By William EasterlyDRI Working Paper No. 75 May 2011
Benevolent autocrats are leaders in non-democratic polities who receive credit for high growth. This paper asks two questions: (1) do theory and evidence support the concept of “benevolent autocrats”? (2) Regardless of the answer to (1), why is the “benevolent autocrats” story so popular? This paper’s answer to (1) is no. Most theories of autocracy portray it as a system of strategic interactions rather than simply the unconstrained preferences of the leader. The principal evidence for benevolent vs. malevolent autocrats is the higher variance of growth under autocracy than under democracy. However, the variance of growth within the terms of leaders swamps the variance across leaders, and more so under autocracy than under democracy. The empirical variance of growth literature has identified many correlates of autocracy as equally plausible determinants of high growth variance. The growth effects of exogenous leader transitions under autocracy are too small and temporary to provide much support for benevolent autocrats. This paper addresses question (2) by analyzing the political economy of development ideas that makes benevolent autocrats a politically convenient concept. It also identifies cognitive biases that would tend to bias perceptions in favor of benevolent autocrats. The answers to (2) do not logically disqualify the benevolent autocrats story, but combined with (1) they suggest much greater skepticism about many claims for benevolent autocrats.