'Strongman' leaders make for weak economies, study finds

Autocrats more often associated with economic slowdown than boosting growth, say researchers

Wednesday 24 July 2019 14:20
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"Strongman" leaders tend to be associated with weak economies, according to a new study. A study of data on economic growth and political regimes in 133 countries between 1858 and 2010 found that leaders who restrict political freedom have rarely driven up economic growth and have more frequently presided over slowdowns.

So-called benevolent dictators such as the late Lee Kuan-Yew of Singapore have been credited by some with lifting countries out of poverty. But new work published in the Leadership Quarterly journal counters claims that dictatorial regimes provide stability that allows economies to thrive.

Dr Ahmed Skali, a study co-author and economist at Australia's Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, said the research was especially interesting and timely as the rise of "strongman" figures like Donald Trump who ape much of the rhetoric of autocratic leaders is becoming more prevalent.

Mr Trump has promised a strong economy but has blamed migrants for some of America's problems and his tenure has come alongside rising racial tensions.

Dr Skali said: “In an era where voters are willingly trading their political freedoms in exchange for promises of strong economic performance to strongman figures like Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin or Recep Tayyip Erdogan, it's important to understand whether autocratic leaders do deliver economic growth.

“Our empirical results show no evidence that autocratic leaders are successful at delivering economic growth in any systematic way.”

Researchers found a dictator was no more likely to oversee a period of economic growth than a democratic leader.

But autocrats were more likely to be in power during times of economic slowdown, casting “serious doubt” on the view that autocratic leaders are good at promoting economic growth,“ according to Dr Skali.

And the researchers also looked at the rare examples of dictators who oversaw periods of growth.

They found no evidence to suggest they were responsible for the prosperity and were actually “riding the wave” of previous growth and in “the right place at the right time.”

The same analysis was applied to dictators overseeing poor economies to see if they were in the “wrong place at the wrong time” and found economic progress was significantly reversed after they came into power.

People were so easily fooled into attributing success to dictators because humans are “hard-wired” to link outcomes to a person’s intentions, explained the study’s co-author Stephanie Rizio, a PhD student at Australia’s Victoria University.

She said: “In the wild, this is a successful evolutionary strategy, even if it leads to false positives.

“It is better to interpret rustling in a nearby bush as caused by a predator or an ill-intended rival tribesperson and be incorrect, than to ascribe it to the wind and be incorrect. This tendency has remained with us into the present day.”

As social primates, Ms Rizio explained, we are also inclined to accept the authority of a single individual, the alpha primate.

He added: “Perhaps this is why we routinely attribute group-level outcomes to the actions of leaders, even when leaders have no control over outcomes, which may lead us to be accepting of autocratic leadership styles,” she said.

The scholars also pointed to leadership literature which has shown that the idea of autocratic leadership is more attractive in times of uncertainty.

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