Lincoln’s Secretary of State, William Henry Seward, observed, “We elect a king for four years and give him absolute power within certain limits which, after all, he can interpret for himself”.

Americans elect dictators for four year terms, rather than for Rome's customary, renewable six months. Our dictators hire and fire all senior officials, secretly ban fifty thousand citizens from flying, order people kidnapped, tortured, imprisoned and assassinated and kill millions in a war.

Though media convinced the world that Mao was a 'dictator,' for example, he was not. He was elected to his offices and, when he blew it, unelected. He moped around the Forbidden City as he put it, "Like a mourner at my own funeral" until his colleagues took pity on him.

Mao could do none of the things and had none of the powers our Presidents exercise daily, seemingly without reflection.

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Seward is overstating the case. It is true that the U.S. functionally elects a dictator for the rest of the world and for non-citizen residents of the U.S. However, for better and worse there are multiple veto points in the political system that severely constrain presidents in domestic policy (e.g. Congress, the Courts, state governments, private capital, foreign powers, the public). e.g if by some lucky chance, the U.S. elected a strong advocate of universal health care as president, and the president decided to bypass Congress and enact a universal public health care system via executive order, I am skeptical that the system would survive as anything more than an outline on paper. Even if the president was able to enact the law with the support of Congress, I am skeptical that the law would go into effect, because of the current partisan composition of the Court and because of the power of private capital. e.g. "certain limits" are actually fairly significant domestic constraints. On the other hand, if a president ordered the military to march on Congress and overthrow state governments, and the military officers complied, odds are term limits would go out the window along with the rest of the constitutional structure. We would have a genuine dictatorship or a civil war. From an international perspective, it would probably be fair to look at the role of the U.S. president as a term limited dictator. From a domestic perspective, it is still just a president.

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The 'restraints' are loudly praised, but Presidential EOs bypass, override and obsolete Congress and Court.

Our media do all in their power to make it look otherwise, of course, with their 'checks and balances' and 'democracy' claptrap, but that's what they're paid to do.

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Millions of American with student loan debt would probably disagree with your assessment regarding the overwhelming, unchecked power of executive authority (e.g. see Dept. of Education v. Brown et al (2023)). This is one of those areas where the partisan composition of both the Courts and Congress matter. There are clear checks and balances. If Congress fails to fund the government in the next 30 days, this is another case where we'll find a serious constraint on executive authority.

"Is the United States a democracy?" This is a separate question.

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Your point about Mao is a good one, and i think indicative of a difference in how different cultures conceive of the role of government. I'm no historian, but my understanding is China has a much longer tradition of the bureaucratic administration of state functions with a supreme executive, while the governing traditions of Europe (and elsewhere) still tend toward absolute rule (at least in my opinion).

In the US, we have strong (ie, independent/lacking oversight, depending your politics) bureaucracies at nearly all levels of government. I've been of the belief for some time that, contrary to their purported safeguard against dictatorship, term limits on the executive only serve to outsource dictatorship to those same bureaucracies. I wouldn't categorize myself as a "deep state" conspiracy theorist, but i do think adherents raise a legitimate critique. I would argue that having an elected executive that doesn't have term limits is the safeguard against bureaucratic, for lack of a better term, tyranny.

For instance, has any president had as lasting an effect on the bureaucracies of the US since FDR? You might say Reagan, but looking at a calendar, i wonder to what extent his effect was a result of people hired in the 40's/ 50's/60's retiring from gov't positions, and taking with them their generational perspective.

If any of that makes sense, LOLZ.

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Oct 29, 2023Liked by Branko Milanovic

Branko, Your commentary and analyses are invariably insightful and stimulating - they have this rare quality of blending common sense, economics know-how, wide erudition and a sense of justice. The puzzle in this case is why you chose to expend time on such a ridiculous paper. Its presumption and thesis actually suggest a question on which your thoughts would be very valuable: why is it that many economists seem to think their discipline and analytical apparatus gives them a special ability to pronounce on political, social and cultural matters outside their areas of technical expertise, and are so widely indulged in this vanity? I don’t mean to suggest that knowledgeable persons who happen to be economists should not be speaking out on world affairs or topics beyond economics. Rather, it is the invocation, implicit or explicit, of expertise and professional eminence in economics, and the promise of texts that name-drop concepts of prevailing economic theories, that appears to be why they fill oped pages and sites like Project Syndicate. The fault, dear Branko, may be in ourselves and not in our stars, but the powers that give us our pundits and gurus have a lot to answer for.

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Tahir, Thank you very much for your kind words. On the paper: what can I say? I could not agree w/ you more. It is a paper that spends several pages on mathematics which bring nothing new compared to a rather trivial point that can be explained in a couple of sentences. Its premise is utterly and demonstrably wrong. This is a problem of economics: wrong premise, complex math which bring no additional insight, but allow paper to be published. And for that reason the paper bothered me. I could not sleep. And wanted to write.

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I agree, more or less. Also, the whereabouts of tyrants are probably better explained by the circumstances under which they operate than by any theories of individual behaviour. There haven’t been any tyrants in western Europe for decades, for example, not because there aren't any wannabees but because there is no space for them. The region is rich enough to keep the conflict level low, and for that reason behaving tyrannically would seem bizarre. People wouldn’t believe in them. Not even their henchmen would.

But just wait until the incompetence and ideological blinders of the European leadership has left the region in tatters and the people in fear – then the tyrants will appear! One can see the forebodings in the sharpening of censureship and the slinging around the label of terrorist. We are on a slippery slope.

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The very easy and obvious answer is that they raid other fields because they can do so productively. The average political scientist, sociologist, or international relations scholar is dumber and much less familiar with the tools of serious model-building than the average economist. An economist can read advanced texts from any of their disciplines without struggling to understand. The opposite simply does not occur very often.

For the same reasons, mathematicians can and do win the economics Nobel and physicians can and do win the chemistry Nobel. There are higher and lesser fields, and economics is simply the most developed and intelligent field in the social sciences.

And yes, mathematical model-building is essential. It forces scholars to be thorough in their thinking, taking premises to their logical conclusions and making falsifiable hypothesis.

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Economists *believe* economics is the most developed and intelligent field in the social sciences. Others don't agree. And economists seem incapable of finding the way out of the economic decay the western world finds itself. So I would contend that economics, as it is practiced in these times, is a pastime, a kind of glass bead game for university people. Perhaps a lot of intellectual energy is put into it, but nothing comes out.

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The labour market agrees, compare wages and come back to me.

“Economic decay”? Hilarious. Read some economic history.

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I would rather let people judge for themselves about this. Here's an article about it:

"Practically every day I read an economist like Paul Krugman or Brad DeLong talking about how the economy is the best ever, but ordinary people just don’t get it, and must be idiots influenced by propaganda.

Someone’s an idiot on this subject, but it’s not ordinary people."


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Debates about the relative virtue of 2023 macro conditions are trivialities compared with the objective fact of longue duree exponential increases in consumption worldwide. I’m talking long-term secular trends here.

I recommended reading economic history, not gossip among New York Times columnists. If we are going to play this [idiotic] game, I can also cite polls about American consumers feeling very well about their personal finances but gloomy about the overall economy. I can also cite polls showing that the average voter believes 25% of the USG federal budget goes to foreign aid, but that’s neither here nor there (or is it?).

And the labour market deciding economists are less useless than eg sociologists *is* the mythical “People” making a judgement. Markets aggregate preferences, etc.

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It happens that those countries that have the "best" development, i.e. China, the ASEAN countries, and India, are those who have followed mainstream economists the least.

The commentator I quoted said that people are quite competent to judge their own economic development but bad at judging general trends. And if they look back over the last 40 years or so, when mainstream economics has ruled economic policies, they can't see much to be happy about.

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This is unintentionally hilarious. Do economists seriously have no idea how trivial and ridiculous their math, much less their reductionist models divorced so utterly from empirical reality, looks to actual mathematicians and scientists?

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I semi-explicitly called mathematics a field superior to economics. Learn how to read.

For the record, the fact that some of the most brilliant scientific minds of the twentieth century fell for socialism (eg Einstein) proves economics is not particularly trivial.

And whatever triviality economists produce, it is very much superior to the stuff most other social scientists produce, yes.

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Certainly "economics" is not trivial. Mainstream is.

A detailed list of flaws in the mainstream’s approach can be found at http://othercanon.org/organization/. None of them, of course, completely condemn the mainstream as free fantasies or anything like that. But they do raise, collectively, some doubt about if what the mainstream is doing is worthwhile.

Perhaps the practically most important flaw is the view of economics as a kind of accountancy where all economic activities are equally good and that the market therefore should decide what to do according to immediate profitability. I argue that economics is about productive capacity, meaning that some kinds of activities are potentially more rewarding than others and that it is important to invest in them, even if they don’t give anything at the moment. That quality is more important than quantity, to pose it in simple terms. And this means that political initiatives can be of crucial importance.

The Chinese agree with me, as, incidentally, the the Americans did during the 19th century and until about the 1960s according to Michael Lind.

Thus, Yi Wen, for example, argues that the Great Leap Forward, so derided by Western liberals, was an absolutely decisive factor in later Chinese industrialisation – it it created hundreds of thousands of small industrial enterprises, most of which died, but enough survived to create a nationwide industrial culture that could then be used to build an industrial society through a policy of sticks and carrots of the kind Alice Amsden has described. While we in the the West have happily obeyed the market’s command, cheered on by mainstream economists believing in an abstract world devoid of qualities, to outsource as much production as possible to Asia and live on copyrights and patents. I.e. to retire from the world and from life.

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physicists can and do win the chemistry Nobel*

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So more years in power requires more crimes to stay in power, which means more victims who are potential avengers, which means more incentive to stay in power to avoid vengeance. This makes sense. And dictators' primary motivations are usually raw power and enforcing an ideology, rather than attaining a care-free wealthy lifestyle, so luxurious but powerless retirements are unusually unappealing to dictators. This also makes sense.

Could a few things, probably of lesser importance, be added to that model?

1. We don't have go back to Sulla to find an interesting exception. According to an informal but fairly thorough analysis (https://mattlakeman.org/2023/10/09/notes-on-ghana), Jerry Rawlings in Ghana took power by coup, then retired, then took power by coup again. He extended his second period in power twice by more-or-less fair election. During the electoral period, he ruled constitutionally. Then he announced his retirement. He handed over power to the opposition leader, who defeated someone from his own party in the election. Was Rawlings less rational than other dictators? Did he understand something about creating institutions which is missing from the above model? Or are countries which depend on periodic IMF bailouts just different?

2. Like all people, dictators age. Raw power and enforcing an ideology probably appeal to the sort of person who becomes a dictator a lot more than they do to the typical person. But they probably don't appeal to a dictator at age 85 as much as they did when the dictator was 40. (On the other hand, more time in power might make it harder to even imagine oneself not having power.)

3. There are probably a few dictators who seized power in a kill-or-be-killed standoff with the previous ruler. They may not value raw power and enforcing an ideology to the same extent.

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There is one more motivation that has been overlooked in the paper I think. With all this power and ego, dictators would also consider the persona they built and how history will judge them. It is hard to empathize, but I do not think they would be that scared of death (by assasion or killed after overthrown). However after long years in power and old age, they would concern more of their legacy and how they will be remembered.

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Interesting to think whether this analysis applies equally to the Western dominance of the world. Could it explain the increasing use of US to resort to sanctions and military power to maintain its (short-term) hegemony even though it compromises US long-term interest (eg in addressing climate change, and prospering when other countries prosper).

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Kaushik Basu's argument is very naive and doesn't fit historical evidence (i.e. the observable universe).

The essential error is his premise. Dictators are not supermen; they are just ordinary humans who arise to their condition of power socially, i.e. given a series of socially and historically specific circumstances. As such, they have a social role to fit, that is, they cannot do whatever they want because their power is social (subjective), not absolute.

So, e.g., in your example of Stalin. It is very clear from historical documentation that Stalin rose to power with a very specific task, to save the Revolution at any cost, after the international revolution ("permanent revolution") failed in Germany in 1923. The Soviet people wanted Stalin because he personified, in the Politburo, Socialism in One Country, not because he was Stalin. As such, Stalin's power was conditioned socially by his socially given task to implement Socialism in One Country. And History proves he did, and that he was successful in his task.

But let's assume the category of the dictator is real on the terms Basu puts it. Let's assume a dictator is a superman who obtains absolute power purely by his own individual efforts at the cost of the efforts of every other individuals. The problem then arises: why this specific individual? What is the pattern? Can we know, from genetic analysis or psychiatric analysis, if one given kid is a dictator? Even if so, how do dictators control his subordinates directly? Mind control? Divine power? The mystical category of ideology? Either way, in order to keep scientific, one must put its due material base to this control -- postulating the existence of "ideology" doesn't cut it.

But let's assume this dictator category is scientifically established somehow. Let's apply it to History. A simple exercise quickly makes us realize dictatorships would be the natural model humans are organized and governed. The only exceptions would be some neolithic indigenous tribes who survived the liberal (capitalist) genocides of the 1500s-1800s and liberal democracies (in the sense that a confederation of capitalists govern through a professional class of politicians and professional Armed Forces in a representative system). That would be a cute moral argument, but would explain nothing of human historical development. The problem here is that it is proven that all the dictators can be explained historically, so Basu would either have to unify his theory why consolidated History, or prove History is false.

A final trivia: let's not forget that the term "dictator" was created by the Roman Republic -- a democracy by present-day Western standards -- and that it was an office, given by the Senate. So the origin of the dictator itself is 100% in the legal sphere, not in the sociological/psychological sphere.

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If states were looked at as individual people, US could be portrayed as a dictator that is aware that stepping down from the post of global ruler means facing the consequences of prior mischiefs. But more disturbing than facing victims US finds not being the ruler i.e. looking at someone else as global ruler. Will for power. Strong. Obsessive. Unwilling, unable to give up raw power.

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Its clear that most dictators or authoritarian leaders will not voluntarily step down, but have to be deposed The relevant question is what arrangements can best encourage this.

Domestically, a balance of power in government (such as the tripartate American system of executive president, congress, and supreme court) allows a president to be impeached and removed from power if needed. Without such a constitution, removing a leader can be very risky, and may only be possible with the power of generals who hold loyalty of their armed forces.

What is needed in the long term is an international model that sets basic requirements for participation in the internatiinal community. Access to global narkets and finance should be witheld from countries that don't maintain such a balanced constitution. Secondly, a court that had real internationl support could hold individual leaders personally responsible for serious crimes against either their own citizens, or those of other countries. Sadly, these steps require a level of consensus between G20 countries that simply does not exist today.

My dearest hope is that we may yet ser such a level of Global human consensus emerge in the 21st century, just as my parents generation made it come about for Western Europe in the 20 th.

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It would also require countries to be more or less equals in population and surface.

A system like this will not function when some members are 30 or a 100 times larger than other members.

Look how outsized Russia is in land area, China in both land area and population.

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Does this also hold true for hereditary rulers? I would imagine that there are plenty of people born into power, who would happily trade and/or delegate the responsibility of power to others in order to enjoy luxury.

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There have been numerous abdications by hereditary rulers. There have been various reasons -- to establish an heir's position, to leave behind the burdens of rule, etc.

The most famous abdication - because of the scope of the change it brought about - was that of Emperor Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire, Duke of Austria, King of Spain, and many other titles. At his peak his domains ran from Bohemia to Peru, and the Netherlands to Hungary. In 1555 he abdicated his Holy Roman Empire domains, in favor of his son Ferdinand; and his Spanish domains (including the American colonies), in favor of his son Philip. The consequences were long lasting.

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Good stuff this. A couple of quibbles: I think Cincinnatus rather than Sulla is the archetype of the dictator who voluntarily retires, and Shakespeare’s more direct case of the impossibility of “retirement” for an autocrat is King Lear (though it wouldn’t have been explained in psychological terms so much as a violation of the “great chain of being” and the natural order).

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