OPINION: How dictators stayed in power while ruining the economy

Robert Labayen

Posted at Jun 23 2020 01:35 AM

The kings’ main problem was getting good sleep. Novelist Italo Calvino wrote in Under the Jaguar Sun, the king is “waiting for the moment you will be deposed, when you will take leave of the throne, the scepter, the crown, and your head.”

When dictators snatch their power by murder or by maneuver, they know it’s only a matter of time that their co-conspirators will do it again. So, they will immediately get rid of all threats to the throne. Samuel Doe, the soldier who became ruler by stabbing the Liberian president, executed at least 50 of his collaborators. A little over ten years later, Doe was overthrown by a rebellion led by his former ally. He was tortured and executed. Fidel Castro had his very popular partner in revolution, Che Guevarra, exiled. 

Iraq’s Saddam Hussein would have 22 members of his Ba’ath Party killed by a firing squad. Hundreds more were executed a few days later. Hussein said, “as long as there is a revolution, there will be a counter-revolution.” Hussein’s purge resulted in the deaths of intellectuals. An uneducated man became his hatchet man. Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith in the book The Dictator’s Handbook wrote that for dictators, “it is better to have loyal incompetents than competent rivals.”

The Evil Inner Circle

Julius Caesar made the mistake of ordering reforms that were good for the common man but bad for the interests of his backers. So, they stabbed him 23 times.

The despot needs to take good care of the people in his circle of trust. If not, they will easily defect to the rival who gives more.

Where will the dictator get his funds for buying loyalty? He can raise taxes even though high taxes discourage hard work and entrepreneurship among the citizens. Some of his cronies may be the very business people required to pay higher taxes. But no worries, the dictator’s government can give them special treatment, if not subsidies.

If the country has natural resources, the autocrat can get money straight from foreign companies exploiting such wealth. The locals would not have participation. It happened in Nigeria in the 1970s. Despite its huge oil production, its people were among the poorest in the world. In Ghana, the Cocoa Marketing Board bought all the farmers’ produce at a low price. The government would then keep the profits as it sold to the world market at a higher price.

In the book Why Nations Fail, Daron Acemoglu and James A. Rob asserted that the common denominator among the poorest countries is an extractive economy. In such economies, the State and the cronies are enriched by taxes and national products while ordinary citizens are not incentivized to invest and innovate and don’t have secure property rights. Their dreams die with them. That’s the difference, for example, between North Korea and South Korea.

Babying the guards

In 2005, Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic ordered his troops to open fire and disperse the demonstrators. They did not obey. He didn’t know that the police had been won over by the dissenters. Eighty-eight years earlier, the Russian Army did not stop the revolutionaries who stormed the Winter Palace. That’s because the czar did not have any more money to pay the soldiers after he cut the vodka tax.

That was why Zimbabwe’s tyrant Robert Mugabe would always pay his army well when facing a threat of a military coup. That’s why dictators keep top generals in their favored and fed circle.

Using “the law” to Silence the critics

The book The Dictator’s Learning Curve by William J. Dobson reported that Malaysia’s two-time Prime Minister Mahathir Bin Mohamad had a “draconian tool” called the Internal Security Act. With it, he could arrest his critics without charges. When Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim criticized nepotism and cronyism in government, Anwar was accused of sodomy, the only Malaysian ever been charged with such crime.

Mikhail Khodorkovsky, an oil magnate, was the richest man in Russia when he was close to the government. After he spoke against Vladimir Putin, he was arrested on charges of tax evasion.
In January 2008, the centuries-old European University in St. Petersburg in Russia was about to do research on election monitoring. Soon enough, the district court ordered it closed after a “routine fire safety inspection.”

Of course, media control is also a staple with any autocracy. Putin, for example, has control of the three top TV networks. The “oligarchs” who owned the main TV networks were forced to sell their shares or face imprisonment. Kremlin cronies also bought the biggest newspapers.

Good people needed

We have seen throughout history that in many parts of the world, in autocracies or in "democracies", there are people who can get carried away by power. It is obvious, what the world needs is not a better polity but better people to lead and be led.

While many good people shy away from politics, Pope Francis encourages good people to get “embroiled” in politics no matter how “dirty.” The Holy Father said that politics is a form of martyrdom and charity for the common good. “No, you can’t watch from the balcony. Get right in there,” he preached.


Read:

Catholics must be active in politics, no matter how “dirty”, pope says Carol Glatz, Catholic News Service in the National Catholic Reporter website

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

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.