Panama Papers Prove the Perils of One-Party Rule

Every political system has corruption, but multiparty democracy provides the best safeguards against it.

Vladimir Putin
Russian president Vladimir Putin listens during a meeting in Voronezh, August 5, 2014 (Kremlin)

Alliteration is fun, but it can also be, on occasion, accurate.

This post is addressing the one-party fanboys out there: the article commenters who wave the Russian flag over the smoldering schools of Syria, the folks who sing the praises of the Gulf Arab royals who manage their ever so tall towers and the political contrarians who believe the corruption of Western multiparty democracy is the gold standard of hypocrisy.

It’s important to frame such a post right: under no circumstances should anyone ever claim that Western democracy is corruption-free. But from the perspective of systems, when one seeks to reduce corruption, it has a far better track record than those that peddle one-party rule.

First off, what’s the appeal of one-party rule? It might seem odd to those born and bred in democracies

For starters, one-party rule gets things done: the pyramids in Egypt, after all, were not built by committee. Yet we needn’t go so far back to find authoritarians bandying their achievements: we need merely read someone’s front page.

Both Russia and China have benefited economically and geopolitically from one-party rule: the strict usage of power by a narrow group of elites has focused what might otherwise be unstable nation states. For that matter, postwar Japan was in effect a one-party state, with the Liberal Democratic Party leading recovery, boom and eventually bust from 1955 to 1993. Even today, it dominates Japanese politics.

Singapore, Taiwan and South Korea all had their strongmen who took them from poverty to posh over decades; today, Gulf potentates in Dubai, Doha and Abu Dhabi race to the top of their skyscrapers. As the United States mires itself in feckless primaries full of mud and little substance, many drift toward the authoritarian Donald Trump whom they hope will suppress such conversation for the duration of his presidency.

One-party rule, in other words, offers the feeling of stability, predictability and political autopilot — no need to inform yourself of the issues when there’s nothing to vote on. And the towers of the Persian Gulf, Moscow and Beijing all do have a certain monumental quality to them: perhaps a dose of strong single party leadership is just what the drifting West needs?

But the Panama Papers reveal that very predictable and equally ugly side of one-party rule: corruption

This is a rule too often taken for granted and too rarely explained to the Putin fanboys. Why does one-party rule breed corruption?

That is a misleading question: all political systems breed corruption. As soon as your tribe invents the job of “leader,” you’ll invariably end up with one who takes more of the communal soup than they should, simply because they can.

And when the job of “leader” is surrounded by a clique, the corruption spreads: the chief once elected doles out extra soup to friends and family. After all, as we are not so far removed from a prehistoric biology, our brains continue to favor relationships with people who are close to us rather than complete strangers. (This is wholly irrational: family and friends are often more dangerous than strangers, as the American homicide rate can attest.)

You know this very well in your local terms: when there’s a stranger among your school buddies, the vibe is often thrown off. To restore that vibe, you’d rather get rid of the stranger. This is how cliques work.

At the highest levels of power, it works the same: cliques form and build social barriers to keep strangers out. But rather than preserving sad Friday night traditions of beer bongs and board games, political cliques carve up economies, ministries and territories. And why not? Wouldn’t you and your buddies do the same if suddenly found with the unchecked helm of, say, the world’s second largest economy? Wouldn’t you feel that’s you simply doing right by you and yours?

But multiparty systems check this tendency by forcing cliques against one another

Now imagine if you and yours had to compete for the spoils with another clique. Worse, you couldn’t cleanly do away with your rivals: you could merely pick them off, jockey for advantage and hope they didn’t do the same to you.

Moreover, you couldn’t play too dirty: you had rules both you and they had to follow and could only be changed if both of you agreed to do so. How likely would it be for you to agree to change any of those rules?

This is why corruption is checked better in a multiparty system: elites monitor one another for advantage. One needs only look at Iceland’s experience in the Panama Papers: the prime minister didn’t last long while President Xi Jinping and President Vladimir Putin, also named, both seem to be sitting pretty as of this date.

Again, this is not to say that the dirty details of the West’s elites aren’t hidden somewhere and the elites, even rivals, cannot conspire for mutual gain: they certainly do. But it’s higher risk. Should one set of elites drop away and be replaced by another, old backroom deals are undone.

Moreover, ambitious underlings have all the incentive in the world to out their corrupt bosses: if getting your boss fired means a promotion, the temptation may be too much to bear. This is far better than single-party systems, which reward only sycophantic loyalty and which place iron ceilings to ambition.

Imperfect though they are, multiparty systems have the lead: the question of what should replace them is open

As power continues to corrupt, the question of how best to distribute it remains an open one. It seems the West is slowly coalescing around the ideal of temporary power: already American presidents may serve only two terms before retiring to their libraries and speaking circuits. This could well be extended to further branches of government and even economics: perhaps CEOs could have something like term limits as well?

Regardless, concentrated power held onto purely for the sake of power breeds abuse: breaking up power, and making the experience of it ephemeral, may well be the way forward.

This story first appeared at Geopolitics Made Super, April 6, 2016.