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A Better Dictator

If you have to live under an authoritarian regime, which kind is best?

It seems pretty obvious that democratic governments are less corrupt and provide better services to their citizens than autocracies, right? Wrong. Well, at least not all the time. In fact, Transparency International's widely cited Corruption Perceptions Index gave Cuba a better score than Mexico in 2011 and ranked monarchist Jordan above democratic Italy.

Nor are all dictatorships the same when it comes to corruption and graft. It's clear that some authoritarian governments -- Singapore being the classic example -- have been much better than others at providing clean, efficient governance. So assuming you're unlucky enough to live under a dictator's thumb, which kind of thumb is the best?

Political scientists Nicholas Charron and Victor Lapuente recently examined four types of authoritarian governments: single-party states, military juntas, monarchies, and personalist regimes -- governments strongly tied to the charisma of a single leader. They found that single-party states -- think China and Vietnam -- are the most responsive to citizens' demands, providing a higher quality of governance. "They have to spread out among the population and search for consent," Charron says. "This forces them to be a little bit more responsive." Chances are the Chinese Communist Party has not lasted through the use of force alone, but also by making popular investments in China's infrastructure and social services.

If single-party governments really are more responsive, governance should improve as a country gets richer and citizens demand still more economic development. And indeed, a sample of 70 authoritarian countries between 1983 and 2003 found that in single-party states, good-governance indicators, such as lack of corruption and provision of public services, did increase along with GDP.

Military regimes, on the other hand, are "inherently susceptible to internal splits within the ruling military elite" and are therefore "less likely to undertake encompassing administrative reforms," according to the study. Charron points to Syria, whose government -- dominated by an elite class of military officers from President Bashar al-Assad's Alawite clan -- has proved far less open to reform than Jordan's monarchy or Egypt under President Hosni Mubarak.

As the world has seen this past year, it often takes bloodshed to pressure such regimes to commit to political reform -- perhaps as good a reason as any for Egypt's post-revolution junta to exit the scene as quickly as possible.

Sven Creutzmann/Mambo photo/Getty Images

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