It's being presumed in a few Q&A and discussions here that democracy is the most optimal political system. I'd like to see whether this assertion can be substantiated or refuted here.

Are their historical trends in the circumstances that would favour one system over another for economic performance?

For example, it has been argued that Soviets defeated Germany in the fields of WWII, something that French or British couldn't do until 1944, because Stalin's violent dictatorship led to single-minded mobilization of all resources. On the other hand, in the times of plenty the opportunities for diverse free enterprise implied by democracy would lead to better economic performance in a democratic society.

I'm looking for trends such as above: historically, under what circumstances would a tight oligarchy tend to outperform, and under what circumstances a democracy would?

Notice that I'm not asking for opinions such as "which system is better". I'm looking for measurable performance - such as the health of economy in the times of piece or prevailing in the times of war.

closed as too broad by Felix Goldberg, Tom Au, Pieter Geerkens, Eugene Seidel, user2590 Oct 4 '13 at 6:21

Please edit the question to limit it to a specific problem with enough detail to identify an adequate answer. Avoid asking multiple distinct questions at once. See the How to Ask page for help clarifying this question. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

  • @MarkC.Wallace: Well, one can look at history as a collection of events, kind of like a live storybook, or one can attempt a bit more scientific approach: try to understand their mechanism, detect trends. From the 1st viewpoint on History the question is off-topic; from the 2nd viewpoint it is not. – Michael Oct 3 '13 at 17:54
  • OK, rephrasing. – Michael Oct 3 '13 at 18:11
  • I don't think the Soviet/Germany example is a good one. Comparing different armies is problematic, especially when the circumstances were so different. For example, the Soviets had the Russian Winter on their side :) – congusbongus Oct 3 '13 at 23:14
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    I too would rather not concentrate on this example. For some odd reason this site pays disproportionally much attention to everything related to WWII and Nazis. This was just an example of the sort of answers I'd like to see: under what circumstances oligarchy performs better (crisis of some kind, or maybe something else), and under what circumstances democracy does. – Michael Oct 3 '13 at 23:54
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    Yet you added some contribution of your own to the already disproportionately large share of questions relating to WW2 and Nazism. – Eugene Seidel Oct 4 '13 at 4:57

The real dichotomy is the balance between Democracy and Meritocracy. Sometimes an oligarchy is more meritocratic in a given context than a democracy, sometimes it isn't.

So to answer your question (Under what circumstances would a tight oligarchy tend to outperform, and under what circumstances would a democracy?):


  • When entry into the oligarchy or role distribution therein is assigned on merit. Military oligarchies for example.
  • When communication of a problem or solution is complex, an oligarchy has lower overheads (O(1) instead of O(N)) to distribute and review potential solutions. A war cabinet would be an example, as strictly speaking inclusion of members disproportionate to underlying democratic mandate makes it more a meritocracy than a democracy.
  • When a solution must applied within a limited time-frame. For example, the Manhattan Project wasn't voted on, nor the Cuban missile crisis. The executive (assumed to be filled on some basis of merit and demos) acted directly.


  • When solutions are intended to be stable and long-term, democratic consent makes the people more likely to comply and apply the solution. Any major law or law reform would be an example of this.
  • When the problem is too complex for the size of the oligarchy regardless of merit.
  • When the criteria "outperform" means for everyone, not just a minority.
  • Democracies are so pervasive in our mindset (if not in reality) that finding examples for where democracies outperform is like drinking the sea. Except for the third point ("for everyone/the other 99%") as semi-democracies are more common. – LateralFractal Oct 4 '13 at 1:02
  • Sounds reasonable, except for the last point. The question presumes benefit to most; also I don't understand the reasoning behind the presumption that the benefit to all is necessarily greater in a democracy. There were a few examples of direct democracies that quickly let to complete economic collapse for all, such as early days of Bolshevik rule when the workers would vote whether to work or club the engineers to death and have a drinking party. – Michael Oct 4 '13 at 5:27
  • Early Bolsheviks applied what they called 'Democratic Centralism' which is distinctly different from Direct Democracy in that only party members had input; and that input was quite limited in concrete impact on executive behaviour. Oligarchies over time siphon power towards themselves unless its members are robots following the Three Laws; hence assuming that whatever the total net performance of an oligarchy, the median (not mean) return on personal effort (i.e. performance) is lower. – LateralFractal Oct 4 '13 at 6:20
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    A good clue that an oligarchy (or a kleptocracy for that matter) is trying to pass itself off as either as a democracy or a system with equivalent "benefit to the people" is whether the dimensionless metrics being bandied about are primarily mean or median. As they can paint a very different picture. – LateralFractal Oct 4 '13 at 6:29
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    True. Easier to use for statistics - but harder to use in conversation as a policy wonk, PR flak or news broadcaster since you must to state both variables (mean+variance) together. And many people are barely maths-literate enough to recognise what 'average' is; so standard deviation, standard error and variance is quite beyond them if they heard FoxNews say "GDP rose 1% this quarter with a log-normal probability distribution of 2.5 standard deviations" – LateralFractal Oct 4 '13 at 6:55

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