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The term authoritarianism is used to describe an organization or a state which enforces strong and sometimes oppressive measures against the population. It is distinguished from totalitarianism both by degree and scope, authoritarian administration or governance being less intrusive and in the case of organizations not necessarily backed by the use of force. For example, the Roman Catholic Church can be accurately described as authoritarian; however, in modern times it lacks the means to use force to enforce its edicts and is not a totalitarian organization.

The distinction between authoritarianism and totalitarianism was a crucial part of the Kirkpatrick Doctrine, which asserted that the United States could cooperate with authoritarian nations with bad human rights records because they were more capable of fundamental reform and less dangerous than totalitarian nations.

In an authoritarian state citizens are subject to state authority in many aspects of their lives, including many that other political philosophies would see as matters of personal choice.

Typically, the leadership (government) of an authoritarian regime is ruled by an elite group that uses repressive means to stay in power. However, unlike totalitarian regimes, there is no desire or ideological justification for the state to control all aspects of a person's life, and the state will generally ignore the actions of an individual unless it is perceived to be directly challenging the state. Totalitarian governments tend to be revolutionary, intent on changing the basic structure of society, while authoritarian ones tend to be conservative.

Economic arguments for authoritarianism

One controversial belief is that countries ruled by authoritarianism are more likely to be economically successful than democratic countries. Examples given to support this thesis are South Korea, Singapore, and the Republic of China (on Taiwan), which were authoritarian during their period of growth. This notion of developmental authoritarianism is a central justification for the rule of the Communist Party of China within the People's Republic of China.


One counter-argument is that there are many instances of authoritarian nations that have not encountered rapid growth, for example the Philippines and Indonesia. In addition, critics of the thesis of developmental authoritarianism point out India, which had impressive growth in the 1990s with a democratic government.

The question of whether developmental authoritarianism is stable over the long-term, and whether or not it can be justified when an economy has developed, is also controversial. In the case of South Korea and Taiwan, development led to the release of social forces that forced a transition to democracy. In Singapore's case, justification was given to its strict social behavior laws as "a way to force civility onto a third-world country," which it was at the time of its separation from Malaysia.

The notion that authoritarian government is ultimately superior to democracy was part of the idea of Asian values, although it diminished somewhat after the Asian financial crisis of 1998.

Another country considered authoritarian in this sense was Spain, under the government of Francisco Franco.

See also: statism, totalitarianism