“Yes, yes, but the trains ran on time!”

I have a friend whose parents are Spanish. He’s told me a story about a comment his dad sometimes makes when they talk about Spain under Franco. The gist is that, when my friend brings up how Franco ruled with an iron fist, his dad says something to the effect of, “Yes, yes, but the trains ran on time!” To which my friend answers, “Yes, yes, but at what price?!” The trains may have run on time under Franco, but the Spanish paid for it in the form of political oppression and persecution of women, Jews, homosexuals, and other minorities.

Radney Balko discusses China's crony-style property rights

I attended NYU’s Development Research Institute annual conference last week where Bill Easterly gave a talk on benevolent autocrats. The idea that benevolent autocrats can lead countries to prosperity can be appealing — proponents of the idea point to examples like Lee Kuan Yew, de facto founder of Singapore who led the country into modernity and development during his three-decade rule. Easterly told the audience, however, that there’s no evidence that autocratic leadership leads to economic growth. For every autocracy like China, with high growth over the past few decades, there’s one like the Congo, with little or negative growth over the same period. Never mind that most autocrats are hardly benevolent, as Chinese well know.

Even if a leader seems benevolent, autocracy always comes at the price of freedom and individual rights. Easterly ended his presentation on this note, saying that freedom, democracy, and the sorts of inalienable individual rights afforded Americans are inherently more valuable than any autocrat’s economic growth prospects.

Furthermore, there’s a problem of consistency. An autocrat might begin his rule as benevolent, but who’s to say that he won’t devolve into an oppressive despot? People now scrutinize Rwandan president Paul Kagame in exactly this vein. At times he’s been praised as a darling of the West for his role in opening up Rwanda’s now thriving coffee sector and favoring free trade over foreign aid. But he’s also been called just another “African strongman” and accused of oppressing his people, having journalists and opposition leaders harassed and killed, and forcing citizens to vote for him. Just because an autocrat seems benevolent doesn’t mean he truly is or will remain so.

Lee Kuan Yew and Kagame have been praised as tight-fisted rulers who’ve helped their countries prosper. But recent scrutiny of Kagame is revealing underlying costs of autocracy. And even in the autocracy gold standard example of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew was known for “us[ing] the full force of his personality, and the law, to fight his opponents” and “flooring any political challenger who dared to climb through the ropes.” In 1993, Wired magazine called the country “Disneyland with the Death Penalty” — a place where finance data was a state secret and importing cannabis warranted death.

Even if there was strong evidence that benevolent autocrats could routinely produce growth, and even if you could somehow be sure that they would remain benevolent, the price paid for autocracy is much too high. Freedom and individual rights are too dear to, as Easterly put it, gamble them on the roulette wheel in hopes of economic growth.

Yes, under an autocrat the trains might run on time; yes, a country might stumble into prosperity once every green moon. But at what price?

Tate also blogs at Short Sentences.

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