The benevolent dictator

The concept of the “benevolent dictator” occasionally plays a role in political discussion of democracy. The general thrust of the “benevolent dictator” argument is that democracy cannot be defined in terms of its outcomes because “a benevolent dictatorship” can produce any given outcomes, while still, by assumption, being anti-democratic.

Ober (2006), for example, says this:

Democracy is shown to be a non-instrumental good-in-itself (as well as an instrument in securing other goods) by extrapolation from the Aristotelian premise that humans are political animals. Because humans are by nature language-using, as well as sociable and common-end-seeking beings, the capacity to associate in public decisions is constitutive of the human being-kind. Association in decision is necessary (although insufficient) for happiness in the sense of eudaimonia. A benevolent dictator who satisfied all other conditions of justice, harms her subjects by denying them opportunity to associate in the decisions by which their community is governed.

This line of argument – the participative conception of democracy, or Schumpeter’s “classical doctrine” – sounds very high minded. Beyond the policy objective, political participation enriches the participators and ennobles them. As an argument against sortition, or against an outcomes-based conception of democracy it is, however, less than convincing.
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