Democratic Shortsightedness: The Seductive Lure of Enlightened Despotism

By Teddy Tawil

This is the third article in a series on shortsighted policy-making in democracies. This entry will explore the disturbing question of whether the answer isn’t fixing democracy, but rather, scrapping it entirely. Can only an enlightened despot solve our biggest problems? 

To read the previous entries in this series, please visit the links below:

Part I

Part II

To read the following entry, please click here: Part IV 

A tale of two countries 

To understand whether democracies or enlightened despots are best suited to tackling the world’s big problems, we must first take an intellectual journey to a perhaps unexpected destination: West Africa, specifically the Western region between the Gambia and Casamance rivers.

The Western region between the Gambia and Casamance rivers. The line bisecting the map represents the 13°N parallel. Credit: Carney et al. 2014, 127.

The area was once lush with mangrove forest. Across it, slightly above the thirteenth parallel, runs a national border. To the south is Senegal, which, despite some democratic backsliding in recent years, Freedom House calls “one of Africa’s most stable electoral democracies.” To the north is The Gambia, a nation which until 2016 was ruled with an iron fist by the repressive dictator Yahya Jammeh.

For decades, both nations have relied on their respective forests. Mouhamadou Kane of the Institute for Security Studies, a South Africa-based think tank, writes that Senegal’s Casamance region has historically been the “breadbasket of this West African nation.” Likewise, a 2013 report by the International Institute for Environment and Development found that “most of the Gambia’s rapidly growing population of over 1.8 million depend on forestry-related activities in some way.” Since the 1990s, observers had thought the need to protect these Gambian forests was “dire.”

The situation thus presented a natural experiment: a democracy and their despotic neighbor competing on conservation, a quintessential long-term problem that challenges governments around the world. Foresight and authority would be necessary to stamp out deforestation, which is profitable in the short-term but results in lasting ecological destruction. Who would prevail?

As the years went by, the unfortunate victor seemed apparent. One UCLA study compared the rates of deforestation in the two countries from 1986 to 2010 using satellite imagery:

Credit: Carney et al. 2014, 128.

The competition wasn’t even close. While authoritarian Gambia lost just 10 percent of its forest in the areas studied, democratic Senegal lost 43 percent. Even members of the Senegalese government seemed resigned to defeat: in a 2014 interview, an official in the Senegalese Ministry of the Environment spoke about The Gambia’s Jammeh “with a mixture of contempt and admiration, wistfully noting the dictator’s ability to enact stronger environmental protection there than is possible in Senegal.”

Is this just one example of a larger phenomenon? Can autocracies, through their strong rulers and state apparatus, take charge on the looming issues that democracies find so troublesome?

The allure of autocracy

On the surface, the answer seems to be yes. In democracies, the need for consensus can water down and delay decisive action. The so-called “political business cycle,” with frequent elections decided by shortsighted voters, pressures politicians to underregulate, overspend, and pollute — this can-kicking is seen as a necessary cost to win re-election and help constituents in other ways. Impassioned minorities can hold more apathetic majorities hostage to their interests, causing a political dilemma that, at least in the United States, has resulted in inefficient farm subsidies and government assistance to keep the redundant coal industry afloat (it also forms the premise of a pretty good “West Wing” episode). 

Concentrating power in a single, benevolent dictator just seems so much simpler. They could make prudent decisions and painful sacrifices where democracies so often fall short. Dictators would be liberated from the perverse incentives that ail elected officials, like the need to pander to voters and lobbyists. In this ideal world, future generations would no longer be constantly slighted, their interests sacrificed at the altar of political pressure.

This longing for enlightened autocracy as a response to big problems — most notably, the climate crisis — is not a fringe philosophy confined to provocateurs and contrarians, either. Surprisingly, its advocates include a number of respected intellectual luminaries:

  • Martin Rees, British Astronomer Royal and member of the House of Lords (the upper chamber of the British Parliament): “Only an enlightened despot could push through the measures needed to navigate the 21st century safely.” When asked about this statement, Rees doubled down, reiterating that he was “semi-serious.”
  • Thomas Friedman, Pulitzer-winning New York Times columnist: “One-party autocracy certainly has its drawbacks. But when it is led by a reasonably enlightened group of people, as China is today, it can also have great advantages. That one party can just impose the politically difficult but critically important policies needed to move a society forward in the 21st century.”
  • James Lovelock, British scientist famous for his discovering the presence of ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons in the atmosphere and for his Gaia Hypothesis: “Even the best democracies agree that when a major war approaches, democracy must be put on hold for the time being. I have a feeling that climate change may be an issue as severe as a war. It may be necessary to put democracy on hold for a while.”
  • Mark Beeson, University of Western Australia professor and prominent East Asia researcher: If the environment continues to deteriorate, ‘good’ autocracies like China “may become not only justifiable, but essential for the survival of humanity in anything approaching a civilized form.”

It seems that authoritarianism clearly has, to borrow a phrase from RDI Board Member Anne Applebaum, a “seductive lure,” even to those living in democracies.

The Hoover Institution’s Ying Ma calls this ecoauthoritarian revivalism a sort of “authoritarian chic.” Books prophesizing that climate change may mean the end of democracy have become a dime a dozen. Those with autocratic aspirations frequently point to the monumental investments China has made into green energy, contending they show that a centralized, top-down model is most effective at pushing through difficult but necessary drastic action.

Are they right?

Vindicating democracy

Thankfully, no. It’s not time for RDI to become the Remove Democracy Initiative quite yet.

The data

Analyzing the relative merits of dictatorship and democracy through the contrast between the United States and China is a common approach, but it’s not exactly a rigorous one. We have no way of knowing whether this single comparison is emblematic of the broader relationship (or lack thereof) between autocracy and forward-thinking policy. Indeed, the fact that both the U.S. and China are politically exceptional nations provides reason to think that it likely isn’t.

A more rigorous approach would involve systematically analyzing whether democracies or autocracies exercise more prudence, using data rather than conjecture and hundreds of countries rather than two. Obviously, there’s no perfect way to do this, but it’s far better than extrapolating from a single comparison (which is why what happened in Senegal and The Gambia says little on its own too).

In recent years, researchers have made great strides towards quantifying the foresight a country exercises in governance. Perhaps the most robust metric that’s been developed is the Intergenerational Solidarity Index (ISI), created in 2018 by interdisciplinary scientist Jamie McQuilkin. The ISI computes a score on a scale of 1 to 100 for each country based on ten different indicators of long-term policy performance, including carbon emissions, national savings, education quality, child mortality, use of renewable energy, and more. The higher a country’s score, the greater its “intergenerational solidarity.”

When we sift through the data, anecdotes aside, do democracies or autocracies actually govern more proactively? Philosopher Roman Krznaric sought to answer this question, analyzing the data for all 122 countries for which ISI scores are available. He plotted each country’s ISI score against its level of democracy, as measured by the V-Dem Liberal Democracy Index. The resulting picture is striking:

Credit: Roman Krznaric, design by Nigel Hawtin. For more, check out Krznaric’s excellent book The Good Ancestor.

The trend is clear: On average, the more democratic a country is, the more effective it is at long-term governance. 21 of the 25 highest-scoring countries are democracies, while 21 of the 25 lowest-scoring countries are autocracies. The average democracy’s score is a respectable 60, while the average autocracy’s score is a mere 42. It’s a rout, and democracies come out way ahead.

While Krznaric has conducted the most comprehensive analysis of the merits of democracy and autocracy in addressing long-term problems to date, it is important not to oversell what he found, either. If we were to conduct a “study” testing the correlation between sales of ice cream and sunglasses, and plotted the two against each other in a graph, we’d find a strong trend as well:


But on a sweltering summer day, the line at Häagen-Dazs isn’t what’s causing Ray-Bans to fly off the shelf; it’s the blazing heat that leads to both. In other words, our analysis is led astray by the fact that sales of ice cream and sunglasses are each correlated with a third factor, warm weather.

A similar phenomenon might occur with democracy and sustainable policymaking, too. A country with a politically engaged citizenry (or some other third factor) might both be more likely to be a democracy and to govern proactively, irrespective of its system of government.

As a result, Krznaric’s graph doesn’t necessarily prove that democracy causes more forward-thinking policymaking; it may simply be that the countries predisposed to prudence also happen to be more democratic. However, his observational data is still powerful, rigorously affirming that democracies are capable of overcoming the political myopia that often seems endemic.

More specific findings support Krznaric’s cautiously optimistic result. In particular, researchers have extensively studied whether democracies or autocracies are more effective at responding to climate change, which is perhaps the defining lasting challenge of our time.

Time and time again, they have found that democracies have the edge. The literature review section of a 2018 study examining this question summarized the field’s prevailing view: with few exceptions, “empirical evidence almost uniformly points to the positive effects of democracy on environmental outcomes.” A 2018 review of 60 econometric studies concurred, concluding that “greater democracy, more civil liberties, [and] experience with democratic systems of government lead to greater environmental protection policies” and more participation in international environmental agreements. Studies have found this effect persists even after controlling for economic, geographic, and demographic factors. Some papers have questioned this relationship in specific circumstances — such as for democracies with high levels of corruption and low economic development — but the consensus nonetheless strongly favors democracy.

Dictators and donut burgers

Why is this? Some might ask: don’t democracies lack the scientific literacy, the administrative capacity, and the will to take swift action?

Not quite. Even with the perverse influence of constant campaigning, interest groups, and an often-myopic electorate, democracies have a number of potential advantages too:

First, a free press helps publicize ongoing issues and shortcomings in government efforts to address them, building support for overdue action. Admittedly, its effectiveness is hampered by our short collective attention span and the political news cycle, but the fourth estate can nonetheless serve an important role in disseminating accurate information.

One worrying example of what can happen when the press isn’t there to serve as a government watchdog comes from China. The country reported a drop in coal consumption from 2010 to 2015. However, they were wrong: the New York Times reported that Chinese coal use during that period actually rose by 600 million tons, a jump equivalent to 70 percent of annual coal use in the U.S. Nonetheless, the public didn’t seem to be aware of the worsening situation: a Pew Research report found that the proportion of Chinese citizens expressing serious concern about global warming dropped from 41 to 18 percent from 2010 to 2015, tying the drop to a lack of discussion about climate change. The free press is a check on government fictions that can delude the public and defer action, which helps explain why nefarious rulers are so invested in silencing it.

Second, the general public is more likely to be receptive to substantial change than elites who desire to maintain the system that keeps them in power. A 2012 study surveying climate change mitigation efforts across a wide range of governments affirms that countries dominated by a small ruling class perform poorly, finding that “countries representing the capitalistic autocratic model like Russia, China, and in some measure Singapore lag far behind the democracies.” As Anand Giridharadas discusses in his book Winners Take All, the sorts of elites empowered by these regimes have an intense interest in appearing to support reform while actually entrenching the status quo.

Third, the public is more likely to buy into policies they choose (indirectly through their elected officials and directly through ballot measures) than decrees imposed from above. As Alec Medine has previously discussed for Democracy Examined, trust between a government and its citizens plays a vital role in the implementation of potentially painful policy. In democracies, elections provide an accountability mechanism and a reason for politicians to listen to public demands, helping establish this elusive but critical trust. An Oxford study of coronavirus response efforts across 111 countries suggests that the governed are more willing to follow policy crafted with their just consent. The researchers found that despite imposing stricter, more intrusive lockdown measures, dictatorships were 20 percent less effective at reducing mobility than democracies.

Thus, it seems that despite often falling short in addressing lingering problems, democracies are actually favorable in a number of ways as well. In the words of British comedian and polymath Stephen Fry, “it’s inefficient, it’s cumbersome… and every time it makes an achievement there’s some drawback… but it’s the best system we have.” Or to put it in a more American parlance: much like Kentucky Fried Chicken’s donut burger, benevolent autocracy sounds much better than it is in practice. 

But what about China?

Perhaps you still aren’t sold. I get it. The counterexample of China still seems quite convincing. The country has made impressive achievements on the climate front, cutting its carbon dioxide emitted per unit of GDP by 46 percent from 2005 to 2017 and spending the third-most on renewable energy per capita in the world. China’s leadership on green energy, combined with its swift coronavirus response, have caused many to understandably look to it as a model of competency and foresight.

However, there are three good reasons to think twice:

First, many observers overstate the extent of China’s progress. For all its talk of being carbon neutral by 2060, China generates a staggering 58 percent of its energy from coal (the most “dirty” of the energy sources still widely used worldwide), while “messy, corrupt” (but democratic) India is slated to generate a far greater proportion of its energy from clean sources by 2030. Not to mention that Tsinghua University research found the nation might emit so much through its Belt and Road Initiative that it could singlehandedly derail the world from a 2°C warming pathway. Vox’s Zack Beauchamp has also written persuasively that despite some successes, China’s coronavirus response is also nothing to envy.  

Second, even if China governs prudently (indeed, it beats the U.S. considerably on the ISI), Krznaric’s graph shows why the comparison is misleading. Of all countries as authoritarian or more authoritarian than China, China has the single highest ISI score. Of all countries as democratic or more democratic than the U.S., the U.S. has the single lowest score. It’s not exactly a representative comparison.

Third, to the extent that China has been effective at formulating solutions to long-term problems, it has done so largely by soliciting the input of civil society. For instance, despite the nation’s track record of oppression, the Hoover Institution’s Elizabeth Economy writes that it has given a platform to non-government organizations, local constituencies, and the media on many climate issues. Economy argues it is the contributions of these groups, rather than China’s central government, that are largely responsible for the nation’s environmental successes, and another 2020 study calls for the country to pursue an even more bottom-up climate response.

By contrast, suppressing the voices of its people has often proven disastrous for China. The nation’s early coronavirus response, personally overseen by Xi Jinping, was a tragic example. The Chinese President silenced early pandemic prognosticators and allowed large Chinese New Year celebrations, even when locking down Wuhan just a week earlier was projected to have reduced the number of cases by 66 percent. China has often succeeded in spite of, not because of, its authoritarianism.

A tale of two countries, revisited

One final example of how criticisms of democracy frequently don’t live up to the data comes from an unlikely source: The Gambia and Senegal.  

The situation between the two countries is more complicated than I initially let on. In 2019, a group of French researchers published a bombshell follow-up bashing the initial UCLA study. The new study found that both nations actually gained forest from 1986 to 2010 in the areas studied, and suggests that the differences between the two nations were far more modest than were previously thought. 

Nonetheless, rhetoric positing that the Gambia can swiftly enact strong protections while Senegal flounders in a sea of red tape is pervasive among Senegalese officials. It’s yet another instance of the mythos of the wise ruler being far stronger than the actual evidence suggesting autocracies craft prudent policy. 


Enlightened despotism might not just be a historical oxymoron, but inherently impossible. Nations rely on the marketplace of ideas and stakeholder input that only democratic discourse can provide to craft the wise, forward-thinking policy that lasting problems demand. 

So amid growing calls to abandon democracy because it produces policy that’s often regrettably shortsighted, resist the temptation to join these aspiring monarchists. Giving up democracy means giving up cherished civil and political liberties to be ruled by oppressive autocrats who, very likely, won’t even do a better job solving these very ongoing issues. There’s a reason most who have actually lived at the hands of dictators have little sympathy for the arguments of newly minted eco-authoritarians. 

While democracy is the reigning least-worst form of government, that’s not to say it can’t be improved, either. The forthcoming series conclusion will focus on reforms that would go a long way to addressing democratic myopia.


Correction (3/26): An earlier version of this article identified Xi Jinping as the Chinese premier. He is the President, and Li Keqiang currently serves as premier.


Selected works 

“Are dictatorships better than democracies at fighting climate change?” The Economist. September 21, 2019.

Burnell, Peter. “Democracy, democratization and climate change: complex relationships.” Democratization 19, no. 5 (2012): 813-842. 

Fent, Ashley M. “Dreams of Eco-Dictatorship: Senegalese Democracy in the Age of Environmental Crisis.” Ufahamu: A Journal of African Studies 40, no. 1 (Winter 2018): 109-128.

Fiorino, Daniel J. “Improving Democracy for the Future: Why Democracy Can Handle Climate Change.” E-International Relations. June 24, 2019.

Krznaric, Roman. The Good Ancestor: A Radical Prescription for Long-Term Thinking. New York: The Experiment, 2020. 

Krznaric, Roman. “To solve the climate crisis, we need more democracy, not less.” Open Democracy. August 5, 2020.

Looney, Robert. “Democracy Is the Answer to Climate Change.” Foreign Policy. June 1, 2016.

McQuilkin, Jamie. “Doing Justice to the Future: A global index of intergenerational solidarity derived from national statistics.” Intergenerational Justice Review 4, no. 1 (2018): 4-21.

Shahar, Dan Coby. “Rejecting Eco-Authoritarianism, Again.” Environmental Values 24, no. 3 (June 2015): 345-366.


Title Image Credit: Magasin Pittoresque via Getty Images

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