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100 ?’s for Government – Why not appoint a benevolent dictator?

December 15, 2012

This is Question 12 from “100 Questions for Government” series.

Try this for fun when you’ve got nothing better to do with your day. Drive to your nearest business school and suggest to the collected faculty that the CEO of any business should be stopped from implementing anything where two-thirds of their managers disagree with them. Similarly, the board should have the ability to interfere with and reverse any operational decisions they make. As a final coup de grace, have the CEO and all managers elected by the shareholders for terms between two and six years. Conventional business wisdom is unlikely to be on your side.

The checks and balances inherent to the US political system are designed to inhibit radical change and any authoritarian approach to guiding the nation. This makes any conspiracy to control the country an extremely convoluted process but also ensures any efforts to govern effectively and efficiently are complicated as well.

One approach capable of removing the apparent inefficiencies from the planet’s various systems of parliament would be the appointment of a benevolent dictator. To fully assess the merits of such a proposal, it’d important to break the phrase down into its parts:


“Marked by or disposed to doing good” [1]


“One holding complete autocratic control”[2]

So this person, who could have been elected or taken control themselves, is the ultimate authority on what takes place in their nation. While they can’t be questioned, their commitment and demeanor is expected to result in expeditious and life improving decisions for the wider population. In exchange for a short-term or indefinite loss of control, the population gets a commitment to their well-being from the leader of the system.

Plato was the first to document the possible merits of this sort of power structure in “The Republic”. Since this seminal moment, dictators like Napoleon, Julius Caesar, Fidel Castro and numerous others have suggested they were benevolent dictators.

Ignoring the dubious attribution of the term, and arguable existence of any shining examples, the concept of a truly benevolent dictator has significant merit as it:

1)   Requires government for the people

2)   Implies delivery of all the requirements of good government

3)   Cuts through all the red tape

Unfortunately, while I believe there are individuals who could lovingly and honestly take on the role of “philosopher king” there are three fundamental flaws with the approach:

1)   The risk that “absolute power corrupts absolutely”

2)   The absence of any meaningful, reasonably  structured process for choosing the candidate

3)   The risk of nepotism when the time comes to step down

The last three leaders of North Korea might be useful reference points for the risks (and benevolence being in the eye of the beholder).


Given the ability to mesh democracy with benevolent dictatorship (you could elect your benevolent dictator), I’m not prepared to write the concept off completely. However, until we have an appropriately informed electorate, a method of kicking the person out if they forget who their constituents are and a candidate worthy of election, I’ll stick with the imperfect politicians we have in front of us. However, it won’t reduce my expectations of improvement.

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