By Edward Hadas
The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.
Are authoritarian governments bad for the economy? Turkish voters do not seem to think so. On August 10, Tayyip Erdogan won an absolute majority in the country’s presidential election. Observers say that the country’s increasing prosperity is a big part of his AK Party’s appeal. Erdogan is not the only popular authoritarian around. Viktor Orban, who reportedly endorsed “illiberal” government, wins similar majorities in Hungary. If Russia had an election today, President Vladimir Putin would win big. And Xi Jinping, who seems to be making one-party rule in China more authoritarian, would undoubtedly triumph if the government bothered with elections.
The success of such leaders irritates many Americans and Western Europeans, who believe that genuine multi-party democracy is the natural political arrangement in the modern world. Clearly, though, most voters in some countries want authoritarian leaders who tolerate no effective opposition and who impose their vision on the nation.
Many economists think modern industrial prosperity ultimately requires a strong civil society, which can only really thrive in a democracy where parties vie for votes on the same footing. In other words, they think authoritarian economies are inherently unstable. If only it were that simple.
True, the authoritarians of the previous century mostly adopted an ultimately disastrous economic approach. Communists and fascists believed in tight state control. It seemed to work for a while in the Soviet Union, but ultimately collapsed. Modern authoritarian economics has moved on. It gives business enough freedom to prosper. The state does not smother the economy, just tries to guide it closely enough to ensure that the government and the nation are well served.