The Authoritarian Temptation
Thomas Friedman has been to China again, and seems to have experienced another Lincoln Steffens moment. More than one such, in fact.
In his January 10 New York Times column Tom was swooning over the new high-speed rail link between Peking and Shanghai — five hours to cover 700 miles. "By comparison, Amtrak trains require at least 18 hours to travel a similar distance from New York to Chicago."
Three days later he did some more explicitly political gushing, pooh-poohing talk of China being a national-scale Enron by noting that, along with all the corruption, pollution, and speculative fads: "[China] also has a political class focused on addressing its real problems, as well as a mountain of savings with which to do so (unlike us)."
Now here's Ol' Tom yet again on January 16, sighing that: "Visiting the greater China region always leaves me envious of the leaders of Hong Kong, Taiwan and China, who surely get to spend more of their time focusing on how to build their nations than my president, whose agenda can be derailed at any moment by a jihadist death cult using exploding underpants.
Much more distressing to Tom's liberal Times colleagues and readers, I should think, are the immigration-restrictionist hot flushes our columnist seems to be having. Unless the people of the Middle East face up to their own problems, he says, there is not much we can hope to do about those problems. "We'd be better off just building a higher wall." Hey, it worked for Imperial China!
How long before Tom dons a silk robe, takes up brush calligraphy, and starts growing his fingernails long?
Tom's enthusiasm for the People's Democratic Dictatorship is not new. Last September 9 he was opining that: "One-party autocracy certainly has its drawbacks. But when it is led by a reasonably enlightened group of people, as China is today, it can also have great advantages."
All of which raises the interesting question: Are we headed for another "fascist moment"? Are things in the U.S.A. about to get so bad that the clumsy, squawking, messy, tradition-bound processes of constitutional democracy will seem unable to cope? Will our intellectual classes turn in despair to sleek authoritarianism, staking their hopes for national regeneration on cliques of bossy technocrats reporting to a charismatic leader, their authority protected by liberty-stomping cohorts of secret policemen?
Historical parallels are not hard to spot. Democratic capitalism seems to be on the verge of a severe stress test, as it was 80 years ago, though for different reasons. Our state and national legislatures are blithely promoting extravagant new entitlement projects at the urging of loud interest groups, while state and national finances plunge ever deeper into the red, the economy sheds workers, and wealth-producers flee to lower-tax climates. As in 1930, cracks are opening up in the system of global commerce. Skepticism about the benefits of free trade is growing as it becomes ever more plain that, human-capital-wise, the world is not, after all, flat.
Democratic capitalism is in fact losing its worldwide market share. The latest report from Freedom House counts the number of electoral democracies as 116, "the lowest since 1995." The Economist, reporting on that report, looks back wistfully to the days following the fall of the U.S.S.R, when Western advisers were swarming over the ruins of Leninism preaching market economics and multi-party democracy, and Francis Fukuyama was promising us The End of History. Nowadays there's a Stalin revival going on in Russia, and the ruling party is holding joint strategy sessions with the ChiComs. Looks like there might be a bit more history in our future (as it were).
The relative merits of democracy and authoritarianism have been much chewed over. That Economist report I just linked to has a fair summary. Admirably for this particular publication, they do not avoid the diversity angle:
Democracy …is more likely to succeed in countries with a shared feeling of belonging together, without strong cultural or ethnic fissures that can easily turn political conflict into the armed sort. Better positioned are "people so fundamentally at one that they can safely afford to bicker," as Lord Balfour, a 19th-century British politician, said. Such was not the case in Yugoslavia in the 1990s or in Lebanon in the 1970s.
Is there then a case for autocracy in multiethnic states? I doubt it. The Austro-Hungarian Empire is generally offered as an instance of successful multiethnic autocracy, but the autocracy was much milder than modern China's, and in any case the experiment did not end well.
Furthermore China is 91.5 percent monoethnic. She should, therefore, on Lord Balfour's argument, be more hospitable to democracy than the U.S.A. (Has Tom Friedman had this thought, I wonder?) Yet China's dismal political backwardness guarantees continuing and worsening problems with even these small numbers of minorities. Democracy may be "more likely to succeed" in the absence of those "ethnic fissures," but even in their presence, autocracy looks like a loser.
Certainly democracies can self-destruct (ask an Argentine); and certainly some peoples are much better at democracy than others, for reasons presumably to be found in the human sciences, out there in the unmapped badlands where population genetics borders on the neurobiology of social behavior. It seems to me, though, as it does to the Economist, that the old saw about democracy being the worst form of government, except for all the others, is still standing, unscathed.
The most that can reasonably be claimed for autocracy — I don't claim it, but it can reasonably be claimed — is that it is a necessary phase in modernization under some circumstances: Taiwan, South Korea. That is not susceptible to empirical proof, though; the circumstances were local and peculiar; and there is not a trace of a shadow of a hint of evidence that the Chinese Communist Party has any such temporary transition in mind.
The authoritarian temptation is always with us. It has been strongest on the Left, and Tom Friedman has shown symptoms before. (I note in passing that the Left's infatuation with Fidel Castro has just entered its seventh decade: from the 1950s to the 2010s. What a run this show has had!)
Friedman has generally been at the more sensible end of the liberal spectrum, though, as the qualifications he adds to that Castro comment demonstrate. This repetitive nodding of approval at the five-year-plan-style technocratic projects of the ChiComs is therefore worrying. Where Tom leads, can the rest of the left-liberal punditocracy be far behind?