Sunday, September 02, 2007

Ideal Rulers

One often hears that the ideal government would be a "benevolent dictatorship" - the wise ruler would make the right decision every time, and implement it with a minimum of fuss. But if we are going to engage in such wishful thinking, why stop at one perfect person? Why not have an ideal democracy, where the populace would make the right decision every time, and implement it with a minimum of fuss? How is the perfect autocrat any more ideal than the perfectly united demos? Or how about a perfect anarchy, where everyone simply does what they ought, without need for legal coercion? So long as we're guaranteed our perfect outcomes in any case, why favour the most repulsive (dictatorial) process? (Is it because the wish is really to be the dictator oneself?)


  1. I don't think fact I suspect the opposite. From my point of view I prefer the ideal dictator because it leaves me out of the process...Being an informed member of the demos is time consuming...better to just have someone making the decisionsso I can go on wondering about the semantics of modal languages :)

  2. Richard,

    I'm not sure what you think the perfect democracy looks like. Is it a demos of people who make the right decision every time; that is a society of benevolent dictators acting in agreement?

    Or is there some discord or at least disagreement in the perfect democracy?

    Put a third way: is there room for imperfection in the populace if we are to have the perfect democracy?

  3. I've the impression (just a hunch, no supportive data) that most countries have enjoyed their best times when they were close to the situation of "ideal oligarchy": some small group managed things with little fuss, and their interests happened to coincide with those of the people. Yet, I still prefer democracy.

  4. The problem with the "ideal democracy" is that an efficient society will generally do what it needs to do without getting 100% of the population involved. On the other hand, "sun king" style dictatorship is silly because running a country is too big a job for one person. The ideal is an benevolent oligarchy. Representative democracy doesn't come anywhere close to equally distributing decision making among everyone, so it's really oligarchy + elections. The effects of this are mixed--good overall, but it isn't without cost.

  5. Well, first a perfectly benevolent dictator is marginally more realistic than a perfectly benevolent benevolent society, since with the former you just need to have one guy be perfectly benevolent, whereas with a perfect democracy you need everyone to be benevolent. And, if everyone was perfectly benevolent, it would be somewhat silly to do a democracy when you could just pick some random guy and have him do it for you, thus reducing overhead. The idea, I suppose, is that dictatorships are inherently more efficient than democracy in implementing their goals, thus if you could magically assure that said dictatorship's goals were "good goals," then it would work out pretty well.

    Of course, that idea can be fairly thoroughly debated. Many have argued that under certain ideal situations, large groups of people can be smarter than any of its members. (The whole Wisdom of Crowds idea.) Which is probably true, to a point. But still, the presence of overhead is still there, and thus a person who can just magically arrive at the right decision and then go off and do it seems rather neatly efficient, thus the popularity.

    Also, I do think that when people talk about perfect dictatorship, they are not merely concerned with the single-ruler aspects of dictatorship, but rather the fact that dictatorships don't need to worry about things like legal rights. In principle, a perfectly wise government (of any form) wouldn't need to have such side-constraints guiding its behavior, everything they do would simply be RIGHT.

    (Another factor, though, is simply that benevolent dictatorship has a rather long pedigree in political philosophy, since it traces back to the Plato's Republic, so it tends to stick out in people's minds even if "perfect democracy" might be something they'd prefer.)

    Perfect anarchy is probably a more viable option, but that's almost dodging the question. That is, when a person asks what the best form of government, to say "It would be best if we didn't need a government in the first place" is sort of being snarky about it. Of course, there are many people who don't mind being a bit snarky about that (i.e., anarchists and libertarians) and thus are quite comfortable with saying "The government that governs best is the governs not at all." But otherwise, people tend to avoid the option.

  6. Great job all. It's just incredibly rare on any site to see such a long chain of good comments.

  7. dileffante & hallq

    Oligarchy is the best, but only when conditions are stable. When there is an unforseeable external interruption to stability the oligarchy is as vulnerable to failure as all other systems and will fail. Unlike all other systems it is at this point that representative democracy excels - blame is placed, leadership is removed, we move on.

    For this reason I also prefer democracy.

  8. > Why not have an ideal democracy

    that implies you are going to force everyone to think the right thing. Is it not better if you force one guy to be an ideal ruler than a billion people to be ideal citizenry?

    Or are we to also suppose that 'that there is no coercion involved' is a fundamental part of both scenarios? I don’t think it was fundamentally a part of the former scenario.


    Oligarchy can remove a bunch of leaders and replace them with similar people from the same group - that maintains both continuality and provides an incentive for the leaders to be responsive.

    I'm inclined to think that democracy is a pretty fatally flawed system. At some stage we will invent something better and get rid of it - either that or we will do something stupid that amounts to voting to blow ourselves up.

    Getting a litle more into real politics - the chinese will probably finish democracy off.

  9. Hi Jack, for this post I was thinking of something like "a society of benevolent dictators acting in agreement", since discord would increase overhead costs (though for practical purposes I think some dissent is usually healthy!).

    I think UserGoogol hit on the key issue: "The idea, I suppose, is that dictatorships are inherently more efficient than democracy in implementing their goals, thus if you could magically assure that said dictatorship's goals were "good goals," then it would work out pretty well."

    My complaint is that if we're allowed to magically eradicate tyrannical indiscretions, why can't we likewise magically gloss over democratic inefficiencies? It's wishful thinking all.

    Put another way: it just seems strange to uphold the 'benevolent dictator' as any kind of ideal, given that (1) it would be disastrous to aspire to in practice, and (2) it's not even the "best possible world" in theory.

  10. the other thing is that when one talks like this they implicitly expect a certain type of answer that doesnt directly question the fundimental assumptions.

    This hypothetical is presumably creatd as a solution to a problem one might term 'crazy world'. It is implicitly an invalid solution to solve 'crazy world' by saying 'what if world is not crazy'.

  11. Also

    > My complaint is that if we're allowed to magically eradicate tyrannical indiscretions

    I think this just requires establishing a sufficiently good system while

    > why can't we likewise magically gloss over democratic inefficiencies?

    this requires breaking of probably the most fundimental law of the universe. (entropy)

    thus a "perfect democracy that is as efficient as a perfect dictatorship" sounds like a contradiction while we can let the sub components of the sentance slide.


    Of course you could consider democracy a value adding activity in itself but I don't think your citizens would see it that way.

    if you were in a democracy would you not see it like Richard Brown above (sorry if I'm misinterpreting) and see it as a waste of your time doing a vote when you already knew that a computer (let's say) would come up with exactly the same decision?

  12. glossing over entropy in a sentance (ie that an implied additional activity to achieve the exact same ends will waste energy) gives the same sort of feeling as glossing over basic rules of math or logic.

  13. "a waste of your time doing a vote when you already knew that a computer (let's say) would come up with exactly the same decision?"

    Not if you valued the participatory process itself, cf. philosophy, performing music (rather than just replaying a recording), etc.

  14. Well, it has fallen out of favor in recent times, but the end of the communist teleology was supposed to be “the state withering away”. If you are considering the ideal ideal, it would have to be one where people are so enlightened and agreeable about their collective self-interest that there is no longer need for a state or even formal mechanisms of dispute resolution.

    I suppose that I should look at your archive before asking, but have you thought much about the various offspring of Rousseau’s political theory and the idea model he presents?

  15. > Not if you valued the participatory process itself

    My point was that people would, in my oppinion, in general, not value that.

  16. Reminds me of this quote from Isabel Paterson:

    "The lust for power is most easily disguised under humanitarian or philanthropic motives. ... An amiable child wishing for a million dollars will usually 'intend' to give away half of this illusory wealth. The twist in the motive is shown by the fact that it would be just as easy to wish such a windfall directly to those others without imagining oneself as the intermediary of their good fortune." (God of the Machine, XIV.26)

    I think Paterson is too hard on the amiable child; the desire to be oneself the cause of a good result need not be an expression of powerlust (though of course it can be). But she is identifying the same structural problem you are.

  17. I don't think human brains work in the way that you could say "because you didn't think of short cut X then that means you intentionally ignored it"

    What probably happened for the little child is "I was told by mommy that giving is good"
    "if I had a lot to give that would be better"
    "I want a lot to give"
    "money in my hands is nice to have"
    "since I'm a good person I'd like to keep some"

    I think the sort of misjudgement and assumption of the wrong sort of logic is a massive issue in psychology, pop psychology, and politics etc.

    You should be able to visualize a thought process as a set of simple inputs followed by clumps of brain cells talking to eachother. That results in a pretty habitual sort of analysis.


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