The term authoritarian is used to describe an organization or a state which enforces strong and sometimes oppressive measures against the population, generally without attempts at gaining the consent of the population.
In an authoritarian state, citizens are subject to state authority in many aspects of their lives, including many that other political philosophies would see as matters of personal choice. There are, however, various degrees of authoritarianism; and even democratic countries have shown inclinations to authoritarianism in some respects.
Authoritarianism and ideology
Authoritarianism often arises from the governing bodies' presumption that they know what is right or wrong for the country and from intolerance of dissent. The government then enforces what it thinks is right, often with use of considerable force. Dissenting voices are ignored, or, more strikingly, are considered to be plotting against the best interests of the country. Such was, for instance, the case during the Reign of Terror in France; in Spain under Franco.
However, there can exist authoritarianism without any defining ideology or ideal of common good. Such is the case in dictatorships where the dictator maintains power more for the privileges associated with power than in the belief that he is conducting the right policies.
Authoritarianism is distinguished from totalitarianism both in degree and scope, authoritarian administration or governance being less intrusive and, in the case of groups, not necessarily backed by the use of force. For example, the Roman Catholic Church can be accurately described as authoritarian; however, in modern times it lacks the means to use force to enforce its edicts and is not a totalitarian establishment.
Typically, the leadership (government) of an authoritarian regime is ruled by an elite group that uses repressive means to stay in power. However, unlike totalitarian regimes, there is no desire or ideological justification for the state to control all aspects of a person's life, and the state will generally ignore the actions of an individual unless it is perceived to be a direct challenge to the state. Totalitarian governments tend to be revolutionary, intent on changing the basic structure of society, while authoritarian ones tend to be conservative.
The distinction between authoritarianism and totalitarianism was a crucial part of the Kirkpatrick Doctrine, which asserted that the United States could work with authoritarian nations with bad human rights records because they were more capable of fundamental reform and less dangerous than totalitarian nations.
Actions of authoritarian governments
There exists a gradation in authoritarianism, as well as a variety of possible authoritarian behaviors. Authoritarianism may exist under different regimes:
As an example of the last case, modern democracies often once enforced laws that would be nowadays considered abusive and authoritarian: for instance, countries such as the United States and the United Kingdom, until recently, enforced sodomy laws imposing the moral and religious values of the majority over matters of private life.
Authoritarian regimes typically grant wide powers to law enforcement agencies; in an extreme, this leads to a so-called police state. Authoritarian regimes may or may not have a rule of law — in the former case, laws and procedures exist and are applied, though they may seem intrusive, injust or excessive; in the latter case, laws do not exist, or are routinely ignored, and the actions of the government are at the whim of the leadership.
Authoritarian governments are generally (but not always) prone to corruption. One reason is that in such regimes, criticizing corrupt behavior is, at best, useless (since the officials will be retained in position), at worst, risky (since officials may retaliate against those who denounced them). A modern example of such a situation is the People's Republic of China.
Economic arguments for authoritarianism
One controversial belief, especially in Asia, is that countries with authoritarian regimes are more likely to be economically successful than democratic countries. Examples given to support this thesis are South Korea, Singapore, Malaysia, and Taiwan, which were considered authoritarian during their period of growth. This notion of developmental authoritarianism is a central justification for the rule of the Communist Party of China within the People's Republic of China. (The notion that authoritarian government is ultimately superior to democracy was also part of the idea of Asian values, although it diminished somewhat after the Asian financial crisis of 1998.)
One counter-argument is that there are many instances of authoritarian nations that have not encountered rapid growth, for example the Philippines and Indonesia. In Europe, Spain under Francisco Franco's authoritarian and conservative regime was considerably less economically developed than neighbouring countries such as France, even though the latter had suffered from the devastations of World War II.
Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore's first Prime Minister, purportedly justified its strict social conduct laws as "a way to force civility onto a third-world country," which it was at the time of its separation from Malaysia.
Last updated: 09-02-2005 02:09:02
Last updated: 09-03-2005 18:37:12