SUMMARY: The post addresses the question of whether dictatorships are more efficient than democracies on both the political and economic levels, and on the level of innovation and invention.
(About a 5 minute read)
“Mussolini got the trains to run on time.”
Many people even today think that was true. Actually, it was a bit of Mussolini’s propaganda designed to justify his dictatorship. It was based on the notion that dictatorships are more efficient than democracies — a notion that also persists to the current day.
The question of whether the Italian trains under Mussolini had really run on time might never have been resolved had it not been for the grandfather of an American historian.
The grandfather had lived under Mussolini and often told the historian while he was growing up that the trains had not, indeed, run on time. When the historian became a man, he went to Italy to investigate for himself. There he amassed data from time tables and from the personal testimony of men who had worked for the railroads during the Mussolini era.
While Mussolini had made the tourist trains run on time (thus insuring that visitors to Italy would be impressed with his rail system), most other trains had become less reliable, than than more. Prior to that historical work, the evidence against the trains running on time had been merely anecdotal. Now it was established. Most hadn’t.
But the myth that Mussolini made the trains run on time has entered the popular culture and never really gone away despite the best efforts of scholars to examine it. Thus, it has become a reason many of us feel that dictatorships are more efficient than democracies.
But are they?
In World War II, the Americans raced the Germans to develop an atomic bomb. As everyone knows, the Americans won the race, albeit not in time to use their weapon to end the war in Europe. But why did the Germans lose despite Hitler’s fascination with, and support for, developing “super-weapons”?
The main reason seems to have been Nazi inefficiency. The Germans had the material and the minds to have created an atomic bomb, but they didn’t have the efficiency to do so. Instead, the resources to create the bomb were spit between several departments of the German government — including a portion allocated to the post office! The result was the Germans never seriously rivaled the American effort.
Good students of the American war effort know the US created a super-efficient command economy during World War II that produced so much material the US could not only fight in both Europe and the Pacific (the main limitation was manpower, not war material), but could also supply its allies with vast quantities of equipment.
But if that is so, does not the fact the US created an efficient command economy argue for the notion that dictatorships are more efficient than democracies? For a command economy is essentially an economic dictatorship.
The argument seems to have merit, but it should be carefully noted that the US command economy was wholly focused on just one thing: Winning the war. Consumer goods, such as automobiles, were simply not manufactured during the war years. It can be argued that command economies have much greater difficulties when it comes to producing a wide spectrum of goods and services.
The Soviet economy certainly did. Shortages of consumer goods and services were routine. And there has perhaps never been a case yet where a purely demand economy has come close to fulfilling the needs of nearly all of its citizens.
Demand economies are also notoriously inefficient when it comes to innovation. Both the Soviets and the Chinese have found it far easier to steal Western innovations than to come up with innovations themselves.
But what about in other areas of life? Are dictatorial governments more efficient than democratic governments?
I don’t think so. I think dictatorial governments are more likely more efficient at hiding their inefficiency and at promoting the notion they are more efficient, than they are genuinely more efficient than democracies.
Take the case of rape in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. We are told that it is almost non-existent. But is that so? Or is it that in a closed society, it is easy to hide such things as the number of rapes that routinely occur?
In the 1970s, I had cousins living in Saudi Arabia, including a woman and two girls. Both the woman and the girls had to be extremely cautious whenever leaving the American compound to prevent themselves from being raped.
Moreover, they knew full well that if they reported a rape to the authorities, nothing would get done to bring the rapist to justice other than they themselves might get charged with the ludicrous crime of adultery.
Given human nature is everywhere the same — people everywhere are prone to take advantage of any chance they have for personal gain — it seems to me quite likely that dictatorships are more corrupt and less efficient than democracies because — among other things — they are typically less transparent. The less transparency, the less public pressure to keep a clean act.
It is far easier to demand bribes when you know the local media will never expose you, than when you must fear exposure. A friend of mine lived under the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia. Corruption was rampant. You had to resort to bribery to get anything done — from having a cavity filled to your plumbing fixed. If you refused to bribe someone, you waited years for the work to be done
In sum, dictatorships might at times rival or perhaps even surpass democracies in terms of command economies dedicated to one goal. They seem unlikely, however, to surpass them when it comes to achieving multiple goals and when it comes to producing innovations. Moreover, dictatorships are arguably more likely to be inefficient at governing than democracies due in part to their lack of transparency.