Democracy and authoritarianism are extremely different forms of government and can be mutually exclusive in particular contexts. In the modern world, states vary based on the degree of democratization, which finds reflection in their economic and political strategies and approaches to the limits of individual freedom. This essay seeks to discuss dissimilarities between democratic and authoritarian states with reference to general power distribution patterns, economic indicators, adaptation to change, and the free flow of information.
Comparison of Authoritarian and Democratic States
Distribution of Power and Election Systems
The peculiarities of power distribution represent the most sharply circumscribed part of the difference between states with democratic and authoritarian regimes. The very definition of the ideal authoritarian state involves the tendency for the concentration of legislative and political power in the hands of small groups led by one or a few representatives. In openly authoritarian states with no attempts to transition to more democratic modes of government, leadership groups aim to exercise power within predictable norms and benefit from appeals to de jure legitimacy (Jones, Epp and Baumgartner, 2019). In democratic states, power and responsibility distribution patterns are predicted by the results of free elections organized within constitutional limits (Wiatr, 2018). At the same time, pluralism in the political arena is viewed as a form of fair competition for the right to represent citizens.
The ability to draw economic and life quality comparisons between citizens in authoritarian and democratic societies can be hindered by the former’s approaches to censorship and foreign relations. However, based on current economic studies, political outcomes in democratic societies, such as the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development member countries, are predictive of citizens’ well-being in many dimensions (Pacek, Radcliff and Brockway, 2019). Thus, people’s ability to influence these outcomes in genuinely democratic societies can promote personal satisfaction and quality of life. From the economic viewpoint, despite recognizing democracies’ internal variability and opportunities for amalgamation with more autocratic principles, modern scholars associate the establishment of democratic regimes with financial prosperity. Particularly, Brownlee (2017) highlights that openly anti-democratic states and countries with pseudo-democratic or illiberal democratic regimes typically have low GDP levels. Another relevant point of comparison is income inequality, which is the highest in non-electoral authoritarian regimes with right-leaning parties in the position of power (Pelke, 2020; Teo, 2021). Therefore, there is evidence in favor of a positive relationship between democratization and prosperity for common people.
Adaptation to Change in Political Decision-Making
Despite the existence of hybrid forms of government and the wide ideological spectrum, more democratic states have a propensity for adaptive decision-making, which implies more prompt reactions to unfavorable circumstances. In their literature review, Jones et al. (2019) single out four factors that undermine political adaptation, thus affecting government systems’ quality of responding to large-scale economic concerns. These factors are political friction stemming from excessive formal rules for policymaking processes, centralized decision-making, the absence of diversity in information channels, and no incentives to solve economic issues (Jones et al., 2019). Notably, all these factors are more typical for the authoritarian side of the political spectrum, with incentives being related to the motivation to act in the best interest of common citizens. In highly authoritarian regimes, despite the need for regime maintenance measures, the absence of fair competition for votes is what decreases this motivation (Jones et al., 2019). This can reduce the interest in prompt reactions to issues that do not destabilize the regime. Therefore, democratic states are likely to outperform countries with authoritarian regimes in terms of adaptation to the changing social, political, and economic situation.
Freedom of Information
Finally, the openness of information related to political processes and attempts to suppress free speech act as viable points of comparison when it comes to democratic and authoritarian regimes. From theoretical perspectives on democracy, a high level of democratization is associated with processes to ensure the freedom of speech and increase political processes’ transparency for common citizens (Wiatr, 2018). Countries that are widely recognized as societies built on democratic principles should demonstrate citizens’ free access to diverse information on political processes, including the opposition’s arguments. Based on the list of countries by democracy scores compiled by the Economist Intelligence Unit (2021) and the global press freedom report by Reporters without Borders (2021), democracy and press freedom are positively correlated. Specifically, Norway, Sweden, and Finland, the countries with the lowest press abuse scores, are among the world’s top ten democratic states (The Economist Intelligence Unit, 2021; Reporters without Borders, 2021). Conversely, authoritarian states, including North Korea, Syria, and China, have high abuse scores, which involves the incidents of unjustified legal action against journalists. Therefore, approaches to the freedom of information sharing are another critical difference between democratic and authoritarian states.
In summary, despite the possibility of creating hybrid regimes, differences between democratic and authoritarian countries remain profound. Democratic states’ unique characteristics include the acceptance of political plurality, free elections and competition for voters’ trust, the absence of extreme income gaps, more adaptive decision-making, and no retaliation for journalists’ work. Different from that, authoritarian regimes are associated with political inertia, being oriented at stability rather than positive change, inequality in terms of income levels, and censorship.
Brownlee, J. (2017) ‘The limited reach of authoritarian powers’, Democratization, 24(7), pp. 1326-1344. Web.
The Economist Intelligence Unit (2021) Democracy index 2020: in sickness and in health? Web.
Jones, B. D., Epp, D. A. and Baumgartner, F. R. (2019) ‘Democracy, authoritarianism, and policy punctuations’, International Review of Public Policy, 1(1), pp. 7-26. Web.
Pacek, A., Radcliff, B. and Brockway, M. (2019) ‘Well-being and the democratic state: how the public sector promotes human happiness’, Social Indicators Research, 143(3), pp. 1147-1159. Web.
Pelke, L. (2020) ‘Economic inequality, income, and their effects on electoral and civil society participation in authoritarian regimes’, Zeitschrift für Vergleichende Politikwissenschaft, 14, pp. 269-297. Web.
Reporters without Borders (2021) Index details: data of press freedom ranking 2021. Web.
Teo, T. K. (2021) ‘Inequality under authoritarian rule’, Government and Opposition, 56(2), pp. 201-225. Web.
Wiatr, J. (2018) ‘Democratic experience in Central Europe: 25 years later’, Journal of Comparative Politics, 11(1), pp. 5-11. Web.