Working papers

Let’s Install Leaders for Life! Why Get Hung up on Democracy? A Modest, “Swiftian” Proposal (2020)

Manfred Kets de Vries

a reminder that democracies are very fragile configurations

Following Jonathan Swift’s satirical example of a “modest” proposal, this paradoxical article examines the question of having leaders for life. Throughout, it employs the tools of satire to outline the presumed advantages of a leaders-for-life system, revealing that, in reality, it is fraught with danger. In a circuitous way, the article makes clear that having leaders for life is an invitation for social unrest and economic decline. By presenting a number of examples of leaders for life, it becomes clear that the overriding concern is the ever-present danger of the abuse of power. Without the existence of term limits, there will be an increased prevalence of rights abuses, secret or arbitrary arrests and detentions, restrictions on freedom of expression, and police brutality. Furthermore, it is suggested that kleptocratic practices are par for the course.


In addition, the article describes how aspiring leaders for life try to circumvent democratic practices, by choosing ways of intervening that makes it appear as if citizens have choice. In this day and age, leaders who want to stay on for life tend to resort to more indirect methods to get their way. They have realized that banning opposition parties, dismissing the legislature, locking up, or even murdering opponents, doesn’t make for good public relations. It is noted that although it may appear that having leaders for life seems to be a thing of the past, the motivation to do so is still very much alive. Leaders in many countries, attracted by the sirens of power and wealth, will go at great length to keep their positions. Given the ease by which countries regress, this article is also a reminder that democracies are very fragile configurations.

INSEAD Knowledge, 2020

Add Comment

Go back