I have been planning to ask some version of this hypothetical for a while and by coincidence Project Syndicate reposted an old article on de Tocqueville that relates to it, provoking me to ask now.
So here is the main question: Which of these is better: A dictator who is truly benevolent (having the best interests of the population as his/her highest priority) and enlightened (knowing enough about good policy to pursue the population’s best interests)? Or a democracy with fully universal suffrage (everyone votes) but most of the people don’t have the education to fully understand the issues or the time to investigate which candidates are best aligned with their values, beliefs, and interests?
If you selected the benevolent dictator, now imagine he/she is not quite so benevolent. How far down can you go before you switch to the ignorant democracy?
If you selected the ignorant democracy, imagine there are no safeguards against misleading political advertising, misinformation, or special interest lobbying. How bad can this situation get before you switch to the benevolent dictator?
The article on de Tocqueville had a lot of information on the democracy solution. For him, and for the author of the article, essayist Nicolas Tenzer, democracies have some systemic challenges. Because of the strong social instincts and motivations that are fundamental to human nature, many of us would rather go along with the crowd than take strong principled but unpopular stands, even when we are more informed than the majority about the issue. Self-delusion allows us to convince ourselves that they are probably right.
Unlike with the dictator, where we can see flaws and fight against a loss of the benevolence, we can’t do this with democracy’s flaws. So we are more at its mercies. We rely on having a strong educational system that informs all of our population on the issues, on critical thinking, on the importance of principled decision making, and to stop pandering to the latest trends in education. We need active media consumption, not passive infatuation with celebrity. We don’t seem to have either of these
Not that I am pushing for a dictatorship. But sometimes I wonder. We spend so much blood and treasure pushing democracy around the world. Is that really where we should be setting our priorities?