Strongmen Leaders and the Infallibility Trap

by Thomas R. Wells

It is easy to become exasperated with liberal democracy. Various factions bicker and manoeuvre against each other in an endless grubby contest for power, hypocritically appealing to a shared public interest while continuously generating and sustaining social divisions. Things that are necessary – like addressing climate change – do not get done, lost amidst the endless dithering, quibbling, and bargaining for advantage. Things that should not be done – like deporting UK asylum applicants to Rwanda – become official policy against all common sense and multiple laws, seemingly mainly as a way of trolling the opposition and civil society.

So it is disappointing but perhaps not surprising that people around the world are increasingly likely to endorse the strongman theory of government, that “a strong leader who does not have to bother with parliament and election is a good way to run the country”.

Strongman government has two major attractions compared to liberal democracy. First, it promises wise and benevolent rule: undistracted by factions motivated by political interests the strong leader will be freed to make wiser, better decisions in the national interest. Second, it promises decisiveness: without the endless bickering and second guessing, strong leaders can get on and do what needs to be done.

In what follows I want to challenge these apparent advantages and show that the very failings of liberal democracy are actually the solution to the problems that strongman governments run into.

Let us start with the virtue of wise and benevolent leadership. It is easily observed that democracies are far from wise.  This should not be surprising if you consider that voters have little interest at stake in making voting choices well because – unlike when weighing up even trivial decisions like what sandwich to buy – they know that their choice will not decide the outcome. So voters mostly choose on the basis of things irrelevant to the policy platforms of politicians, in particular as a way of expressing their social identity. In addition, few people of great capability are willing to put themselves forward for the thankless task of public service, especially given the many easier and more rewarding careers available to such people in a free society. Hence the low ability and excessive confidence of most candidates for political office in democracies. The result is that democracies are emphatically not governed by wise statesmen in the interest of the society as a whole.

Nonetheless, merely because democracy isn’t great doesn’t mean that autocracy is better.

Firstly, autocracies have a selection process of their own, which is even less well aligned with the interests of their people. While democratic rulers have to keep a substantial part of the voting population happy to stay in power (how much depends on the electoral system), strongmen only have to maintain the support of a small cabal of key accomplices. Democrats are only weakly accountable to the people, but autocrats are not accountable at all (although they do cultivate popularity as a means of reducing the costs of suppressing dissent). Indeed, their independence from democratic political processes and institutions is the very attraction of the strongman to those who have come to find those things tiresome.

Unfortunately it turns out that this independence is quite compatible with a dearth of virtue in political rulers. Witness the terrible things that autocrats have done to their people – genocides and famines and so on – without losing power. The things that autocracies are doing right now to the people subject to their power and supposedly under their care in Tigray, Xinjiang, N. Korea, Myanmar, Venezuela, and so on.

Such things don’t happen in liberal democracies (not, at least, outside colonial contexts where the victims lack political rights – which supports rather than disproves the point) for two reasons.

Firstly, voters don’t have to be especially smart or public spirited to notice and reject such straightforwardly awful and evil policies, so if voters count then they don’t happen.

Secondly, it turns out that the endlessly tedious political arguments and exchanges of accusations that take up so much of the public sphere in a democracy actually serve a crucial function of informing the government of what is going well or badly. Autocracies have enormous difficulty understanding what the problems of the society are and whether their policies are working. Like all underlings, theirs are hired and promoted on the basis of loyalty, and hence are disinclined to report bad news up the chain. But unlike in a democracy there is no free public sphere in which outsiders can identify and criticise the regime’s mishaps and errors, and hence no way for an autocrat to access such an external perspective on their rule. Strongmen regimes achieve unity by eliminating all dissent, and this requires treating anyone who voices disagreement with the official truth and ideology as a threat to the regime.

So there is good reason to conclude that democracies are dumb but autocracies are dumber. Moreover, it is their lack of the very things that make democracies so far from perfect (the factions competing for voters; the endless bickering) that make autocracies worse.

Even if the believer in autocracy would accept this conclusion, they might still defend its superiority on the grounds of its second promise: decisiveness. Decisiveness can be considered as a virtue in itself, separately from the quality of the decision itself (at least up to a point). In politics just as in other spheres it is often more important that a reasonable choice is made and effectively acted on than that the very best choice is made. For example, suppose someone falls to the ground clutching their chest on a busy street. The bystander effect describes the phenomenon that where there are lots of people available to help, each individual becomes less likely to step forward and act, mainly it seems because lines of responsibility become unclear. The best thing might well be for someone to step forward and take charge (‘You call an ambulance. You and you, hold other people back so we can have some space. Now, does any one of you know CPR?’) regardless of whether they are the best medically qualified of the people there or whether their instructions are a close match to the Red Cross’ latest first aid guidance.

Likewise, in situations like the Covid epidemic, there were a number of plausible policies available to governments (and no perfect ones). It was more important that some policy from that list was chosen and then systematically implemented than that the policy chosen was the best possible. The strongman Xi Jinping opted for Zero-Covid and implemented it systematically, resulting in a tiny death rate in the very country where Covid originated. In contrast it is easy to find evidence of dithering democracies switching continuously between different incompatible disease control regimes, with attendant unnecessary deaths. Boris Johnson’s government spent $1 billion subsidising people to eat out in August 2020, and then put the UK into lockdown 8 weeks later as cases rose alarmingly; many federal systems such as the USA implemented multiple incompatible policies at the same time; and so on.

And yet once again the dithering of democracy turns out to be a feature not a bug of successful policymaking (a point made very eloquently by David Runciman). The very decisiveness of autocrats risks locking them into a course of action that may well turn out to be disastrous. The very indecisiveness of democracies allows them to think about and experiment with alternatives and so adapt to changing information or circumstances and to correct mistakes before it is too late. Consider how Xi Jinping’s signature Zero-Covid policy changed from a source of gloating triumph over weak-willed democracies to a threat to his own regime as more virulent Covid strains appeared.

Moreover, the problem faced by decisive strongmen like Xi Jinping is directly related to their success in achieving a unified and harmonious political sphere. Because the decisiveness model requires everyone to do as they are told, no public disagreement or second guessing of the situation can be permitted. Everyone must behave as if the strongman leader is infallible, and all his underlings must strive to help maintain that impression – that this policy is the right and thus only possible choice. Hence, even within the government organisation itself, there can be no acknowledgement of the possibility of failure and no planning for alternatives. In Xi Jinping’s case this meant that the public was caught by surprise by a policy U-turn (a more appropriate term is ‘policy collapse’) that was never even formally announced and for which almost no preparation had been made (increasing vaccination of at risk groups; stockpiling medications; preparing hospitals for a wave of cases; etc). It is estimated that the eventual collapse of Zero-Covid may kill more than a million Chinese citizens, but the bigger impact may be to the halo of infallibility on which the regime’s popular legitimacy rests.

In contrast, democratic governments are constantly barraged by suggestions for policy amendments and alternatives, and so the public is not surprised when things do change. There is no myth of infallibility around a democratic government. There could hardly be when every mishap and gaffe is broadcast to the nation and picked over gleefully by political opponents, journalists, Twitterati, and cable TV comedians. To the contrary, seeing one’s leaders publicly humiliated is entirely normal in a democracy – and thus no threat to the regime. This greatly reduces the costs of admitting mistakes and changing course, while the costs of those mistakes are still small.

Let me put these points together and sum up. Critics of democracy are correct that it is a deeply flawed system of government. At any moment one can see the proof of this in the bumbling and bickering and destructive factional competition that is all too visible among our politicians. And yet, liberal democracies do rather well in the long run compared to the regimes that lack those flaws. It is not an accident that they tend to be so much richer than non-democracies; that autocratic China has three liberal democracy neighbours much more prosperous than it is (or is ever likely to be). The very things which make democratic politics so deeply exasperating turn out to be the reason for its success, not a problem to overcome.


Thomas Wells teaches philosophy in the Netherlands. He blogs on philosophy, politics, and economics at The Philosopher’s Beard.