OPINION: Why it is the luck of the world to often have terrible kings and leaders

Robert Labayen

Posted at Jun 16 2020 03:18 PM

Many Roman emperors killed thousands including their own family members and publicly fed Christians to wild animals. They also emptied the treasury on vain projects.

To fulfill their vision for the country, Mao Tse-Tung of China (1943-1976) and Joseph Stalin (1922-1952) of Russia caused the combined deaths of up to 70 million. Their people died from executions, forced labor, and famine. To stay in power, Saddam Hussein (1979-2003) beheaded his critics with a sword while Muammar Gaddafi (1969-2011) bombed his own people.

In the old African kingdom of Kongo, kings between the 1500s to 1800 sold their own people to European slave traders. American President Andrew Jackson, in 1830, ignored the Supreme Court decision when he had Cherokee Indians forcibly removed from their homes, jailed, and forced to walk a thousand miles. Four thousand died along the way. Queen Ranavalona I of England (1828-1861) had ruthless laws that the population was “halved during her reign.”

Why did power often go to the wrong hands?

Even the good became bad.

Samuel K. Doe was just a sergeant in 1980 when he liberated Liberia by knifing a President who was notorious for nepotism and other self-interests. Later on, Doe, the new President, would rig elections, and slaughter his own people including more than fifty of his original collaborators.

Robert Mugabe was a hero when he freed Zimbabwe from white rule in 1980. But he would rule for 37 years, enrich himself and allow the killing of 80,000 of his citizens.

Venezuela President Hugo Chavez was adored for his pro-poor programs starting in 1999. Years later, Chavez would shut down 34 radio stations, gamed the election, and took control of the central bank, the state-owned oil company, the military, every branch of government, and most of the remaining radio and tv channels. His country would have an extremely high homicide rate, the world’s highest inflation, and a ranking by Transparency International as one of the world’s most corrupt. But both Chavez and Mugabe retained some of their fanatic followers up to the very end.

Why the wrong people often get the job

Some men became the big boss by killing the incumbent. That means they were murderers from the start. Some rulers inherited the throne from relatives who have modeled ruling by killing. Plato said in The Republic that tyrants were people with some kind of mental illness (psychopathy was not yet labeled at that time.) 

In democracies, leaders are elected by a majority. That is great in theory. But what if the majority was falsely informed or what if the majority is hungry enough to be bought cheap? Or what if it was a majority of bigots? Another weakness of suffrage is that elections are won on the basis of promises. When officials don't deliver, they may silence or malign their critics and rivals. To win elections, some candidates may also make a pact with the devil who will provide either funds or votes.

But I would like to think that not all bad politicians were born bad people.

Built-in Potential for Abuse

In the extensively-researched book "The Dictator’s Handbook," Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith asserted that the potential for corruption is built-in in any leadership structure.

They said that if a leader’s concern is to stay secure in power, he has to keep “a small coalition” that must be fed with favors. To keep his inner circle well-fed and loyal, the dictator has to be in control of the revenue. Such money may come from taxes, national products, foreign debt, or foreign aid. The authors shared the 1964 case of Nikita Kruschev as an example. Kruschev was the only Russian leader to be deposed by a coup because he failed to deliver on his promises to his cronies.

INSEAD leadership professor Manfred F.R. Kets de Vries wrote the chapter "The Spirit of Despotism: Understanding the Tyrant Within." In it, he said, “whenever people gather in groups, there is potential for the abuse of power.” He noted that, in fact, “Throughout the ages, autocratic governments have been more the rule than the exception.” This autocracy and abuse were practiced even by the earliest civilizations that emerged in the Fertile Crescent.

Steven Pinker, in "The Better Angels of our Nature," explained that the role of early chiefdoms was to mediate conflicts among villages. These villages would give resources to the chief for protection from potential raiders. Thus began the corruption of the system. The government became a mafia.

De Vries, who is also a psychoanalyst, wrote, “Power and reason cannot coexist peacefully, and reason is always the loser. Excessive power blurs the senses, triggers delusional paranoia, and corrupts reality testing.”

The Tyrants’ Tools

In the old times, witches, criminals, and rebels were hanged, beheaded, burned, or crucified publicly. It was a way of telling the potential enemies of the King “it’s not worth it.”

Modern dictators took good care of the military and the police that arrested opponents and dispersed demonstrators. They also replaced the legitimate press with their own propaganda machines.

In the book "How Democracies Die," Harvard Professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt used the term capturing the referees. It means firing current lawmakers and judges so they can be replaced with loyalists.

In the book "The Dictator’s Learning Curve," William Dobson noted that mass arrests and violence are being replaced by “more subtle forms of coercion.” He said, “today’s most effective despots deploy tax collectors, or health inspectors to shut down dissident groups.” He added, “Laws are written broadly, then used like a scalpel to target the groups the government deems a threat.” That’s why, Dobson said, Chavez ruled through the motto, “For my friends, everything, for my enemies, the law.”

Not all are bad

History has proven that violent revolutions don’t work. That’s because the new rulers will use the same violence on the people who complain that life has not changed. Elections, on the other hand, are a gamble at best.

De Vries assured that despotism is now being tempered with the help of global media. He also hoped that the International Criminal Court (ICC) will have more teeth in the future.

Even though the corrupt politician has become a Hollywood stereotype, I like to think that good officials still outnumber the bad ones. The stories about bad politicians only stand out because they are sensational. Just like how one piece of bad news overshadows the surrounding sea of goodness.

I hope I am right.

I also believe Steven Pinker who insists that violence in the world has been on a sharp and steady decline since humankind invented governments. 

I hope he is right.

Read:

9 of the worst monarchs in history in the HistoryExtra website

Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond

How Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt

How Robert Mugabe became evil tyrant after freeing Zimbabwe from White Rule in the Mirror website

The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker

The Dictator’s Handbook: Why Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics by Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith

The Dictator’s Learning Curve: Inside the Global Battle for Democracy by William J. Dobson

The Spirit of Despotism: Understanding the Tyrant Within by Manfred F.R. Kets de Vries on the Researchgate website

The Top 10 Most Evil Leaders Throughout History in the Kingston Whig-Standard website

Trail of Tears in the Museum of the Cherokee Indian website

Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty by Daron Acemoglu and James A. Rob

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Robert Labayen spent 22 years in advertising prior to joining ABS-CBN in 2004. He was VP-Creative Director at Saatchi & Saatchi and Executive Creative Director at J. Walter Thompson, two of the country's leading ad agencies. He is currently the Head of Creative Communications Management at ABS-CBN. His job involves inspiring people to be their best. He is a writer, painter and songwriter.

Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.