Nav: Home

Strongman leaders make for weak economies, study finds

July 22, 2019

A study of dictators over the past 150 years shows they are rarely associated with strong economies, and quite often with weaker ones.

Autocratic leaders are often credited with purposefully delivering good economic outcomes, such as the late Lee Kuan-Yew, who is widely credited with Singapore's prosperity.

But new research published in the Leadership Quarterly journal by researchers from RMIT University and Victoria University in Melbourne, Australia, challenges that long-held assumption.

RMIT University economist Dr Ahmed Skali said robust analysis of data on economic growth, political regimes and political leaders from 1858 to 2010 found dictators rarely oversaw strong economies.

"In an era where voters are willingly trading their political freedoms in exchange for promises of strong economic performance to strongman figures like Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin or Recep Tayyip Erdogan, it's important to understand whether autocratic leaders do deliver economic growth," Skali said.

"Our empirical results show no evidence that autocratic leaders are successful at delivering economic growth in any systematic way."

Autocrats whose countries experienced larger than average economic growth were found only as frequently as you would predict based on chance alone.

In contrast, autocrats overseeing poor economic growth were found significantly more frequently than chance would predict.

"Taken together, these two results cast serious doubt on the view that autocratic leaders are successful at promoting economic growth," he said.

The study looked at other important outcomes beyond just economic growth.

"We also examined whether autocratic leaders were good at implementing measures which mainly benefit the less well-off in society, such as reducing unemployment or spending more on health and education. That was not the case," Skali said.

"We also looked further into whether growth-positive autocrats, although infrequent, really do deserve the credit for turning around their country's economic fate."

There was no evidence to suggest dictators had a positive influence over growth trajectories in the five or ten years after taking power.

"Therefore, it appears that even the rare growth-positive autocrats largely find themselves at the right place at the right time and "ride the wave" of pre-existing growth," Skali said.

The same analysis, carried out on dictators overseeing poor economies, to see if they had merely found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time, found instead that economic growth dropped significantly after the entry into power of an economically 'bad' autocrat.

In short, dictators were shown to have little influence in driving economies up, but often more influence in driving them down.

How could we be so easily fooled into thinking otherwise?

Co-author and Victoria University behavioural economist Stephanie Rizio said humans were hard-wired to perceive agency: the tendency to ascribe conscious intentions to phenomena that are not guided by any such intents.

"In the wild, this is a successful evolutionary strategy, even if it leads to false positives," she explained.

"It is better to interpret rustling in a nearby bush as caused by a predator or an ill-intended rival tribesperson, and be incorrect, than to ascribe it to the wind and be incorrect. This tendency has remained with us into the present day."

As social primates, Rizio explained, we're also inclined to accept the authority of a single individual, the alpha primate.

"Perhaps this is why we routinely attribute group-level outcomes to the actions of leaders, even when leaders have no control over outcomes, which may lead us to be accepting of autocratic leadership styles," she said.

The leadership literature has recently shown that, in times of uncertainty, the order and predictability provided by a strongly hierarchical system can make the idea of autocratic leadership more attractive.

Skali said the research was not only interesting for economic development and political leadership theory, but also a timely question as the rise of 'strongman' figures is becoming more and more prevalent.
The study 'How often do dictators have positive economic effects? Global evidence, 1858-2010' is published in Leadership Quarterly with DOI: 10.1016/j.leaqua.2019.06.003

Rizio is also a PhD candidate in the School of Psychological Sciences at the University of Melbourne.

RMIT University

Related Economic Growth Articles:

Harvard research identifies business travel as driver of economic growth
Research from Harvard Kennedy School's Growth Lab finds a direct link between a country's incoming business travel and the growth of new and existing industries.
Evolutionary theory of economic decisions
When survival over generations is the end game, researchers say it makes sense to undervalue long shots that could be profitable and overestimate the likelihood of rare bad outcomes.
Economic alien plants more likely to go wild
An international team of researchers led by University of Konstanz ecologist Mark van Kleunen has compiled a global overview of the naturalization success of economic plants, showing that economic use in general, as well as the number and nature of economic uses, are crucial to their establishment in the wild.
Economic growth is incompatible with biodiversity conservation
A study involving more than 20 specialists in conservation ecology and ecological economics highlights the contradiction between economic growth and biodiversity conservation.Adopting limits to international trade in resources or reducing and sharing the work, are some of the seven alternative proposals that the article notes to stop biodiversity loss.
The physics that drives periodic economic downturns
A professor at Duke University says that the way spilled milk spreads across the floor can explain why economic downturns regularly occur.
China's carbon emissions growth slows during new phase of economic development
Scientists from from the Academy of Mathematics and Systems Science, together with collaborators, recently revealed that China's annual carbon emissions growth declined significantly from 10% during the 2002-2012 period to 0.3% during the period from 2012-2017.
Study suggests economic growth benefits wildlife but growing human populations do not
Analysis shows that while national-level economic growth and social development -- including more women in government -- are associated with more abundant wildlife, growing human populations are linked to wildlife decline.
Renewable and nonrenewable energy in Myanmar's economic growth
An international group of scientists including a researcher from Ural Federal University developed a mathematical model that describes the influence of regenerative and non-regenerative energy sources on the economic growth of Myanmar.
Colonial policies can result in economic growth
A new study in the Review of Economic Studies suggests that areas where Dutch colonizers built sugar factories in the 19th century are more developed today.
The Lancet Diabetes & Endocrinology: Economic growth linked to reduction in stunting and thinness, but rise in overweight and obesity in Chinese children and adolescents
The first study to evaluate the effect of economic growth on malnutrition in all its forms has found that, while stunting and thinness have ameliorated in recent years, a four-fold increase in overweight and obesity among children and adolescents occurred in China between 1995 and 2014, with around one in five children and adolescents now either overweight or obese.
More Economic Growth News and Economic Growth Current Events

Trending Science News

Current Coronavirus (COVID-19) News

Top Science Podcasts

We have hand picked the top science podcasts of 2020.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Debbie Millman: Designing Our Lives
From prehistoric cave art to today's social media feeds, to design is to be human. This hour, designer Debbie Millman guides us through a world made and remade–and helps us design our own paths.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#574 State of the Heart
This week we focus on heart disease, heart failure, what blood pressure is and why it's bad when it's high. Host Rachelle Saunders talks with physician, clinical researcher, and writer Haider Warraich about his book "State of the Heart: Exploring the History, Science, and Future of Cardiac Disease" and the ails of our hearts.
Now Playing: Radiolab

Insomnia Line
Coronasomnia is a not-so-surprising side-effect of the global pandemic. More and more of us are having trouble falling asleep. We wanted to find a way to get inside that nighttime world, to see why people are awake and what they are thinking about. So what'd Radiolab decide to do?  Open up the phone lines and talk to you. We created an insomnia hotline and on this week's experimental episode, we stayed up all night, taking hundreds of calls, spilling secrets, and at long last, watching the sunrise peek through.   This episode was produced by Lulu Miller with Rachael Cusick, Tracie Hunte, Tobin Low, Sarah Qari, Molly Webster, Pat Walters, Shima Oliaee, and Jonny Moens. Want more Radiolab in your life? Sign up for our newsletter! We share our latest favorites: articles, tv shows, funny Youtube videos, chocolate chip cookie recipes, and more. Support Radiolab by becoming a member today at