heinous amounts of suffering upon their peoples. When they are replaced, it is for other reasons (Mancur 23).
The opposite of autocracy could be thought of as democracy. Democracy is a widely accepted form of government that works for the people by allowing them to choose their own representation. Not only are the people represented by a leader of their choice, but are also able to give opinions as to the on goings of their country. “Democracy is a sign of the existence of a strong civil society that is based on various intermediary groups, from women’s associations and labor unions to cooperatives and trade councils. Such groups serve as probably the most effective tools for communicating social demands to decision makers.” (Gangi 41).
Democracy is said to have originated in medieval Europe as a cause of three main points;First, late medieval Europe had numerous political characteristics that distinguished it from other major world civilizations. These characteristics the most important of which were representative assemblies constituted as a basis for liberal democracy which provided Europe with a predisposition toward democratic political institutions. Second, the ‘military revolution’ of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries led to the strengthing of monarchal power in countries relying on domestic resources to finance modern armies. In these countries, medieval constitutionalism was done away with and expansive autocracies were built demolishing the predisposition. Third, in countries that avoided the military revolution, military modernization did not destroy constitutional government, and a liberal political outcome became more likely (Downing 3).
Much like autocracy requires a lack of separation of powers, democracy needs a separation of powers. A democratic government is divided into three branches. The executive branch consists of the presidential party which in turn consists of the president, the vice president, and all the cabinet members. This branch assists in carrying out the law. The president is allowed to pass or veto a bill sent by the legislature. The legislative branch or “Bicameral Congress” consists of the Senate (100 seats, one-third are renewed every two years; 2 members are elected from each state by popular vote to serve six-year terms) and the House of Representatives (435 seats; members are directly elected by popular vote to serve two-year terms)” (https://www.cia.gov/cia/publications/factbook/print/us.html).
The legislative branch writes laws on a bill so they can be sent to the senator, and then to the representatives, and then to the president. The judicial branch is in charge of the court systems consisting of the “Supreme Court (nine justices; nominated by the president and confirmed with the advice and consent of the Senate; appointed to serve for life); United States Courts of Appeal; United States District Courts; State and County Courts” (https://www.cia.gov/cia/publications/factbook/print/us.html). The judicial branch applies the law by hearing and making decisions on various legal cases. Just like any other government, democracy can vary from country to country.
A democratic government may come in many different forms such as participatory democracy, representative democracy, electoral democracy, liberal democracy, etc, hence there are near endless positive and negative aspects. Singapore practices an electoral democracy where “All citizens periodically vote in order to select political leaders from among alternative contenders” (Danziger 173), meaning that the government picks the candidates that the citizens can vote for. In 2006 the Freedom House described America as a liberal democracy which is a government where “Citizens enjoy not only electoral democracy but also these extensive political rights and civil liberties regarding participation, personal freedoms, and opposition” (173). However, I feel that America is better categorized as a representative democracy where “Citizens elect people to represent them in the political process and to allocate values on their behalf” (172). Because of all the different conditions in the many types of democracies one may wonder what exactly defines democracy.
One of the key characteristics of American democracy is universal suffrage. Universal suffrage consists of the right to vote regardless of race, religion, gender, social status, economic status, etc. Suffrage has been a continually developing aspect of democracy for centuries. According to Wikipedia, African American suffrage began in 1866, and women’s suffrage began in 1920. A second democratic characteristic is equality of all people. Within the US Constitution it is implied that under a democratic government each person is entitled to equal protection under the law, freedom of religion, speech, press, assembly, etc, along with various other economic, social, cultural, civil, political, and group-oriented rights. Democracy bases itself on providing fair and equal opportunities for all people regardless of their race, sex, religion, economic/social status, etc. The idea of American democracy fully supporting equality brought many immigrants here, with promises of equal opportunity. Along with all the rights and privileges citizens of a democratic government have, there are also some negative aspects.
The larger democracies get, the more difficult voting and vote tallying becomes. For example, during the Gore vs. Bush presidential elections the vote counts in Florida were misinterpreted, and many people thought the outcome of the election was skewed due to vote fraud. Also, democracy is hailed as one of the most fair governments, but catering to the needs of only the majority actually excludes the minority. No matter how minuscule the minority may be, they are still be exploited by the majority. Lastly, the larger a democratic system becomes, the less peaceful and efficient it becomes. Mancur Olsen gives a good example of this negative aspect of democracy in his essay Autocracy, Democracy, and History.
If there are say five similar people, each of them will get about a fifth of the gains from the creation of a peaceful [democratic] order. …The advantages of such an order are so large that one fifth of the gains could eaisly exceed the total sacrifice. Moreover, when there are only a few people in a group it will be clear that the welfare of each person depends on whether each other individual acts in a group-oriented or anti-social way. Thus each person by making clear that the cooperation by others will bring forth cooperation from him but that non-cooperation will not, can increase the likelihood that others will match his behavior. This not only increases the probability of peaceful [democratic] interaction but even makes it easily possible that cooperation will reach an ideal or group optimal extent (Olsen 3).
Hence, democracies work better for relatively small groups. Mancur argues that a democracy is better than raw anarchy, but democracy is still far from perfect. (2)In conclusion, both autocratic and democratic governments have many strong and weak points. Some negative aspects of autocracy such as income tax monopoly can have a positive affect on a whole country’s population, while some positive aspects of democracy such as majority ruling can have negative affects such as excluding the minority.
The pros and cons of a government are what ultimately define that government’s basic structure. If a government has a disorganized electoral system, power could potentially fall into the wrong leaders hands. If a government has a very strict electoral policy, the people may be misrepresented due to the fact that they do not have full freedom to choose their leader. Each governmental style works for the betterment of their citizens whether it is by strict rule, or lax rule. All in all, governments working towards the betterment of their citizens, are truly working towards the betterment of the human population as a whole.
“Autocracy.” Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary. 2004. .
Danziger, James. Understanding the Political World: A Comparative
Introduction to Political Science. New York: Pearson Education Inc, 2007.
Downing, Brian. The Military Revolution and Political Change: Origins of Democracy andAutocracy in Early Modern Europe. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1992.
Gangi, Akbar. “The Struggle Against Sultanism.” Journal of Democracy 2005: 16.4. ProjectMuse Scholarly Journals Online. Wayne State University Library. Wayne State University Library, Detroit, MI. 16 Apr 2007.
Olsen, Mancur. “Autocracy, Democracy, and History.” Online working paper #22, 1991.
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Niskanan, William. Autocratic, Democratic and Optimal Government: Fiscal Choices and Economic Outcomes. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Publications, 2004.
Palast, Greg. “Hugo Chavez.” The Progressive. July 2006. 10 April 2007.
“United States.” cia.gov. 2007. The World Fact Book. 4 April 2007.
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