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Authoritarianism describes a form of government characterized by an emphasis on the authority of state in a republic or union. It is a political system controlled by typically non-elected rulers who usually permit some degree of individual freedom.


Theodore M. Vestal of Oklahoma State University–Stillwatermarker has written that authoritarianism is characterized by:

1) rule of men, not rule of law;
2) rigged elections;
3) all important political decisions made by unelected officials behind closed doors;
4) a bureaucracy operated quite independently of rules, the supervision of elected officials, or concerns of the constituencies they purportedly serve;
5) the informal and unregulated exercise of political power;
  • Leadership that is "self-appointed and even if elected cannot be displaced by citizens' free choice among competitors"
  • No guarantee of civil liberties or tolerance for meaningful opposition;
  • Weakening of civil society: "No freedom to create a broad range of groups, organizations, and political parties to compete for power or question the decisions of rulers," with instead an "attempt to impose controls on virtually all elements of society"; and
  • Political stability maintained by "control over and support of the military to provide security to the system and control of society; 2) a pervasive bureaucracy staffed by the regime; 3) control of internal opposition and dissent; 4) creation of allegiance through various means of socialization."

Authoritarian political systems may be weakened through "inadequate performance to demands of the people." Vestal writes that the tendency to respond to challenges to authoritarianism through tighter control instead of adaptation is a significant weakness, and that this overly rigid approach fails to "adapt to changes or to accommodate growing demands on the part of the populace or even groups within the system." Because the legitimacy of the state is dependent on performance, authoritarian states that fail to adapt may collapse.

Authoritarianism is marked by "indefinite political tenure" of the ruler or ruling party (often in a single-party state) or other authority. The transition from an authoritarian system to a democratic one is referred to as democratization.

John Duckitt of the University of the Witwatersrandmarker suggests a link between authoritarianism and collectivism, asserting that both are in opposition to individualism. Duckitt writes that both authoritarianism and collectivism submerge individual rights and goals to group goals, expectations and conformities. Others argue that collectivism, properly defined, is based on consensus decision-making, the opposite of authoritarianism.

Authoritarianism and totalitarianism

Totalitarianism is generally considered to be an extreme version of authoritarianism. Building on the work of Yale political scientist Juan Linz, Paul C. Sondrol of the University of Colorado at Colorado Springsmarker has examined the characteristics of authoritarian and totalitarian dictators and organized them in a chart:

Totalitarianism Authoritarianism
Charisma High Low
Role conception Leader as function Leader as individual
Ends of power Public Private
Corruption Low High
Official ideology Yes No
Limited pluralism No Yes
Legitimacy Yes No

Sanddrol argues that the while both authoritarians and totalitarianism are forms of autocracy, they differ in "key dichotomies":

Thus, compared to totalitarian systems, authoritarian systems may also leave a larger sphere for private life, lack a guiding ideology, tolerate some pluralism in social organization, lack the power to mobilize the whole population in pursuit of national goals, and exercise their power within relatively predictable limits.

Authoritarianism and democracy

While normally considered to be in opposition to one another, it is possible for democracies to be authoritarian. An illiberal democracy (or procedural democracy) is distinguished from liberal democracy (or substantive democracy) in that illiberal democracies lack some democratic features, such as the rule of law, an independent judiciary, separation of powers, civilian control of the military, freedom of speech and assembly, and freedom from censorship.

The central characteristic of an illiberal democracy is that institutional political processes are skewed in favor of the incumbent regime. Opposition may be dealt with by means of onerous regulations on political organizations in civil society, unfair electoral processes (such as difficult nomination rules, barriers to ballot access or extensive gerrymandering), manipulation of the media (either by ignoring or distorting opposition, or by biased coverage of opposition, often in state-owned press or oligarchical mass media). Illiberal democracy has also been termed "electoralism" or "soft authoritarianism."


There are many theories criticizing authoritarianism, most of which at the same time support democracy:

  • Numerous studies using many different kinds of data, definitions, and statistical analyses have found support for the democratic peace theory. The original finding was that liberal democracies have never made war with one another. More recent research has extended the theory and finds that democracies have few Militarized Interstate Disputes causing less battle deaths with one another, that those MIDs that have occurred between democracies have caused few deaths, and that democracies have few civil wars.

  • Poor liberal democracies tend to have better education, longer life expectancy, lower infant mortality, access to drinking water, and better health care than poor dictatorships. This is not due to higher levels of foreign assistance or spending a larger percentage of GDP on health and education. Instead, the available resources are more likely to be managed better.

  • Studies suggest that several health indicators (life expectancy and infant and maternal mortality) has a stronger and more significant association with liberal democracy than they have with GDP per capita, size of the public sector, or income inequality.

  • In the post-Communist nations, after an initial decline, those most democratic have achieved the greatest gains in life expectancy. Although it must be noted that most were also the most developed states from the ex USSR before its end.

  • A prominent economist, Amartya Sen, has theorized that no functioning democracy has ever suffered a large scale famine. This includes democracies that have not been very prosperous historically, like Indiamarker, which had its last great famine in 1943 and many other large scale famines before that in the late nineteenth century, all under British rule. However, some others ascribe the Bengal famine of 1943 to the effects of World War II . The government of India had been becoming progressively more democratic for years. Provincial government had been entirely so since the Government of India Act of 1935.

  • Refugee crises almost always occur in nondemocracies. Looking at the volume of refugee flows for the last twenty years, the first eighty-seven cases occurred in autocracies.

  • Research shows that the liberal democratic nations have much less democide or murder by government. However it should be noted that those were also moderately developed nations before applying liberal policies. Similarly, they have less genocide and politicide.

  • Liberal democracies are more often associated with a higher average self-reported happiness in a nation.

  • Research by the World Bank suggests that political institutions are extremely important in determining the prevalence of corruption: democracy, parliamentary systems, political stability, and freedom of the press are all associated with lower corruption. Freedom of information legislation is important for accountability and transparency. The Indian Right to Information Act "has already engendered mass movements in the country that is bringing the lethargic, often corrupt bureaucracy to its knees and changing power equations completely."

  • In the last forty-five years, the African countries poor democracies have grown their economies more rapidly than nondemocracies of the same continent.

  • Of the eighty worst financial catastrophes during the last four decades, only five were in democracies. Similarly, poor democracies are half likely as nondemocracies to experience a 10 percent decline in GDP per capita over the course of a single year.

  • Several studies have concluded that terrorism is most common in nations with intermediate political freedom. The nations with the least terrorism are the most and least democratic nations.

See also


  2. "Vestal, Theodore M. Ethiopia: A Post-Cold War African State. Greenwood, 1999, p. 17.
  3. "Sondrol, Paul C. "Totalitarian and Authoritarian Dictators: A Comparison of Fidel Castro and Alfredo Stroessner." Journal of Latin American Studies 23(3): October 1991, pp. 449-620.
  4. No Lessons Learned from the Holocaust?, Barbara Harff, 2003, [1].
  5. R.J. Rummel, (2006). Happiness This Utilitarian Argument For Freedom Is True. Accessed February 22, 2006.
  6. Daniel Lederman, Normal Loaza, Rodrigo Res Soares, (November 2001). "Accountability and Corruption: Political Institutions Matter". World Bank Policy Research Working Paper No. 2708. SSRN 632777. Accessed February 19, 2006.
  7. AsiaMedia :: Right to Information Act India's magic wand against corruption
  8. Harvard Gazette: Freedom squelches terrorist violence

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