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.

46 thoughts on “What have the Romans ever done for us?*

  1. SJ Says:

    Andrew, Brad’s post (the one copied by homer that you refer to at #11) is silly. That’s unusual for Brad, but still.

    I retract that. Brad seems to have some elaborate joke going on. He’s criticising the US wingnuts who think they’ll now be able to go in and loot the place.

  2. These discussions sometimes suffer from a lack of definition. Would Singapore, for example, qualify as a democracy or a dictatorship? How democratic is the government of the United States, given the power of the vested interests of global capitalism?

    My working hypothesis is that a essential defining feature of a democracy is that the citizens have the ability, if they have the inclination, to develop movements for social change. There are many examples. One example was the Civil Rights Movement which widened the franchise, making the possibility today for a President to be elected with an Afro-American heritage.

    Peace is a second condition for the development of democracy. Peace is about means and ends, or as Kennedy “a process to solve problems”. Any society, democracy or not, when confronted with an external threat, will necessarily and predictably become more hierarchical and authoritarian.

    The reality of an external threat partly explains the Cuban Dictatorship. Another part of the picture is that in Cuba violent means were used to overthrow a dictatorship maintained by external support. The Cold War context is also relevant, and spheres of influence to protect vital national interests.

    The problem for me is how are dictatorships be removed? I seem to remember that Adam Smith and others have thought that commerce is a good basis, but that does not seem to be working with Saudi Arabia.

  3. gandhi,
    Good to see you are completely failing to live up to your namesake’s ideals. He, at least, had some clarity on the nature of dictatorship and its strong tendency towards violence. Perhaps you should read up on him.
    I agree that PrQ’s post was nuanced. I could not say the same thing about your comment. You are clearly blaming US policy for the economic basket case that Cuba is – a point that PrQ (correctly) does not make.

  4. The following post to an Online Opinion discussion about Cuba in response to the article “Farewell Fidel” bears repeating:

    According to the UN Human Development Index, Cuba ranks 51st out of 177 countries. The US ranks 12th.

    * On GDP per capita (in international dollars) it ranks 94th ($6000 per head). The US is 2nd ($41,890)

    * On average life expectancy at birth it is 32nd (77.7 years). The US is 31st (77.9 years).

    * On literacy of the adult population it is 2nd (99.8% of the population. (US no data).

    * On combined primary, secondary and tertiary gross enrolment ratio it is 35th (87.6%). The US is 19th (93.3)

    * On the Gender Development Index, which measures female life expectancy, adult literacy and combined enrolment as a percentage of the male figure, Cuba ranks 2nd out of 156 countries. The US is 107th (down there with the UAE, Bangladesh and Zimbabwe).

    * On the Human Poverty Index, Cuba ranks 6th out of 108 developing countries – it is ahead of Singapore (GDP p.c of $29,663 – not clear why they call that a developing country since it’s income is higher than Germany’s!). The US has no data.

    In other words, on about one seventh of the US average income Cuba managed to produce health and educational outcomes that are equal to or very close to those of the USA. Compare with the Dominican Republic (HDI rank 79, GDP p.c. $8,217) or El Salvador (rank 89, GDP p.c $5,180)

  5. Good to see you are completely failing to live up to your namesake’s ideals.

    I get that a lot these days. It’s a hard road to hoe. Maybe I should get a new monniker.

    Can I ask you to just go back and read my comment #2 again WITHOUT the blinkers? I have no idea how you inferred what you have from what I wrote, so it’s rather hard to continue discussion.

    I’m not sure what will happen in Venezuela. I did say that Chavez has dictatorial qualities, but I didn’t bother mentioning that I abhor that. It’s still an operational Democracy for now, and quite a vibrant one. Let’s all hope it keeps moving along nicely!

    You seem to be implying that the Cuban economy did not suffer massively because of US sanctions. Is that really your stance?

  6. In other words, on about one seventh of the US average income Cuba managed to produce health and educational outcomes that are equal to or very close to those of the USA.

    If you call “literacy” education. I know very few internationally renowned cuban scientists, technologists, or companies. In other words, it is not hard to educate your population to minimal standards of literacy. It is a heck of a lot more difficult to educate them well enough to make a significant contribution to the global economy.

    Your average Cuban can read, is relatively healthy, but can’t actually buy anything. Doesn’t sound like much of a social system to me.

  7. Taiwan is an interesting case.

    Under various nations until 1949 when it was taken over by the KMT from the mainland (about 2 million of them) it had a military dictatorship, along with secret police and murders and disapearing of political opponeents, up until 1992 when partial democracy peeped through.

    It now has a pretty good functioning democracy at national, and county / city level by anyones standards, all in 10 – 15 years without much pressure from outside at all.

    There are laws preventing discrimination based on sexuality and in 2003 legislation granting marriages and adoption to same-sex couples was proposed however it faced opposition, stalled, and was not voted on. Should the law pass, Taiwan would be the first country in Asia to permit same-sex marriage.

    Not to mention exporting Bubble Cup and Ang Lee and Giant bikes to the world. Most importantly there is now a Taiwanese Wiggles – with a girl member!

  8. mugwump wrote, “I know very few internationally renowned cuban scientists, technologists, or companies.”

    I have to say that’s an original way to attempt to diminish the impressive achievements of the Cuban Government which are attested to by <a href=”https://johnquiggin.com/index.php/archives/2008/02/22/what-have-the-romans-ever-done-for-us/#comment-206723″these statistics. However, measures of what is ‘internationally renowned’ must be highly subjective.

    If what you are implying can be considered correct, it may be because the Cubans have focussed more on technology intended to meet more basic human needs, rather than glamorous and expensive research at the frontiers of science.

    One most impressive achievement of the Cuban government was the reorganisation of their society, particularly their agricultural in the 1990’s to cope with the sudden dramatic reduction in the imports of petroleum and gas from the former USSR.

    I would be amazed if any free-market based system could manage such a relatively smooth transition.

    mugwump wrote: “Your average Cuban can read, is relatively healthy, but can’t actually buy anything.”

    They have shelter and all their basic needs met and appear to live in harmonious functional communities, which is much more than can be said for many of the people in surrounding free market societies.

    There are limits to what a society, with such limited natural resources, facing an economic blockade and a military threat from the most powerful nation on earth, can achieve.

    The discussion of December 2006 of December 2006, in response to Professor Quiggin’s article “Castro and Pinochet”, may also be of interest.

  9. Aside from Singapore where the citizens don’t exactly get a choice, there are also South Korea and Taiwan, both of which have only shifted to more democratic systems within the last couple of decades.

    I think part of the problem lies in the method of static comparison. We would do better to look at path dependency and the opportunities/constraints imposed by it.

  10. mugwump wrote: “Your average Cuban can read, is relatively healthy, but can’t actually buy anything.�
    They have shelter and all their basic needs met and appear to live in harmonious functional communities, which is much more than can be said for many of the people in surrounding free market societies.

    That must be why the citizens of those surrunding free market societies are emigrating to Cuba in such large numbers.

    *snigger*

  11. Andrew Reynolds,

    As I noted as 17, WordPress chewed up that #2 comment and #4 as well! I am surprised to see it here now: it wasn’t there last time I commented at #31. So my apologies for any confusion. Next time my comments get swallowed I will just ping the prof and wait (it does happen rather too often for my liking).

    Back to your comments, I don’t see how this sort of “what if?” argument can be resolved.

    Obviously the Cuban economy did suffer massively because of US sanctions. Arguing about what sort of state they might be in without those sanctions is a bit like arguing what shape Iraq might be in now if the USA had just removed Saddam and left town.

    But if you want to talk about “rampant corruption and (less rampant) oppression” you could certainly point to Washington as a corrupt system where money washes away many serious problems. Look at how GWB got elected. Look at Gitmo, phone-tapping, the Padilla case, etc. Where is the US media? In the GOP’s pocket. Where is the Dept Of Justice? In the other pocket. Where are Bush and Cheney? In Big Oil’s pocket. Etc.

    Prof Q’s original point was that “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.

    My point is that it’s not only dictators to whom we give such “passes”. I think it’s a fair point.

  12. government is always a dictatorship. even when the rule of law applies. who make the laws? the privileged do. they are selected. the media support the privileged to election. interests become vested. and defended. if need be, to the death. when it s done in accordance with accepted custom, it is a reaffirmation of government. a v dicey said uk parliament could pass laws because it was expected to do so and therefore it was obeyed. this is conditioning. saddam was cia. his position was secured by gulf war 1. gulf war 2 was due to his premature death.

  13. “Dictators may do some good, but on average less good than democracy, with all its faults.”

    I’m sorry but that statement completely misses the point. We don’t expect dictators to do good but we constantly make the mistake of expecting democracies to do good. This is what has made some of the worst atrocities in history possible. Liberal do-gooders like Mr. Quiggin need to be reminded that imperialism, colonialism, and even slavery have reached their high points under democratic regimes, not under absolute monarchies or corrupt dictators. The Nazis notwithstanding, wars of aggression in the modern period have been most likely to be waged by democracies. This is the dilemma that we democrats must face, and your hand-waving exercises, Mr. Quiggin, don’t make it go away.

  14. Postscript, since you mention Suharto: fi I remember correctly, Mr. Suharto committed his worst crimes with direct support from the democratic US. Other dictators, like Mobutu or Pinochet, would never have come to power without the support of Western democratic countries.

    How then shall we parse that statement “Dictators may do some good, but on average less good than democracy, with all its faultsâ€?? If Pinochet, Mobutu, Suharto etc. were acting on behalf of Western democratic powers much of the time, how do you account for the good and the bad done by them? If a democracy destroys another democracy, how does this impact the average good done by democracy?

  15. #33: “Taiwan is an interesting case.
    Under various nations until 1949 when it was taken over by the KMT from the mainland (about 2 million of them) it had a military dictatorship, along with secret police and murders and disapearing of political opponeents, up until 1992 when partial democracy peeped through.”

    The KMT took control of Taiwan from the Japanese in 1945.

    Martial law was lifted in 1987.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s