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Benevolent dictatorship (or, often in more moderate form, enlightened absolutism) centers on a Monarch, who, once given absolute power, turns that power towards the benefit of their citizens, not their own personal betterment. In the West, the idea extends back to Plato (c. 428-347 BCE), who documented his "Philosopher King" in The Republic, and almost certainly earlier than that. In China, the idea extends back to Confucius (551–479 BCE), placing the king at the top of a benevolent hierarchy.
Often proponents of the idea view themselves as being the paragons of virtue who would manage a country this way successfully. References to the importance of Confucianism have been made with regards to "benevolent" dictators, including Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore and Xi Jinping of China.
Much of the appeal of the idea comes from the "efficiency" that a government can gain from outright ignoring popular dissent. Those with particularly unpopular ideas naturally find the idea of a dictator pushing those ideas on everyone an especially gratifying thought.
Examples of the concept at work in history
Frederick the Great, ruler of Prussia from 1740 to 1786, is commonly associated with the concept of enlightened absolutism. The great enlightenment philosophers Voltaire and Immanuel Kant were fans. He encouraged science and the arts, but he was also a keen warrior who liked to settle his problems by offensive warfare, and following his invasion of Poland was brutal towards its inhabitants, whom he called "slovenly Polish trash". Catherine II, ruler of Russia from 1762-96, held similar views, being friendly towards Enlightenment philosophers (in her case Voltaire - quite the tart for a despot - Diderot, d'Alembert, and Montesquieu), and making some attempts at political reform, but also invading Poland.
Singapore, as run by Lee Kuan Yew. Think Disneyland, but with fines for chewing gum, the death penalty for drugs, and less porn. It's not entirely pretty, but Singapore has seen massive economic growth and some of the best healthcare in the world. Turns out, people would rather live in a police state than in total anarchy and crushing poverty, but would they prefer something else? Apparently not, as the same party has won every "election" for more than a century. It's a functioning democracy, because shut up. Don't say otherwise; you won't be the first to be imprisoned for decades without a trial.
King Juan Carlos I came in with the powers his fascist predecessor had in his reign. Expected to rule like his predecessor, instead he rapidly democratized the country, to the point that a Francoist coup attempt occurred in 1981 — which he stopped. He even stripped virtually all of his own powers in the 1978 Constitution.
What's notable about this is that Juan Carlos does not fit the Platonic notion of "benevolent dictator" (a philosopher-king who rules for the good of all). Rather, he is closer to the Roman Republican version, where a person trusted with absolute power by the state gives it up when it is no longer necessary.
Outside of national politics
Benevolent Dictatorship is a common form of governance in free and open source software, where it often takes the form of "benevolent dictator for life" (BDFL). It is common for community members to propose features or make changes to a project's code, which are submitted to the BDFL for ultimate approval. This is considered advantageous because it allows the BDFL to maintain strict standards and a tight vision for the project, and avoiding the bloat and apparent compromise that often appears in "designs by committee".
The downsides of dictatorship in state politics are generally avoided, since most software dictators don't control an army and a navy to enforce their will. If a number of individuals dislike decisions made by the BDFL, they can simply copy the code and create their own version with a new name and a different leader or leaders, a process known as "forking". Rebellions in the form of forks have become commonplace in the open source world, and it is common for forks to grow enough to overshadow their originals. For example, LibreOffice, the world's most popular free office suite, was forked from OpenOffice.org in 2010 after Oracle, the back-alley mobsters of the Silicon Valley, got control of it.
Notable Benevolent Dictators for Life include Linus Torvalds (Linux), Mark Shuttleworth (Ubuntu), Larry Wall (Perl), and Guido van Rossum (Python, retired 2018 after a stressful fight with the community over a controversial feature).
- Confucianism's benevolent dictatorship is a busted flush editorial by Joseph Zhou 2012-07-20 09:16 (GMT+8) Want China Times.
- Lee Kuan Yew by Fareed Zakaria (March/April 1994) Foreign Affairs
- The Chinese President’s Love Affair With Confucius Could Backfire on Him by Michael Schuman (Oct. 30, 2014). Time.
- See the Wikipedia article on Enlightened absolutism.
- See the Wikipedia article on Frederick the Great.
- See the Wikipedia article on Catherine the Great.
- [https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/child-mortality-falls-more-than-40-percent-in-the-past-two-decades/2012/09/12/8a5bbc68-fd14-11e1-8adc-499661afe377_story.html Infant mortality on decline, Singapore lowest