Democracy and Authoritarianism 1.

“Does democracy or an authoritarian system perform better in times of crisis?”[1]  There is no question that democracy is to be preferred to authoritarianism under normal circumstances.  Just ask the Uighurs or the Ukrainians. 

Is democracy superior to authoritarianism in all circumstances?  This is a question with its own history.  The Depression of the Thirties tested democracy and found it wanting.  Many political systems fractured under the immense stress of the human suffering caused by economic disaster.  Democracies collapsed where they had weak roots.  Where democracy survived, it did so by expanding the role of government in insuring the general welfare.[2]  In the authoritarian states like Stalinist Russia or Nazi Germany, either the economic crisis never occurred or the country emerged from it much more swiftly than did the democracies.  There followed another great crisis, the Second World War.  Here, the authoritarian states again out-performed the democracies by miles—until they didn’t.[3]  Since 1945, democracies have bult an economic and political model that has out-performed authoritarian governments hands-down.  Witness the collapse of the Soviet Union and the post-Mao tossing overboard of old thought. 

Contemporary discussions of the question get muddled.  For one thing, they can wander off course into long-term comparisons that take the question of the superiority of Democracy versus Authoritarianism seriously.  Aside from the rulers, who would willingly live in an authoritarian state?  Still, some political scientists have argued that authoritarian or semi-authoritarian states can suppress short-term thinking and democratic friction to impose better economic policies.  Others have argued that the two systems perform roughly the same over-all. 

To take another, more apposite example, climate change is not a “crisis.”  A “crisis” is a time-sensitive moment of decision and action.[4]  Climate change is a grave long-term problem.  The first several years of the coronavirus pandemic were a real crisis: individuals and governments had to act right now to avoid a potential re-run of the Black Death. 

If you take measures like excess deaths, then democratic and authoritarian states seem to have done approximately equally well at responding to the pandemic.  This reflects the un-even performance of countries within the category of both democracies and authoritarian states.

If you take other measures, like economic performance, then democracies greatly out-performed the very model of a modern authoritarian state, China.  Zi Jinping’s reliance on lock-downs instead of effective vaccination contributed to the current “cratering” of the Chinese economy.[5]  This further discredits the “Asian model,” already brought into question by the financial crisis of 1997.[6] 

In any event, this isn’t a discussion that could be held in China or Iran. 

[1] Max Fisher, “Are Democracies Better or Worse at Handling Big Crises?” NYT, 27 July 2022. 

[2] This was true in both the United States of the New Deal and in Conservative-governed Britain.  Expanding government had the unintended effect of expanding the authority of un-elected civil servants. 

[3] See the classic exposition in Gordon Wright, The Ordeal of Total War, 1939-1945 (1968).  “Nothing concentrates the mind so well as the prospect of being hanged”–Roughly from Doctor Johnson.  . 

[4] See: Crisis – Wikipedia  The term is often abused in journalism.  See: Rudiger Graf and Konrad Jarausch, Graf jarausch crisis en 2017 – „Crisis” in Contemporary History and Historiography ( 

[5] Fisher, “Are Democracies Better or Worse,” NYT, 27 July 2022. 

[6] See: East Asian model – Wikipedia 


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s