Felix Baumgartner and the Benevolent Dictator

On Sunday, Felix Baumgartner told the Austrian newspaper Kleine Zeitung that what we REALLY needed was a benevolent dictator. (I’m translating, obviously – what he literally said was closer to “moderate dictator”.) Now, Felix Baumgartner is awesome – if you’ve already forgotten why, here’s a reminder.

Felix Baumgartner prepares to jump to Earth

But after he dared to utter the word “dictator”, my Facebook newsfeed blew up with condemnation as if he’d just endorsed Mitt Romney. Disappointed fellow Austrians described him as a corporate shill who must have suffered oxygen deprivation in his Stratos capsule, and I’m not even paraphrasing here. Democracy itself was under attack, and you know how worked up folks can get about that.

But you probably don’t need me to butcher the famous Churchill quote to point out that our modern, western version of democracy is currently less than ideal. “Trust in government rises strongly,” an Austrian press release points out. Earning the trust of 39% of the population was a landmark achievement, the highest measured value in years. (These gains were short-lived, though, and the value has subsequently dropped back off from that apex three years ago.) The United States, predictably more or less split down partisan lines, shows a drop-off from 53% to 42% on satisfaction with “our system of government and how well it works”.

Gallup poll showing US trust in government from 1972 to 2007

Now, I’m not here to defend Mr. Baumgartner. I’m pretty sure Felix can do that himself – he jumped from THE EDGE OF SPACE, after all. And the original interview consisted of just four questions – one of which was whether Felix could imagine going into politics. “No,” he said, citing Schwarzenegger as a negative example. “You can’t really change anything in a democracy. What we’d really need is a benevolent dictator.” Anyone who can read either a well-founded understanding of political science or previously hidden fascist tendencies from that quote is considerably better than I am at imagining completely made-up context. (And I’m pretty good.)

What bothers me, though, is how calling our current system of democracy into question is anathema even to educated, self-described liberals…when a majority of the population consistently voices dissatisfaction with it. Reminiscent of true omnipotence including the ability to limit oneself, shouldn’t a truly democratic and free society be able to replace democracy with a better solution, once one comes along? And, to get back to the aforementioned Churchill quote…why HAVEN’T we tried anything else recently?

Now, as far as I know, Thomas Hobbes was a stuffed tiger, but he still had some fairly influential ideas. The concept of the benevolent dictator – as well as the phrase ‘voice of the people,’ incidentally – originates in Hobbes’s Leviathan. He argues that a strong state that has the best interests of its population in mind is the best possible form of government, and this idea certainly has some appeal. Imagining, for a second, a political variant of Laplace’s demon – an ideal entity with perfect knowledge, created solely for the purpose of maximizing social welfare – there is little argument that this Utopian arrangement would not lead to a better state of affairs than our gridlocked party systems.

It doesn’t take much observation of any modern election cycle to understand that the candidates’ message, their day-to-day political realities and the most efficient solutions to any given problem are usually three very different things. The truth of the matter is that our policy systems grow more complex, while our political messages grow simpler. On most subjects, any serious policy recommendation will consider a multivariate problem and come up with a number of interlocking mechanisms that reinforce one another and deal with the different angles of the dilemma. In the legislative stage, some of these objectives will be sacrificed for expediency or political capital, while other inefficient measures will be added to buy over coy parliamentarians. And finally, the resulting proposal will be broken down until it fits on a bumper sticker. Political battles are won over the fight between death panels and voucher systems, not on the contents of the bills those terms signify.

A Romney bumper sticker

A dictator, on the other hand, could directly implement his experts’ policy recommendations without the costly campaign required to sell unpopular but necessary measures to one’s political opponents and the population themselves. Ideally, there would be no senators with hands outstretched towards the pork barrel, and no shameless populists propagating unfeasible ideas that sound nice if you don’t think too hard about what they mean. The only cause for concern is that, to put it mildly, dictators have shown a strong tendency for relying on corruption and dishonesty to stay in power, placing the welfare of their inner circle and the factions necessary for continued rule above that of their people. But that’s why we place our trust not in any old dictator, but in the Benevolent Dictator – the incorruptible, selfless figure for whom the well-being, if not the will, of the people is paramount.

Of course, the problem with Hobbes’s suggestion is that this perfect leader does not exist, and neither politician nor dictator is free from selfish ambitions. I doubt Hobbes was thinking of Josip Broz Tito, who liked to describe himself as a benevolent dictator while committing numerous human rights violations and ordering mass executions of foreign ethnic groups. Hobbes couldn’t have foreseen this – just as he couldn’t have predicted IBM’s Watson beating Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter at Jeopardy.

“I’ll take Financial Stimulus for $787 million, Alex.”

Because the solution to the paradox is simple – while no human could ever fulfill the role of well-meaning arbitrator of the system with the perfect objectivity required, all that means is that we can’t look to a human to do so. A sufficiently advanced neural network could function as the perfect embodiment of a technocratic system, maximizing a complex set of mathematical functions with respect to a series of moral values and goals supplied by the population. Taking the possibility for human error out of our decision-making process certainly sounds like a worthy goal, Skynet notwithstanding. At the same time, there’s a valid philosophical stance that would vehemently object to the thought of being ruled by a machine, and argue that it is our very propensity for error that defines us as imperfect, wonderful humanity.

But that’s my point – there IS a discussion to be had. I personally don’t believe that a benevolent dictatorship is the direction we should be headed, whether we base it on expertise from the private sector, academic knowledge or a perfectly logical machine. The thought itself, though, is interesting enough to have a conversation about the positive and negative aspects a different system would entail, and to use this reflection as an opportunity to call the shortcomings of our own representative democracy into question and ask how we could possibly improve ourselves. The inability and unwillingness to even entertain the thought, though, coupled with the appeal to authority politically inclined commentators use to dismiss the opinion of a “stupid jock”, serves solely to further entrench us in our dysfunction rather than to achieve that which was previously deemed impossible and move humanity forward. Like Felix Baumgartner.

2 thoughts on “Felix Baumgartner and the Benevolent Dictator

  1. I think especially Europe “tried” different forms of government in history quite often. We in Austria had a dictator approx. 65 years ago and I am pretty sure, many people these times thought he would be a “good man”. But not only Austria and Germany wanted to make this experience, many other European countries had their dictators too and I do not think that only one of them did a good job. Because it is not possible (proved by history far too often) to give so much power in the hands of a small group of people without giving the folks the chance to get rid of them in a DEMOCRATIC way. I agree that we could think of forms how to change our political system. But to have a democracy (means that WE are deciding who is representing us) is a value I do not want to call into question.

    And anyway: Who should decide about whether someone is an “expert” or not? Who are the “experts” anyway? Is ist enough to have a degree? Should they be successful? Like Stronach? And who says that an “expert” is a “good” person too?

    Felix Baumgartner jumped from the edge of space. Good job. But: That’s it!

  2. Pingback: Benevolent dictators and Italian supercars « KFonomics

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