Why Oligarchy is better than Dictatorship

In a dictatorship, the leader can do whatever he wants. Any dictator, simply because he is a dictator, is liable to engage in illicit self-dealing and to kill people who threaten his power. However, if the leader has reasonable wants, and reasonable ideas about how to accomplish what he wants, then there is a limit to how bad things can get. Only moderately bad dictators have tended to be less revolutionary than the worst dictators. Hitler and Stalin both wanted to take over the world and change their own societies completely. The Shah of Iran, on the other hand, was happy to mostly hold on to power that he had inherited. The Shah of Iran was not a great guy. He killed people who threatened his power, and he was corrupt. But that is where it stopped. He did not try to root out any races or classes, he did not cause any massive famines, he did not attempt to engineer a world war.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/3/3e/Shah_fullsize.jpg/1200px-Shah_fullsize.jpg

Imagine a regime with a committee of five rulers. They vote to decide what to do, and the majority rules. I think this kind of an oligarchy would tend to be more moderate– and therefore, less destructive–than a dictatorship. Further, an oligarchy in which all members have to be unanimous before any action can be taken would be more moderate still.

A complication is that such a regime might be staffed by revolutionary ideologues who all believe the same crazy things. Would that be any different in practice from a revolutionary dictatorship? Also, why are representative democracies generally less bad than dictatorships? One popular model is that the people understand the world well enough to stop the very worst abuses. The usual examples are wars of aggression that the aggressor country might lose and manufactured famines. But why should this be? Why don’t we find countries of ideologues, where the common man is as blinkered and as willing to sign up for bloodshed as Stalin was?

One explanation: the average person simply does not know enough to be an ideologue. Being an ideologue means learning and applying a vast amount of theoretical content (I do not say information). Most people, for better or worse, have not learned all that. The average American apparently cannot explain what it means for someone to be liberal or conservative. They know which of these terms is associated with which political party. They might know which issue positions are liberal or conservative. But my understanding is they have a very limited ability to explain how these positions are supposed to cohere with each other. That means they can’t predict what ideologies prescribe “out of sample”. In a new or extreme situation, they have to respond with an open mind because they just do not know what any ideology would say they should do.

Perhaps if you had some super-educated country, then democracy would be no better than dictatorship at avoiding atrocities? I actually think this is not quite right–although more education might make people more ideological, people differ temperamentally in how ideological they are willing to become. Someone like Deng Xiaoping can engineer a retreat from the worst communist practices for pragmatic reasons. Deng did not dismantle communism because he didn’t really understand communist ideology. Rather, he was able to consider China’s problems with an open mind despite understanding communist ideology.

Thus regimes in which some or all rule (oligarchies or democracies) are likely to be more moderate than regimes in which one rules. Having one ruler increases the chance that the ruler is both able and willing to apply an ideology, which I think is how people get killed in very large numbers. Further, regimes in which a larger majority of the rulers is needed to do anything will, to that extent, tend to be more moderate.

My argument suggests that the worst possible regime is not a dictatorship. It is actually an exotic kind of oligarchy in which an action is taken if any rather than all or a majority of the rulers wants to take it. A group is less likely to average out to a Stalin than one ruler is to be a Stalin. But a group is also more likely to contain a Stalin aspirant than a single person is to be one.

One thought on “Why Oligarchy is better than Dictatorship”

  1. > One popular model is that the people understand the world well enough to stop the very worst abuses. The usual examples are wars of aggression that the aggressor country might lose and manufactured famines. But why should this be? Why don’t we find countries of ideologues, where the common man is as blinkered and as willing to sign up for bloodshed as Stalin was?

    The cultural revolution comes to mind here; at its height it was very truly out of Mao’s control, or anyone else’s. I still can’t tell how under Al-Baghdadi’s control ISIS was, either.

    > A complication is that such a regime might be staffed by revolutionary ideologues who all believe the same crazy things. Would that be any different in practice from a revolutionary dictatorship?

    Of oligarchies, examples abound (often military). The Armenian genocide and other late Ottoman atrocities were action by committee (with a degree of popular support, although not democratic). Same with Rwandan genocide. Rohingyans were being massacred despite the nominal opposition of the head of state prior to her deposal. Likewise Hirohito’s consent or lack thereof had no bearing on Japanese atrocities during WWII.

    A third countermand is that very few dictators are anywhere near as powerful as Hitler or Stalin. Mussolini was famously henpecked; Julius Caesar got the ole ‘death by committee’ treatment. Many others know that their power relies on their being the only person who can hold together warring factions.

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