Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

(David Woodside/The Globe and Mail/David Woodside/The Globe and Mail)
(David Woodside/The Globe and Mail/David Woodside/The Globe and Mail)


7 steps to becoming a successful despot Add to ...

Hanging on to absolute power is no easy feat. Just ask Egypt's Hosni Mubarak or Tunisia's Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Mark Van Vugt and Anjana Ahuja, authors of Selected, a new book on leadership, offer (with tongue firmly in cheek) these helpful tips for a prolonged iron rule .

1 Expand one's power base through nepotism and corruption. This is not just a tactic adopted in Third World countries; the British scandal over MPs' expenses, in which politicians made claims ranging from the embarrassingly trivial (a bathplug for under a pound) to the ridiculous (a duck island for a castle moat), demonstrates that the powerful will always find ways to abuse privilege.

Be warned, though: you will eventually be rumbled, so corruption tends to work only in the short term.

2 Curry favour by providing public goods efficiently and generously. Benevolent dictatorship was practised by Lee Kuan Yew, prime minister of Singapore for 31 years. Lee believed that ordinary people could not be entrusted with power because it would corrupt them, and that economics was the major stabilizing force in society. To this end, he effectively eliminated all opposition by using his constitutional powers to detain suspects without trial for two years without the right of appeal. To implement his economic policies, Lee allowed only one political party, one newspaper, one trade union movement and one language. He encouraged people to uphold the family system, discipline their children, be more courteous and avoid pornography. As well as setting up a government dating service for single graduates, he urged people to take better aim in public toilets and handed out hefty fines for littering. Singaporeans tolerated these restrictions on their freedom because they valued their economic security more.

On this point, Lee did not disappoint, turning Singapore into one of the world's wealthiest countries (per capita). If a despot can spin wealth and stability people are more inclined to forget their liberty. In fact, one of our experiments shows that a Lee-style form of leadership, in which one person is vested with the power to punish free-riders and cheats, is very effective at maintaining co-operation in groups.

3 Instigate a monopoly on the use of force to curb public violence and maintain peace. Dictators cannot survive for long without disarming the people and buttering up the military. Former dictators such as Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan, Mobutu Sese Seko of the Congo and Idi Amin of Uganda were high-ranked army officers who co-opted the military in order to overthrow democracies in favour of dictatorships.

Yet democracies are not always more popular than dictatorships.

In reality, people prefer dictatorships if the alternative is chaos. This explains the nostalgia for rulers like Stalin and Mao, who were mass murderers but who provided social order. One retired middle-ranking official in Beijing told the Asia Times last year: "I earned less than 100 yuan a month in Mao's time. I could barely save each month but I never worried about anything. My work unit would take care of everything for me: housing, medical care, and my children's education, though there were no luxuries. … Now I receive 3,000 yuan as a [monthly]pension, but I have to count every penny - everything is so expensive and no one will take care of me now if I fall ill."

When given the choice in the laboratory, participants will desert an unstructured group (analogous to an anything-goes society) and seek the order of a "punishing regime," which has the authority to identify and reprimand cheats. This lawlessness can be seen in hunter-gatherer tribes (egalitarianism is no guarantee of peacefulness). When anthropologists visited a New Guinea tribe they found that a third of males suffered a violent death.

When women were asked to describe their domestic life a typical answer ran like this: "My first husband was killed by Elopi raiders. My second husband was killed by a man who wanted me and who became my third husband. That brother was killed by the brother of my second husband, seeking to avenge his murder."

Any aspiring dictator who restores order, even through coercion, is likely to earn the gratitude of his subjects.

Report Typo/Error
Single page

Follow us on Twitter: @globeandmail

Next story




Most popular videos »

More from The Globe and Mail

Most popular