A style of government in which the rulers demand unquestioning obedience from the ruled. Traditionally, ‘authoritarians’ have argued for a high degree of determination by governments of belief and behaviour and a correspondingly smaller significance for individual choice. But it is possible to be authoritarian in some spheres while being more liberal in others. Frederick the Great is alleged to have said, ‘I have an agreement with my people: they can say what they like and I can do what I like’.
Authoritarianism has become simply a ‘boo’ word, referring to overweening and intolerant government irrespective of the justification, or lack of it, of such practices. Thus it often means exactly the same as despotism, an older word. A number of American political scientists in the Cold War period distinguished between ‘authoritarian’ and ‘totalitarian’ governments. The former (mainly military regimes) had two advantages over the latter: they did not last as long and, though they could repress their political opponents as brutally as any known regimes, they left a larger sphere for private life. (Totalitarian regimes were, in this context, invariably communist.) Thus, where conditions were not yet ripe for democracy, there were relative advantages to authoritarianism.