09 September 2009

Who Needs Democracy?

I am flat-out amazed when I read statements like those I see in Thomas Friedman's NYT column today:
There is only one thing worse than one-party autocracy, and that is one-party democracy, which is what we have in America today. 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. That one party can just impose the politically difficult but critically important policies needed to move a society forward in the 21st century.
Autocracy means a system of government ruled by one person with absolute power. Looking back over history, both recent and further back, how well did society fare under autocracy?

Hat tip - Keith Kloor


  1. Your suggested historical comparison has a serious flaw. Historically, democracies have favored free markets while autocracies have favored closed markets. Is the historically superior performance of democracy due to its embrace of capitalism, or democracy itself?

    We are about to find out. Over the next 30 years, China's markets will become more and more free, while Western economies become more and more regulated.

    I predict that in 30 years autocracy will be widely regarded as having produced superior results.

    Exhibit A will be the United States of America where for two generations people consistently voted to have their cake now and pay for it later (ignoring the warnings of experts and the obvious unsustainability of the practice) resulting in a subsequent economic collapse.

    I don't like autocracy, and think there are better solutions (like the Republican form of government we enjoyed up until the great depression), but democracy has unfairly profited from its association with free markets. Tyranny of the majority is not now (nor has it ever been) a good idea.

  2. Friedman appears to be advocating the option for "reconciliation" by Democratic legislators to avoid Senate supermajority requirement in passing health care. The irony is that the "enlightened" Chinese, as Friedman puts them, took decades since the Cultural revolution to recognize the merits of capitalism, free markets, and the "safety" of investment in the US but only months since the election to openly question Obama administration plans for hyper-excessive government spending and willingness to print "new money" for more spending and repayment of debt, and to push for a new monetary standard away from the dollar.
    Friedman also claims Obama is a "centrist", not a "socialist", says the House version of cap and trade legislation is "still worth passing", and quotes Joe Romm for support about the Chinese.
    Friedman needs some enlightenment.

  3. The Amazon description of this book, "The Climate Change Challenge & the Failure of Democracy"

    and this one

    The Green State: Rethinking Democracy & Sovereignty [http://tinyurl.com/mc7xc2] suggests
    Friedman is far from alone in his apparent willingness to toss democracy into the dustbin.

    Apparently, it's too much effort to persuade one's fellow citizens via strong, sensible arguments. Democracy will just have to be sacrificed/gutted to ensure that a particular point-of-view will prevail.

  4. Brian,

    Your claim that it it took the Chinese "decades after the Cultural revolution to recognize the merits of capitalism" could not possibly be more wrong.

    The cultural revolution (according the everyone except Mao) ended in 1976.

    The first tentative steps towards capitalism began in 1977, were official state policy in 1978, and were widespread throughout China by the time Deng Xiaoping had consolidated his power in 1981. (It has been claimed that the poverty rate was reduced by a factor of four by the end of 1981)

    It would be more accurate to say that after Mao's death the Chinese immediately recognized the benefits of capitalism and, even before the change in leadership had been completed, began transitioning to a capitalist economy as fast as they possibly could (within the constraints of reality and without creating unacceptably widespread unrest).

    This transition (which is still in progress) has been larger, faster, smoother, and more successful than any comparable transformation in history.

    The ability of the Chinese government to make such a bold decision so quickly, and to implement it so effectively is a compelling argument in favor of autocracy by bureaucracy.

  5. Jason S,
    I'll accept your recitation of history, especially the transition to capitalism "within the constraints of reality and without creating unacceptably widespread unrest". I would, however, include in my definition of capitalism the ability to accumulate and part with capital at risk.

    I do believe that most of the more than $1 trillion investment in the US by China's bureaucracy occurred this century. I also understand that China does not view its credit position as an enviable one for the reasons I gave earlier (unless repayment may be taken in the form of political concessions).

  6. Jason S.,

    The fact that the Chinese government right now is relatively good does not undo all the bad autocracies of the past, and it does not mean that things won't go badly again in the future. The only way to avoid those extremely serious problems is to limit the power of the government, and if that causes problems sometimes, too, they are much lesser problems than the tens of millions murdered by autocracies in the 20th century.

  7. Beyond the pale gets this next to it in the dictionary.

  8. Brian,

    Perhaps I don't understand your point then.

    I think that China's status as our largest creditor is highly advantageous (for them).

    Given the rate at which they continue to gobble up US debt (both public and private), often through highly indirect channels, it would appear that they agree.

    Machiavellian motives aside, expressing concern at our balance sheet seems only prudent. There are several legitimate reasons for China choose this moment to do so.

    We are under new management. The FY2009 federal deficit is currently projected to be over $1.84 Trillion. That is more than FOUR times the previous record (set in 2008). And there is a global economic slowdown going on.


    1. I owned 25% of the debt in a public corporation and
    2. We entered a recessionary period and
    3. The corporation suddenly changed its management and
    4. The corporation announced that its losses this year would be four times greater than at any previous time in its history (and more than 80% of revenues):

    You had better believe that I would demand to meet with the new management, and express some serious concerns.

  9. Mike,

    I strongly agree that limiting the power of government is a good idea.

    I disagree with the notion that Democracy is an effective way of doing so. Democracies across the world seem to be uniformly increasing their power. The Chinese government today exercises considerably less control over the daily lives of its citizens than it did a generation ago.

    You mention the "tens of millions murdered by autocracies in the 20th century". It is convenient to forget that the most famous of those "murderous autocracies" came to power by winning back to back elections, more than doubling the votes of its nearest rival in 1933.

    It is easy to say that voters in that election didn't understand the full consequences of their votes.

    It would also be easy to say that in the 2008 US Presidential election, voters did not understand the full consequences of their votes.

    I don't think that the shortsightedness of voters exonerates democracy. On the contrary, I think that this shortsightedness is a direct consequence of the democratic process, which is better suited to expressing the emotions of the present than to thoughtful contemplation of long term consequences.

    And thusly we return to Mr. Friedman's original point (as I understand it): the incompatibility between thoughtful decision making based on long term consequences and out democratic process.

  10. So Friedman thinks that the U.S. would be much better off if we had a wise and benevolent dictator who could impose policies that are consistent with Friedman's preferences? I can understand why this idea is so appealing to Friedman. It seems less clear why he thinks the idea should appeal to anyone else.
    Of the course, the reason the primary reason democracy makes sense is that voter constrain the power of government. The same absolute power that Friedman now believes is being exercised for the good of the Chinese people is same unconstrained power that murdered and arbitrarily imprisoned millions of Chinese people over decades before its now more "enlightened" leaders took over. It is the same unconstrained power that brought us Tianaman Square. It is the same unconstrained power that results in the execution or imprisonment of dissidents in China.
    If Friedman's views represent the "enlightened" thinking of today's elites, then God save us.

  11. Jason S. says that "I strongly agree that limiting the power of government is a good idea. I disagree with the notion that Democracy is an effective way of doing so. Democracies across the world seem to be uniformly increasing their power."

    The power to "vote the bums out" is an important constraint on government power, although standing alone, it is far from a perfect one. In fact, it is just one constraint among many that our founding fathers wrote into the Constitution. They fully understood the "tyranny of majorities", which is why, in addition to giving the people the power to vote the bums out, they enacted a carefully crafted written Constitution that restrains the power of democratically elected majorities to enact laws.
    Friedman's complaint is that our system that limits the power of government, also makes it difficult to enact his policy preferences. It works that way for everyone.
    I would prefer a government that spends far less money, that imposes a much lower tax burden, that provides for greater individual freedoms and that has fewer intrusive regulations. The government we have is not the government I would prefer. I differ from Friedman in that I don't hold adolescent fantasies about how much better the world would be if I always got my way.
    The "real" world alternative to electing our leaders is to live under the leadership of whoever seizes control of the government by force. That is the system that brought us Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot and Mao Tse Tung. As a conservative, I would prefer our system even when I end up with a President and a Congress not of my choosing.

  12. The Chinese autocracy under Mao Zedong was responsible for over 40 million deaths for such offences as owning an acre of land. The Chinese autocracy under Deng Xiaoping was responsible for freeing the economy and lifting millions out of poverty.

    The difference between the two events was the character of a single person, not the form of government.

    People who win at the game of Russian roulette get a satisfying rush; but that is a poor excuse to play the game. Give me a weak ineffective government without the power to take my freedoms. Protect me from a government that is very effective at doing what they think is good for me.

  13. Jason S
    China's rate of acquiring new US debt (e.g., Treasuries) has slowed significantly while its investment in gold and other strategic commodities has quickly grown (I understand China is now the fifth largest holder of gold). These are significant signs that China fears inflation and a weakened dollar - fears heightened by beliefs that the US intends to continue its excessive domestic spending and to repay its debt merely by printing new paper.
    The problem for Friedman is that he points to an "enlightened" China, able to move forward by an autocratic bureaucracy, and suggests that the US has the means to do the same (legislative "reconciliation" on health care, as an example). He forgets that China can afford to do so whereas the US cannot likewise, and China has already so admonished the US.

  14. Maurice,

    Is Britain an autocracy? After all, it is ruled by a monarch.

    China may still be ruled by the Communist party, but today's Oligarchy bears little functional resemblance to Mao's cult of personality.


    As I said in the first post, I prefer the Republican form of government that we had in the US up until the great depression. A government with limited enumerated powers was a great idea. Its a shame we had to abandon it.

    Even today, I prefer the government that we have here in the United States to what they have in China, and I tease my wife mercilessly about her country's human rights abuses.

    But the Chinese, rather overwhelmingly, are more than happy to trade freedoms which don't impact their daily lives for greater economic prosperity. Many Americans would make the same choice.

    If the next 30 years play out the way I expect them to, it will become increasingly difficult to defend democracy on the basis of its outcomes.

  15. Jason,
    No Jason, Britain is not an autocracy. The monarch there is ceremonial only.

    The topic of this thread was the cost/benefit of an autocratic government.
    China under Mao Zedong was an autocracy.
    China under Deng Xiaoping was an autocracy.

    The point stands that the same form of government, in the same country, had different results because of the individuals trusted with so much power. My plea to limit the power of government stands.

  16. China under Mao had a radically different system of governance from China under Deng.

    China under Deng doesn't even fit Roger's definition of autocracy.

    China under Mao was an ideologically driven cult of personality (and most certainly was an autocracy)

    China under Deng was a diverse oligarchy with checks and balances in which dissent was permitted, experimentation encouraged, and practical results valued over ideological purity.

    I would argue that this radical change in governance (from a leader with absolute power, to a leader that had to compromise with various factions in order to get anything done) had a much greater impact on China's rebirth than the change in men at the top.

  17. Jason,
    Deng Xiaoping’s enlightened autocracy may not meet Roger’s definition as an autocracy but it meets Roget’s.

    More to the point we seem to be in violent agreement that less power for the government is a goal to work toward.