PUBLICATIONS: Benevolent Autocrats

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.

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PUBLICATIONS: Democratic Accountability in Development: The Double Standard

By William EasterlySocial Research, Vol. 77, No. 4, pp. 1075-1104 Winter 2010

The Development Establishment today tolerates a shocking double standard on democracy for the rich versus democracy for the poor. Despite both the moral and pragmatic argument for democratic rights for all, development policy discussions give little emphasis to rights for the poor. Worse, influential Western policymakers and thought leaders sing praises of autocrats such as Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia, who has strong record of repressing minority groups and political opponents.

Democratic accountability is important to governance, and fundamental in promoting development. To begin with the obvious Civics 101 view, accountability is a crucial mechanism to ensure that government does good and not ill to those affected by its actions. Under democracy, citizens can use many mechanisms -- such as voting, popular protests, and spoken and written criticisms -- to penalize governments that are harming individuals (even if it is only a minority of individuals).

The same mechanisms reward political actors that do good by, for example, supplying public goods. When such mechanisms work, the government is accountable to its citizens. The opposite of accountability is impunity -- the government can do whatever it wants to its citizens without consequences.


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