In 4X strategy games I’ve played (like Stellaris), closed forms of government (closed oligarchy, dictatorship) seem to be overpowered when it comes to scientific output compared to the “democratic” government option. In Stellaris, the democratic space-empires inevitably fall behind the autocratic empires which have access to research edicts where the ruler(s) can decree that the country will focus its resources on technology instead of whatever the current president’s platform was when they were elected.

Of course, the game could be unbalanced, as is the struggle of making strategy games. However, the theory makes some amount of sense when you think about it. Normal people don’t really care about scientific achievement by elites off in the capital, they care about earning enough to make a living. (Think the movie Interstellar.) When we think up Nazi alternate histories, we often think of technological utopias where humans are landing on Mars by the 1970s (i.e. Man in the High Castle). In our own universe, you can argue the past 5 or 6 U.S. presidencies have all but neglected national research in favor of more immediate matters. After all, the U.S. only landed on the moon to play catch-up with the Soviets. Meanwhile autocratic China seems poised to be the world leader in AI.

In a space setting, what could be a way that a democratic state could consistently keep ahead of its authoritarian peers?

Assume that:

  • The democracies and the autocracies have the same amount of resources. On Earth, democracies (+ the USSR) defeated Nazi Germany in WWII because they were larger. Their size also gave them access to more minds so they got the bomb faster.

  • Trade is limited. On Earth everyone is on about the same level because of global trade. We can assume contact between species in space will be less comprehensive.

  • Autocracies don’t persecute scientists for race or religion or whatever else aliens discriminate based on.

  • “Big technology” (i.e. spaceships) is valued more than “consumer technology” (i.e. iphones)

  • The autocracy is a full autocracy or a stable oligarchy, not an anocracy.

If the premise is flawed, and democracies are not intrinsically disadvantaged to autocracies, with all other factors held constant, explain why.

Possibly related mirror question: How to keep an authoritarian state from scientific stagnation?

† I only say space to imply a sparsely connected setting where the “world” isn’t tightly and thoroughly linked through trade and cultural exchange.

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    $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$
    – Tim B
    Jan 9, 2018 at 18:34
  • $\begingroup$ Slightly OT but: I never felt that democracies have a lack of tech output in Stellaris, there are so many ways to keep technology going that are politically independent. $\endgroup$
    – r41n
    Jan 10, 2018 at 9:28
  • $\begingroup$ You cannot dismiss the Apollo program in that manner, as the pressures that you claim drove it are also present in strategy games. Also, what happens in novels should not be used as evidence in a discussion about the real world. $\endgroup$
    – sdenham
    Jan 10, 2018 at 12:39
  • $\begingroup$ Your 'assume that' section includes a statement about the development of nuclear weapons that omits pertinent facts that tend to refute your thesis. Consequently, your argument is, at least in this respect, circular. The fact is that the axis made no technically- competent attempts to create a nuclear weapon, and the primitive state of their nuclear technology surprised the allies when they went looking for it after the war. Questions should not attempt to force the acceptance of defeasible arguments by calling them assumptions. $\endgroup$
    – sdenham
    Jan 10, 2018 at 14:12
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    $\begingroup$ @Fattie democracies and free markets are correlated but orthogonal concepts. Singapore is both capitalist and authoritarian. Brazil is both socialist and democratic. $\endgroup$ Jan 10, 2018 at 21:58

14 Answers 14


Yes, the notion that democracies are inferior is completely wrong

Autocracies might be better at a short-term scientific blitz (i.e. you know exactly what you need, and you can concentrate all resources on this task). But that's about it. In the long-ish run (decade+) a democracy will prevail.

There are a bunch of reasons:

  • In a democracy, every man chooses his work. This is far, far more efficient than the state choosing for you (because you know better than the state what's best for you). Put it on a larger scale, and democracies will always develop and scientific and industrial advantage (an Autocracy will do one blitz while a democracy develops 300 projects at the same time).
  • People work better (motivation-wise) at a democracy (because they choose where and what they do).
  • People run (literally) from autocracies. And not just random people, but typically the better ones (the most talented, hardworking and bold). Oh, and they run to democracies.
  • [Established] democracies are stable. They almost never have a significant political turmoil.

All in all, democracies work better because the people's self-interest is aligned with the states one. Your win is typically the state's win, while in an autocracy it's quite common to work against the state. This makes everything work much better.

In our world, in the end, democracies were always more technologically, industrially and economically advanced. The best example is, of course, the Cold War, but you can also look at South Korea vs North Korea, or East Germany vs West Germany etc.

The difference is that [unlike in a computer game] a state is, essentially, a bunch of people. Given the same resources and starting position, any country will only be as successful as it's people.

As a side note, I feel that your case for autocracies is somewhat biased - you seem to look at examples like Nazi Germany or 40's-50's USSR. Those are young autocracies and are extremely unrepresentative of autocracies as a whole. Take a look at established, older, autocracies like 80's USSR or better yet, absolute monarchies in Europe (France before the revolution).

Thing is, with time, autocracies tend to get worse - the population is less enthusiastic about the ideology, the leaders grow distant and corrupt, the critical political & economical thinking disappears (no opposition). On the other hand, democracies get better - people gain belief in the system, stability creates democratic values (which target corruption), the opposition derives change and progress...

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    $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$
    – Tim B
    Jan 9, 2018 at 18:50
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    $\begingroup$ I got your point, but aren't you messing a little bit between "democracy" and "utopia"? $\endgroup$
    – tweray
    Jan 9, 2018 at 20:32
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    $\begingroup$ Also might be worth noting that autocracies can easily end up dedicating huge amounts of resources to a dead ends of science as the path is directed by relatively few figures of authority. See en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lysenkoism. Science works better if many people do different things in parallel $\endgroup$
    – OganM
    Jan 9, 2018 at 23:36
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    $\begingroup$ China isn't exactly known for being a hub of technological innovation, mind. While not exactly running per se (expats return in droves for Chinese New Year) a great many talented young professionals (academics included) simply move away to pursue careers in western countries. And why not? It's nicer out here. And you don't have to care about the machinations of would-be politicians if you don't want to. $\endgroup$
    – Pingcode
    Jan 10, 2018 at 1:59
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    $\begingroup$ I will accept this answer as it is by far the highest voted, and the ideas about defectors and political instability make for highly interesting story and worldbuilding material compared with “well democracies are more efficient”, which you can’t really model with much better than “+10% gold”. However I still worry that this answer and many others are too Cold War centric, and big real-world case studies like India and Singapore have been completely ignored. $\endgroup$ Jan 10, 2018 at 6:36

It isn't democracy or autocracy, it is free markets that matters

Autocracy vs. Democracy: the Space Race

Government type is fundamentally unimportant to whether or not a nation advances in 'science.' An excellent example is the space race. Both the USSR and USA came to the same conclusion, they wanted to win. In the USSR, the Politburo and/or Khruschev was able to make this decision independently. In the US, Kennedy and his advisers had to sell the nation. The results were the same either way. Both nations spend a lot of money on something that was not strictly in their national interest.

But either nation could have balked. The people of the US could have been uninterested and voted Goldwater into office in 1964; that would have killed US participation almost certainly. From the USSR's side, some other group could have signaled their opposition. For example, even if the Politburo wanted to go to the moon if Khrushchev said no, that would have killed it. On the other hand, had Khrushchev been too eager about the moon, the Politburo could have deposed him, as they eventually did.

The moral of the story is that both government forms, both with the consent of the people and without, had the capacity to direct significant resources to a project deemed important enough at the time. Therefore, over the short term, it doesn't make much of a difference what the form of government is.

Invested capital makes technology go forward

Capital must be invested to advance technology. The Apollo Program and Manhattan project were bought at the cost of a significant fraction of the national budget. But those are only two big projects, and expensive and important as they were, represent just a fraction of technological development.

Instead, most technology comes out of private capital. In the 1700s, nearly every invention worth mentioning from the Industrial Revolution came from Great Britain; the one place that had the most available private capital. But the time the developments of the Second Industrial Revolution had taken place, more nations were ready to be involved. Especially in the US and Germany, there was enough private capital that these nations claimed a big share of the developments made.

In the US, the picture of development can be seen clearly. Private fortunes in the hand of (probably evil) New York bankers were the investment seed to built Pittsburgh steel foundries, Akron tire makes, Toledo's glass makers, and Detroit's automobiles. New ways of making things abounded, because industrialists with money were on the lookout for new ideas. If you had a new way to make or cut glass, and you took it to some robber baron in Toledo, the chances were both you and him were going to make it rich. What motivation!

Compare that with the alternative. If you have a great idea for making glass more cheaply, but you don't know and can't find anyone with money to fund a plant for making it, you haven't really invented anything at all.


The free market allows private capital to flow to those people with good ideas, allowing their ideas to develop into advanced technology. This can happen whether the country is a laissez-faire democracy (like the US in the 1890s) or a centralized autocracy (like modern day China).

Now, whether the free market is good for all people is a different story. I'm not interested in getting into an argument about the validity of capitalism. I'm just stating, as an indisputable historical fact, that the free-er that private capital is from taxation and government regulation, the faster the pace of technological change it supports.

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    $\begingroup$ This. Any other answer fails to explain the success of China and seems focused on the USSR as THE authoritarian gauge that each autocracy must follow. For economic and scientific success, free flowing capital is essential, the question of democracy or autocracy is not. (To state it clearly: This is not an ethical question, or even a defense of autocracies - I'd rather live in a moderately doing democracy than in a thriving totalitarian regime - it is just about the facts.) $\endgroup$
    – Thern
    Jan 9, 2018 at 14:28
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    $\begingroup$ I will have to disagree with you to some extent. A free and unregulated market tends to converge towards big corporations and monopolies, and that is definitely not driving innovation either. $\endgroup$
    – MrGerber
    Jan 9, 2018 at 15:04
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    $\begingroup$ @MrGerber The formation of monopolies is often driven by technological change; see the great pace of advances made by US Steel and Standard Oil; and even Google and Facebook today. The minutia of government intevention to optimally regulate the economy is beyond the scope of this answer (and besides I don't know it), so I am satisfied that this answer is correct as a generality. $\endgroup$
    – kingledion
    Jan 9, 2018 at 15:09
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    $\begingroup$ Throughout our entire recorded history we had theological totalitarian figures, collections of city states, republics, dictatorships, caliphates, representative democracies, colonial empires, and classic empires, all of them with different approaches towards economics and private enterprise. And for each one you will find at least one example of technological supremacy at any given point in history. Yet you decide to fit a model to the last 70 years and call it a law for all. Including for the space faring and galactic empires of the OP video game. That's quite the assumption... $\endgroup$
    – armatita
    Jan 10, 2018 at 12:36
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    $\begingroup$ @Miech That’s a highly dubious assertion considering the staggering cost of higher education today. $\endgroup$ Jan 11, 2018 at 17:00

Democracies don't have to be indecisive or stagnant. They aren't necessarily top-heavy or paralyzed by conflicting special interest groups. That is a fairly recent trend on the real world stage, which will hopefully solve itself once the citizenry get tired of the endless bickering.

Democracies can be vibrant and unified, with each citizen choosing for themselves the manner in which they can best contribute to the shared societal goal. They can be goal oriented, as long as every citizen understands that the shortest path to attaining their own prosperity, is to invest themselves in what is best for their country.

In an autocracy, decision making power is sequestered to a comparatively small number of minds who rule from a distance, dictating the actions of millions on broad homogeneous paths. Any flaw in the census, in the government's attempt to categorize its citizens by strengths and talents, will lead to citizens being utilized in less than optimal ways. Without a choice, even those who are well suited to the tasks they have been assigned may resent being forced to pursue them.

The secret weapon in a democracy's arsenal is that each citizen will tend to choose for themselves an occupation which best suits their abilities, in the quest to earn highest rewards for themselves and their loved ones. The democratic rulers therefore only need to manipulate the economy such that the skills they most need, yield the highest pay. They do not have to find the single best suited mind to crack the secret of FTL. They just have to offer a big enough prize so that the competitive marketplace finds that singular genius for them.

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    $\begingroup$ Also, landing a rocket upright on a floating platform is not a mundane administrative task. $\endgroup$ Jan 9, 2018 at 3:48
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    $\begingroup$ WWII is a great example, but what about peacetime? How do you incentivize an elected official to allocate obscene amounts of grant money towards spaceflight when you can’t categorize it under “Defense” anymore and your constituents want silly things like “social security” and “health care”? $\endgroup$ Jan 9, 2018 at 4:00
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    $\begingroup$ I want to flaunt the results of the postwar Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, but President Eisenhower also penned the New Deal which greatly expanded Social Security. Democracies can probably only be vibrant when they are young. "A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the majority discovers it can vote itself largess out of the public treasury." Alexis de Tocqueville $\endgroup$ Jan 9, 2018 at 5:25
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    $\begingroup$ "They do not have to find the single best suited mind to crack the secret of FTL. They just have to offer a big enough prize so that the competitive marketplace finds that singular genius for them." And why should autocracies not be able to do the same? It seems that too many people confuse autocracy with communism. But you can combine autocracy and market economy without a problem. It was just their specific ideology that prevented the communists from doing so. $\endgroup$
    – Thern
    Jan 9, 2018 at 13:23
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    $\begingroup$ @Renan: "Think of how far humanity would have gone if instead of those companied it was the government researching processors." - you seem to imply (state-owned) universities have little to no research output, which is a questionable assumption to make. $\endgroup$ Jan 9, 2018 at 15:51

If the premise is flawed, and democracies are not intrinsically disadvantaged to autocracies, with all other factors held constant, explain why

The premise is flawed in that the situation you describe has nothing, per se, to do with autocracy or democracy, but rather with the difference between the "desires" of the State and those of the population at large. In democracies, on average, this difference is low because the "ruling" layers are elected by the "ruled" layers (but note that there are lots of points - corporations, bureaucracies, monopolies... where this is not true).

The slippage between hierarchy layers determines friction, with people below working at odds with people above, and this leads to resentment, corruption, graft, nepotism, need to control, and ultimately a waste of resource; the machinery's cogs do not fit well and the whole ensemble grinds to a halt. The machine can focus more power on some sections at the expense of others, but on the long run, it will just wreck itself faster. Such a machine is good in remaining still (provided that external circumstances do not change).

You can reduce the friction in two ways: either aligning the State with the population (democracy - or an "illuminated" dictatorship; panem et circenses refers to the 'trick' of satisfying the most basic desires of the population at large). Or by aligning the population to the State, through indoctrination (and/or religion). This has never worked too well on human beings, but there's no reason it couldn't work with other species. With some modifications to the human mind, achieved through breeding and nurturing, Aldous Huxley tried to make it work in Brave New World.

But there is a more fundamental premise flaw right in the question title, that I also see reflected in some comments (that basically boil down to "but what if a democracy doesn't do the right thing in the so-and-so situation?):

How to keep democracies from falling behind technologically?

As soon as you want to "keep" democracies from, "make" democracies do, "steer" democracies towards etc., you no longer have a democracy.

By definition, a democracy will go wherever the average of people, the demos, wants it to go, not where a minority might want to go. Not even where it might really be best to go.

It is perfectly possible for a democracy to make short-sighted, long-term harmful choices. This is why it was said "A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the majority discovers it can vote itself largesse out of the public treasury. After that, the majority always votes for the candidate promising the most benefits with the result the democracy collapses because of the loose fiscal policy ensuing...".

So, given a non-post-scarcity economy, the long-term good needs for enough people to realize that in a given situation technological progress or weapons research might be more desirable than health care or retirement bonuses or whatever.

Then, just as in dieting, they need to stick to the plan, gritting their teeth and enduring poor health care etc. in the short term, in exchange for a long-term advantage of technological progress, of not being enslaved by their neighbours, of not wrecking the environment and need to leave the planet, and so on; in essence, the democracy autocratizes itself in certain fields, in what is known as an Ulysses' pact.

The need for the above was recognized for example in the Roman Republic, where the dictator (he who dictates) was an established magisterium and was voted into office.

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    $\begingroup$ "free markets have made relatively few advances in fields outside of electronics"... I find it hard to accept such a claim. Think health, or metallurgy, or, yes, weapons; transportation, agriculture... what field are you thinking of, specifically? $\endgroup$
    – LSerni
    Jan 9, 2018 at 9:21
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    $\begingroup$ @taylorswift "free markets have made relatively few advances in fields outside of electronics" Honestly, this take is spectacularly wrong. It just shows that you don't know what has been developed in the last 20 years. Just because the most popular advances have been in electronics, doesn't mean nothing else has been advanced. $\endgroup$
    – kingledion
    Jan 9, 2018 at 14:01
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    $\begingroup$ i’m not denying that electronics and computing have been massively important in the past 3 decades, but on the surface (e.g. from a worldbuilding perspective), not much has changed in the way we live. Our world is more efficient, cheaper, connected, and streamlined, and our quality of life is vastly increased, but exactly as you mention that’s simply taking what we had in the midcentury and extrapolating it. 2017 technology is certainly better but it’s not much different. $\endgroup$ Jan 9, 2018 at 16:26
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    $\begingroup$ @taylorswift I don't completely get your point. Most of the advancements from the 20s to the 60s also build up on the basics before. Cars and vaccines were invented in the 19th century, as well as the welfare state and electricity. Space travel is a fancy thing but was largely irrelevant in practice, and nuclear power never became THE energy source it was considered at the beginning (actually, it currently gets outrun by wind energy). The only really new thing in your list is antibiotics. That is how development mostly works: It builds up on existing things. Completely new ideas are seldom. $\endgroup$
    – Thern
    Jan 9, 2018 at 16:45
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    $\begingroup$ @taylorswift: At least on the level of detail that can be conveyed in the comments here, I fear your distinction between a "change(...) in the way we live" and technology that is just "more efficient, cheaper, connected, and streamlined" comes across as arbitrary. Nowadays, I get notified during breakfast at home that my train will be delayed, so I check from my house who has sent me messages in the office. On my way to work, I read an article from a (previously unknown to me) foreign newspaper that a friend from another continent found and pointed out to me 5 hours ago while I was ... $\endgroup$ Jan 9, 2018 at 21:56

First of all, these in-game representations of political systems are always going to be flawed. A representation will always lose some detail, but the keyword here is "game", you certainly do not want to have to deal with the actual issues of running a state.

  • Totalitarian states are not that efficient:

    • There is no such a thing as a state run by a single man. Nazi Germany is a paramount example, under the myth of unity and Hitler's leadership, it actually was a nightmare of individuals and organizations working against each other (Heer vs Waffen-SS, SS vs ABWEHR, Himmler vs Goering) with different priorities, pet projects and the like, hoping to get Hitler's favor.

    • Even dictators need support. They do not need to be legitimated by elections, but even without these, they need to have the support (or at least the control) of the public. And, lacking democratic legitimacy, they need the support of other power brokers (army, aristocracy, capitalists, etc.). See this CGP Grey video for a very interesting introduction.

    • As stated by other answers, totalitarian states rely on the capabilities of those at its top. Are they wrong? Say hello to the Big Leap Forward, or the Holodomor, or go ahead and invade Russia.

    • Totalitarian regimes are more worried about their stability. People will advance on the basis of their loyalty, not of their merits. No matter how good you are, if you are not in line with the leadership objectives you will not get responsibility positions (and that is if you are lucky enough to not spend your time in a jail). And of course, you will need to keep a big security system that you want to feed with lots of resources to keep it happy.

  • Democratic states are not incapable of having objectives. The key point here is are lagging behind. If there is a perceived threat, it is relatively easy to get their act together. Good examples could be the USA or the UK during WWII (including a "national coalition" government in the UK), the space race or even (fruitless as it was) Reagan's SDI (the famed "Star Wars") project.

TL/DR: Totalitarian states have internal tensions, do not always have the best leadership, are not that efficient and have to consume resources both for repression and public support. Democracies are capable of making sacrifices if there is a perceived need for it; the aspect being that as soon as the need seems to wane there are strong interests in redirecting the efforts to other issues.


Given the definitions you've provided the only real difference is that in one the leaders are in place for life, while in the other the leaders are only in place for a term or two, based on votes.

With that in mind there's one rather crucial disadvantage an autocratic society has: it's bad at dealing with particularly bad leaders.

In a democracy, if you don't like the Prez, you can just wait 3-4 years and vote them out of office. Impeach them, if you're impatient. Bring in a new Prez, maybe they'll do better.

In an autocracy, if Le Roi is a fool, you can either starve while he runs amuck eating cake for 50-odd years, or, well, I suppose you could burn the regime down and invite a whole lot of people to meet Madame Guillotine.

This is... less than ideal for the advancement of science. We can only speculate how much was lost when Antoine Lavoisier had his head lopped off.

In reality we're never going to get a good leader 100% of the time. For every Sun King there's a Louis XVI, and for an absolute leader, their failure is absolute.

For power concentrated in a small group of powerful people (what Stellaris understands as an oligarchy), we can look to other similar setups - one notable one was the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

Long story short, the loss of the de-facto leader (Lenin) led to a power struggle in the Central Committee that eventually led to Stalin taking supreme control of the USSR - and purging his rivals for good measure. This was more or less repeated after Stalin's death, with a power struggle breaking out among Stalin's inner circle before Khrushchev took control.

Generally we'd expect these sorts of setups to shift towards one absolute power at a time, and generally deal with power struggles due to variations in how much power and influence the 'powerful' actually have.

  • $\begingroup$ what about oligarchies? (Autocratic authority is a superset of imperial/hereditary authority) $\endgroup$ Jan 9, 2018 at 8:10
  • $\begingroup$ An oligarchy is more of a qualitative label than a societal one, really, but for a reasonable historical example of what Stellaris calls the we can look at the Central Committee of the Soviet Union and perhaps the soviet union in general. Short story is that it tends to lead to a single leader anyway. I'll add a bit to the answer. That said I'd avoid reading too much into video game abstractions. By nature they include an eternal, omniscient leader with 20/20 foresight and unquestioned rule so they tend to skew the world. $\endgroup$
    – Pingcode
    Jan 9, 2018 at 8:53

A strong centralization of power, of any kind, hinders discovery

When Columbus asked the Portuguese for permission to sail, they said no. So he went to the Spanish, who said yes, and the rest is history. When the Chinese pronounced Haijin, its fleets were scrapped and nobody could do anything about it. China was not more or less autocratic than Europe, but European power was decentralized. In a democracy, power is supremely decentralized - when the government says no, protesters, lobbyists, local governments, etc. can say yes. In an autocracy, they would all be shot.

Socialist science

Despite its successes in the Space Race, science in the USSR was severely hampered on many fronts. Russian electronics were trash, all computers were clones of American designs. Russian genetics was suppressed by demagogues. Quantum mechanics were considered counter-revolutionary, and only existed at all because Stalin wanted his bombs.

This is a trend in all aspects of Soviet culture. The geriatrics in the Kremlin set political, cultural, and scientific norms that everyone else had to follow. Communications beyond the USSR's borders were difficult if not impossible, so scientists couldn't collaborate with foreign colleagues, or even steal their ideas. If you disagreed, you were, at best, denied advancement.

Stupid Jetpack Hitler

German success in the field of science had nothing to do with Nazism. In fact, Nazi policies encouraged Deutsche Physik over "Jewish physics." The Germans commissioned many wonder weapon designs, but they amounted to very little. Their crowning glory, the V2, was terrible when compared to a conventional Allied bomber dropping conventional bombs onto conventional German research labs. Their vaunted jet fighters were... well, as Chuck Yeager put it, "when I first saw a jet fighter, I shot it down."

Il Duce is not a psychic

The Supreme Leader decrees that the People should go to space. Is technology ready? Does anybody want to go to space? Are there problems at home that might be addressed? Supreme Leader says no. In a democracy, many things are happening at once, and freedom of the press means that everyone knows about these initiatives. A vaguely free market means that demand outstrips political support, and the leaders are not threatened by letting new, radical ideas thrive. Democracies go to space when their people are ready to embrace space travel, and have found a sensible way to do so. Autocracies go to space when the autocrats have too much to drink, and risk too much on too foolish a venture. The USSR collapsed because it was spending too much to make rockets and bombs, and not enough to produce food for its people. The Germans invented Skype for the sake of national prestige, and it didn't go anywhere.


There's some fundamental societal principles that come into play when dealing with autocracies, oligarchies, and even democracies with small elected groups of representatives. Whenever you concentrate power, you become more dependent on the decisions of those in power being the "right" decisions. And, of course, "right" is a concept which is decided later, in the future.

If you are a ruler that has the Mandate of Heaven, as in you actually are striving after the "correct" thing and have the heavens in your favor, you will always be able to use an autocracy to lead your nation better because that concentrates all the power into your hands, and magnifies your correct decisions.

Of course, real people aren't always perfect. Consider the case of North Korea, whose leaders have used their power to create a greatly magnified military system that has a good portion of the Western world on edge, despite having a GDP substantially smaller than Apple's yearly revenue. Is this the "correct" path? Well, we in the West would generally say "heck no!" But only time will tell.

The power of democracies arises when it becomes too difficult for the individuals in power to identify and pursue the "best path forward." It distributes the power in the nation (how much it distributes depends on the style of democracy). This dilutes the power, so it's harder to make crisp clear judgements that move the country in one direction or another, but it vastly increases the ability to observe the world and make adjustments as you go.

Thus, one thing the democracies could do is strive to create a thriving dynamic solar system where the "best path forward" is constantly changing. In such a system, it is enormously difficult for the leaders of the autocracies to stay sufficiently informed in order to make "right" decisions, but it is much easier for the democracies to keep up. It also helps to have those thriving dynamics be very broadband. By that I mean have those changes occurring on many different timescales and many different size scales. If a change occurs in a democracy (such as the invention of the iPhone), it is very easy for a democracy to quickly develop a structure to leverage it to its best capabilities. Our President didn't have time to write edicts to tell us how to manage iPhones while simultaneously managing the Iraq War. But we have CEOs and company presidents and startups formed in people's garage to figure out what to do with it. That is a structure which is hard for the autocracies to mimic or outperform.

  • $\begingroup$ I feel like while not complete this is the closest to correct, in so far as I suspect that most of these games are (mostly) modeling (in so far as they do) these games are assuming that the "closed" governments are "doing everything right" while assuming that democracies are switching back and forth. $\endgroup$
    – Robert
    Jan 9, 2018 at 21:02

I think your underlying premise is flawed.

In the real world, and in most strategy games, neither the state nor its form of government is relevant to technological or scientific development. All that is required is a need and an opportunity as described in the old adage: "Necessity is the mother of invention". In the modern world, the need is to make a profit and technological innovation leads to greater profitability. This is not driven by the governments, but by the consumers. The entities doing the innovating are companies which are autocratic not democratic and are simply responding to needs. This is why no pharmaceutical company has cured a disease in many years, but all of them have come up with treatments. In the scientific world, the 'need' driver is far less obvious. Peer respect would be a major factor and I suspect inertia is another one, but the consequence is that science has slowed down to a crawl with the exception of areas that directly feed technological innovation (ie profit). When we have another 'necessity', I expect that science will pick up again, unfortunately, that probably means waiting for a collapse in climate, energy, health or food source. Or a war.


I think it is strange that nobody mention that scientific culture does not go well with Totalitarian regimes.

The scientific culture pushes toward checking facts and being curious, exactly the contrary of the goal of a totalitarian regime. If your population start to question why it should obey your rule, why they should stay, or even why they should NOT try to take power for themselves, the stability of the regime will decline.

Most of the totalitarian regimes will make sure that only a small part of their population wants to make high studies, and will control that group in fear of the ideas they could produce.

You could have democracies without scientific culture. (but they risk to slowly become totalitarian regime, with a closed political class and staying a democracy in name only).

In a scientific race, the democracy would always outrun the totalitarian regime, because that regime will either not have enough scientists or collapse under the pressure.

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    $\begingroup$ I think your assumption relies heavily on idealism. Scientific culture is mostly no problem with totalitarian regimes. Even the medieval and early new-age societies with their suffocating amount of religious rules and interdictions left enoughs space for scientific progress, due to the fact that the largest part of science is uninteresting or even useful for a state. You may not be allowed to proclaim evolution theory, but you are allowed to research cars, rockets, computers, etc. Just keep silent about the core values of the regime and focus on other interesting stuff, and you are fine. $\endgroup$
    – Thern
    Jan 9, 2018 at 16:14

Normal people may not care about scientific advancement, but fortunately, we don't need to rely on them, even in a democracy. In the U.S., for instance, a lot of funding comes from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and National Institutes of Health (NIH), as well as a few Department of Defense groups, e.g. DARPA. Let's take the NSF as an example. Each year, they request a budget from Congress (in 2017, it was about 0.2% of total federal spending for the NSF) and give them a high level overview of how the money will be spent and examples of the sort of impressive things NSF funding has supported in the past. But then once the NSF has its budget, qualified people decide which research grants will be supported, so even if a research project only has long-term benefits, it will still get funded if it's a promising idea.

Another major source of funding comes from industry. In addition to in-house research, companies will sometimes send funding to academic researchers working on topics relevant to them. Even if they won't be the only ones to benefit from the research, they don't need to invest any time or employees into the project, so if they have the money to spare, it can be a good investment. (It also buys goodwill from potential future employees.)

And finally, a base level of funding comes from the universities themselves. Undergrad tuition pays salaries, and offering solid research funding will attract good professors to the institution.

The average citizen may look at something like a particle accelerator and say "That will magically create a black hole and kill us all". A congressman may look at it and say "That won't have any practical benefits before the next election". But the NSF people will look at it and think, "That may reveal information that will open up new avenues of research in 50 years" and fund it. The more short-sighted people just need to know that funding "Science" has always paid off before, so if we show them that it has, they'll keep funding it. (That came out as a bit more cynical than I intended, but if I'm being honest...) The average citizen of a democracy doesn't necessarily understand or even care about specific research projects, but as long as you have a good research infrastructure in place, they don't need to as long as they're interested in having technology continue to advance.


The problem here is that there really isn't a worldbuilding sort of problem. Your complaint is that within certain games, centrally planned economies beat free market ones. But the problem is that whoever set up the rules/programmed the logic for these games did not accurately model the real world.

(This might be in part because games are restricted, while real life has much larger bounds that can be modelled.)

So the "solution" seems to be either to not play these games, or - if you're making up your own game - to make a more realistic set of rules. To take a couple of your points:

1) Autocracies always persecute some group, and the more intelligent/innovative the group, the more likely they are to be among the persecuted, if for no other reason than that they start asking questions like "Why should we believe this idiot, anyway?"

2) Big tech vs consumet tech: It's often the economies of scale involved in producing consumer tech that allows relatively cheap scientific progress. Consider for instance why most supercomputers these days are clusters of cheap commodity processors and GPUs, which wouldn't be available for cheap if it wasn't for the gaming community. Or the way the US was able to convert e.g. automotive plants to making tanks in WWII...


Why not an Illuminatti Democracy? If an elite controls what the people see and hear they control what they think and control how they vote. So you can have your free market and political freedoms and the projects that matters will survive the electoral cycles because the Secret Societies that control the media and the church of your society will control the public opinion and make sure the public wants those projects completed. And these Societes know that big science is vital for them because if their civilization is conquered by enemies they will lose their privileged positions and if, on the other hand, their civilization conquer others they will become even more rich and powerful.

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    $\begingroup$ The point with an illuminati democracy is that it is improbable, if not outright impossible. Either you openly suppress basic democratic rights like freedom of the press to avoid that too many people find out about your secret circle, or you have to secretly control media, politics, education, religion etc. to such a vast amount and with so many people that the assumption that the facade is upheld and the underlying system is still secret becomes absurd. $\endgroup$
    – Thern
    Jan 11, 2018 at 15:16
  • $\begingroup$ Leaks doesn't matter if nobody belives in the leakers. The secret societies could create deliberate leaks, with outlandish accusations to create an effect like the boy that cried wolf too many times. $\endgroup$
    – Geronimo
    Jan 11, 2018 at 22:25
  • $\begingroup$ complete control over the electoral system isn’t necessary, they just need to maintain enough secrecy and minimize media scrutiny so that most people either don’t know their tax money is being spent on research, or through taxpayer apathy, don’t care. The defense and intelligence sectors already operate with enormous budgets and almost no public knowledge of their activities. $\endgroup$ Jan 11, 2018 at 23:09
  • $\begingroup$ @Geronimo Yes, that was part of the deliberate misinformation strategy that the Sovjets and their satellite states employed during the Cold War. Still, most people even in the Sovjet Union knew very well what was going on. It is simply not possible to create a secret that large and having no one believe the leaks. Heck, even completely absurd things - flat earth, Jewish world conspiration, chemtrails - are believed by an astonishing amount of people. How much more would believe in things that are actually true? $\endgroup$
    – Thern
    Jan 12, 2018 at 9:53

It may be too complicated to say, though culture seems the most important issue.

Games strive for balance and fun, not realism. Importantly, in the real world, technological progress varies considerably because most nations have huge cultural differences which makes it hard to answer this without resorting to caricatures.

During the Second World War Britain shared many technological secrets with America via the Tizard Mission. Britain had a lot of technology which was ahead of America's; especially when it came to radar and jet engines.

Wartime comparison between the USA, Britain, Germany, and the USSR is complicated by a vast difference in cultural and material circumstance. In 1897 the Russian empire had a literacy rate of 24%. In 1900 the United Kingdom had a literacy rate close to 100%. Britain's elite universities were some of the oldest in the world; Oxford was created 1096, Cambridge 1209. Universities in St. Petersburg and Moscow were setup in 1724 and 1775 respectively.

Therefore, to make a comparison between such places is a non-trivial task with so much statistical noise it's hard to make meaningful conclusions. A precise scientific comparison requires controlling for as many factors as possible.

On face value modern America is a research powerhouse. That's true... but when this data isn't controlled for population or GDP it's not informative, in the same way economic data not adjusted for inflation is often meaningless.

Even contemporary free market democracies don't have the same research output per capita. This original research found on academia.stackexchange finds significant differences. It doesn't adjust for GDP per capita... which would itself have to be adjusted by an inequality indicator to try and measure median wealth. We'd probably need to further adjust for difference in national education spending and access to higher education. Intuitively countries with more money will produce more research, but it's never going to be just about money.

The research publications per capita figure will probably also need filtered by STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering, Medicine), as though a thesis on Cultural Studies or Law might be interesting, it's not relevant to what you're asking.

Nevertheless. Let's add world bank GDP per capita data from 2012.

No. ... Country ... Research publications per capita (GDP per capita)
1. Switzerland 0.049 (57,000)
2. Sweden 0.039 (44,000)
3. Denmark 0.037 (44,000)
4. Finland 0.035 (40,000)
7. Norway 0.032 (65,000)
9. United Kingdom 0.030 (37,000)
10. Australia 0.030 (42,000)
20. United States 0.022 (51,000)
21. Germany 0.021 (43,000)
22. France 0.019 (37,000)
28. Japan 0.013 (37,000)
50. Russia 0.004 (25,000)
82. China 0.002 (11,000)

Most Chinese people are poor compared to their western peers, so it's little surprise fewer of them can afford to publish research. But what about the Anglosphere? Britain, Australia, and America share a great deal culturally. Britain and Australia produce the same research per capita. Meanwhile America, which is much wealthier per capita, publishes much less.

Britain is poorer per capita than Australia, but has the same per capita wealth as Japan and France; which both produce considerably less research. So what's going on?

A more revealing comparison may be between Finland and the USA. Finland regularly appears at the top of the scoreboard of the PISA study; an OECD measure of how well school children are doing across its member states. Perhaps unsurprisingly Finland is also doing well in our research per capita list.

Finland's 2012 PISA average was 529 at 8th place. America's was 492 at 29th place. The difference seems largely due to alternative cultural and educational values. For example, in America sports are a big deal for schools. In Finland sports are relegated to after school clubs.

Would Finland produce less research under a Finnish autocracy? This doesn't seem likely. The biggest factor appears to be culture, not the form of government.

P.S. I don't understand Switzerland.

P.P.S. As jamesqf points out in the comments, CERN is based in Switzerland, which likely makes Switzerland an outlier.

  • $\begingroup$ I’m quite curious why Germany is so low on that list considering how often people in the U.S. praise their education system $\endgroup$ Jan 10, 2018 at 17:34
  • $\begingroup$ @taylorswift That's probably in terms of employment rather than published research papers. German universities and colleges have strong trade links, which allows them to output graduates who have the practical skills needed by industry. $\endgroup$
    – user20787
    Jan 10, 2018 at 18:04
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    $\begingroup$ Switzerland hosts a lot of foreign researchers - CERN is merely the most obvious example. I was one for a couple of years: the papers I was a co-author on would have come from a Swiss research institute, even though only a minority of the staff were Swiss. (To be honest, the only actual Swiss I remember was the department secretary, but I didn't know everyone that well.) $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Jan 11, 2018 at 5:37
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    $\begingroup$ As a side note, take care that the number of research publications vastly depends on the research topics. When I did my PhD in physics, it was common for my area of research to have 2 or 3 papers published during the course of the PhD. In computer physics, it was 5 to 8 during the same amount of time. And of course, quality is also not a size that is measured here. The more influental the "publish or perish" doctrine, the more nominal output you will have, but not necessarily an output with higher quality. So you have to take the numbers with a (quite large) grain of salt. $\endgroup$
    – Thern
    Jan 11, 2018 at 15:11
  • $\begingroup$ @Nebr Excellent points. Any suggestion of how to adjust or filter the raw data? Or will this also vary from culture to culture as well as subject to subject, so as to make analysis even harder? $\endgroup$
    – user20787
    Jan 11, 2018 at 16:03

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