It's hard to believe, but in the early 1960s, Singapore and Sierra Leone were in pretty much the same place economically. And Sierra Leone, rich in resources and with a stable democracy, appeared to be on the rise.
Instead, Singapore has since become one of the most successful countries in the world, with a GDP per capita of $94,000 (according to the CIA's World Factbook). Sierra Leone has remained one of the most woeful, with a GDP per capita of $1,600. Singapore is ranked seventh in the world. Sierra Leone is ranked 200 places lower, near the bottom.
During a speech I gave recently, a former high-level American intelligence official interrupted me to make the case that the primary reason for Singapore's success was autocracy. When I disagreed, he stomped out. He's not alone in his opinion.
Autocracy is very much in vogue. Perhaps it's just the pendulum swinging. We're coming off a 30-year trend toward democratic, or at least elected, governments and have an entire generation with no firsthand knowledge of failed socialist dictatorships. Or perhaps it's the economic success of China over the last few decades that explains the shift.
Whatever the reason, autocracy is now often put forward as the solution for the developing world, and Singapore is the model often used. (South Korea and China are the others.) It's a compelling example. Lee Kwan Yew, Singapore's authoritarian first leader, was arguably the greatest economic leader of the 20th century. What Lee accomplished for a swampy, cobra-infested, war-torn island with no resources (while fighting a Communist insurgency) was nothing short of phenomenal. However, his success doesn't mean that autocracy is a good thing.
Autocracy is a high beta solution. It can turn out very good, as it did in Singapore's case, or it can turn out very badly. It turns out badly 99% of the time, measured both by the rights of people in those countries and their economies.
That's math, not hyperbole. As the world's leading development economist, Paul Collier of Oxford, told me, "If autocracy were a formula for success, African nations would be rich."
I tested his argument. I analyzed 53 African countries since independence, which for most was in the early 1960s, to see just how many have had dictators and whether they'd been more successful than countries with democratically elected governments.
I defined autocrats as those who came to power and held on to it through undemocratic means. I found 117 autocrats, and that is almost certainly an undercount. Some of these countries have had dozens of coup attempts, so my count may not be exhaustive. It may also undercount because not all democratically elected governments are democracies.
I found 47 of the 53 African nations had at least one stretch of autocracy since independence. The exceptions are Cape Verde, Botswana, Djibouti, Namibia, Sao Tome and South Africa. I found only one autocratic leader who might conceivably be compared to Lee Kwan Yew, Paul Kagame of Rwanda, and that comparison isn't clear cut.
The takeaway? Countries that trade freedom for prosperity are going to regret it most of the time, and likely for a long time. Unlike democracies, dictatorships allow for no do-overs.
Further, although neither group has done well, on average countries with a democratic tradition ranked 130 on the UN's Human Development Index (2018 Report,) while the others have ranked 156 (of 189). Any simple analysis like this raises all sorts of questions.
Daron Acemoglu of MIT and James Robinson of the University of Chicago have dug much deeper in their bestsellers "Why Nations Fail" and "The Narrow Corridor." Their conclusion is that some countries get a short-term boost under authoritarian governments that turn from socialism to capitalism, but it doesn't last. Long-term success, under any measure including economic, requires democracy.
Autocracy or authoritarianism is an easy answer. And it's easy to make the case by cherry-picking Asian examples like Singapore, South Korea and China. It works especially well if those banging the drum for autocracy leave out non-autocratic nations that have performed well economically, like Japan and Taiwan. (And, by the way, South Korea is now rated as free as Japan on the Freedom House rankings.) And also if they leave out regimes with a history of authoritarianism that haven't done so well, like Myanmar, the Philippines, Indonesia and North Korea. Or that since independence in the 1960s, Singapore has had 25 years of autocracy. Sierra Leone has had 32.
Anecdotes and selective sampling don't replace analysis, and the numbers say autocracy isn't a good solution — even for those countries desperate enough to try it.