What have the Romans ever done for us?*
Most long-lived dictatorships have at least some positive achievements, and, the world being what it is, most dictators have some unattractive enemies. These facts have generated a couple of marathon threads at Crooked Timber, following Chris Bertrams post’ on Castro and mine on Suharto** , not to mention vast numbers on Saddam.
What are the implications of these facts, both for the policies we should support and for the moral judgements we should offer? I have a couple of fairly obvious points to make about policy, and some less clear thoughts about moral judgements.
First, up it is sometimes necessary to deal with dictators in order to defeat their even worse enemies, the most obvious case being the alliance with Stalin in World War II. But, as on other points, relying on precedents set in that worst of extreme cases is likely to take you wrong. Most of the time, cutting a deal with the lesser evil is a mistake. Today’s lesser evil (Saddam or bin Laden in the 1980s) may turn out to be tomorrow’s greater. More importantly, complicity in the crimes of a dictator throws away many of the moral advantages of democracy, advantages that have repeatedly outweighed temporary gains in military effectiveness.
Second, while the end of dictatorship is desirable, it’s not true that there is nothing worse than a dictatorship. A dictator can be replaced by an even worse successor or by chaos in which the positive achievements of the regime are lost and nothing is gained. Given a choice between a dictatorship and a democratic alternative with a plausible chance of success, there’s no alternative but to support democracy. But a decision to smash an existing regime in the hope that something better will turn up (as Robespierre put it, to export liberty at bayonet point) is usually a mistake, if not a crime.
On moral judgements, I’m pretty much an absolutist. Dictators may do some good, but on average less good than democracy, with all its faults. Unless there’s a strong reason to believe otherwise, I’m going to put better-than-average performances under dictatorship down to luck rather than dictatorial merit. And while it’s tempting to give a pass to a dictator who is willing to impose some policy program that seems good to you, but not to the inhabitants of the country concerned, none of us has the kind of infallibility required to justify this.
So, even though unappealing people will be celebrating for the wrong reasons, I’m glad to see Castro go. I hope that his brother won’t outlast him long and that Cubans rather than external enemies will be the ones who bring an end to his government. I hope they will be as lucky with their next government as the Indonesians have been with those that replaced the Suharto dictatorship.
* I was just settling down to type this title when it appeared 310 comments into the thread on Chris’ post on Castro
** Actually, it was about post-Suharto Indonesia, but the comments thread was rapidly derailed.