Two decades ago Francis Fukuyama pronounced the end of history. By his semi-Hegelian thinking, history will end with the triumph of liberal democracy and free market capitalism.
One should laud Fukuyama for proclaiming the victory of free enterprise, but, when it comes to liberal democracy, his prophecy seems less prescient.
Perhaps, he took it for granted that liberal democracy must walk hand in hand with capitalism, but history, strangely enough, has had another idea.
As the Economist argues this week in a lead essay, democracy now seems less and less triumphant. Many countries that flirted with it have veered toward autocracy. The great beacon of democracy, the United States of America has been looking more and more dysfunctional by the day.
Of course, Benjamin Franklin declared that the Constitutional Convention had created a “republic.” And a republic is not quite the same as a democracy. It is fair to emphasize that in the early days of the American Republic, very few people had the right to vote. Since only property-owning males could vote, in the first elections between 3% and 4% of the population participated.
To call the results democratic stretches the meaning of the term.
In principle, a republican or representative form of government is designed to resist the will of the people, the special interests of factions and the vagaries of public mood.
In a republican government representatives are supposed to exercise their own good judgment, regardless of the latest polls. Such a system balances power between the different branches of government, and even within the branches themselves.
It used to allow Senate filibusters to rein in the power of the majority. Now it has a Senate leader who suspends the filibuster to get his way.
It used to have presidents who worked with Congress to pass legislation. Now it has a president who does not know how to compromise or negotiate and who feels that he must, in the name of justice, impose his will on those who disagree.
The will to demonize the opposition is contrary to the spirit of republican governance.
It used to try to balance special interests, but now it is owned by special interests, like public sector labor unions. The Economist does not mention the political power and influence of unions, many of which are more concerned with their own special interest than in the interest of those they serve.
While pursing noble ideals, too many of our politicians have forgotten that a democratic republic only functions when people follow rules, negotiate compromise and respect the outcome.
Nations that want the world to be more democratic must make democracy work at home.
Moreover, the Economist suggests, America has done democracy no favors by trying to force its culture on other nations. The Bush administration effort to export democracy has been a black eye for democracy. Elections in Egypt produced an aspiring autocrat and have led to a military takeover.
It may well be the case, though no one seems to want to say so, that liberal democracy is consonant with Judeo-Christian values. It might not find such a welcoming culture in other nations.
And the Economist adds that Western democracies have damaged their reputations by failing to deal effectively with the financial crisis of 2008.
It [the financial crisis] revealed fundamental weaknesses in the West’s political systems, undermining the self-confidence that had been one of their great assets. Governments had steadily extended entitlements over decades, allowing dangerous levels of debt to develop, and politicians came to believe that they had abolished boom-bust cycles and tamed risk.
Given the explosion of unaffordable entitlement spending and the failure to display fiscal discipline, the financial crisis made Western democracies look as though they were for sale.
Most significantly, a culture of entitlement has overwhelmed what remained of the Protestant ethic. If you can vote yourself a living, why work for it. If you can vote yourself health care and a higher wage, why work harder to earn them.
Perhaps the most important reason why the reputation of democracy has been declining around the world is, as the Economist points out: China.
The Economist reports:
Meanwhile, the Chinese Communist Party has broken the democratic world’s monopoly on economic progress. Larry Summers, of Harvard University, observes that when America was growing fastest, it doubled living standards roughly every 30 years. China has been doubling living standards roughly every decade for the past 30 years. The Chinese elite argue that their model—tight control by the Communist Party, coupled with a relentless effort to recruit talented people into its upper ranks—is more efficient than democracy and less susceptible to gridlock. The political leadership changes every decade or so, and there is a constant supply of fresh talent as party cadres are promoted based on their ability to hit targets.
In some ways the Chinese invented meritocracy, so this should not surprise us. Has the American system done as well in finding fresh talent?
It is worth underscoring that while America is hard at work instilling empty self-esteem in its children China is educating its children to the most rigorous standards.
Worse yet, where Chinese children are taught to take pride in their nation and its history, American children are taught to criticize and complain about theirs.
Of course, China does not have the first amendment, but it also does not have first amendment absolutists who seem to want to turn the Bill of rights into a suicide pact.
As Justice Robert Jackson wrote:
The choice is not between order and liberty. It is between liberty with order and anarchy without either. There is danger that, if the court does not temper its doctrinaire logic with a little practical wisdom, it will convert the constitutional Bill of Rights into a suicide pact.
American democracy is a pragmatic solution to the problem of governance. Forcing it to conform to ideals seems to make it less efficient.
But, the Economist suggests that the Chinese government is less autocratic than it appears. It does respond to some aspects of public opinion. It does not, however, countenance the first amendment freedoms that Americans pride themselves on:
China’s critics rightly condemn the government for controlling public opinion in all sorts of ways, from imprisoning dissidents to censoring internet discussions. Yet the regime’s obsession with control paradoxically means it pays close attention to public opinion. At the same time China’s leaders have been able to tackle some of the big problems of state-building that can take decades to deal with in a democracy. In just two years China has extended pension coverage to an extra 240m rural dwellers, for example—far more than the total number of people covered by America’s public-pension system.
Of course, the whole world is watching the great competition between Chinese-style free enterprise and American-style liberal democracy. Here are the views from India:
Indian business moguls constantly complain that India’s chaotic democracy produces rotten infrastructure while China’s authoritarian system produces highways, gleaming airports and high-speed trains.
It is fair to mention that China is also producing monstrous amounts of pollution. If China does not clean up the air and water, its grand experiment will start looking far less appealing. Then again, what is the air and water quality in India?
Nations around the world seem to be trying to emulate Chinese autocracy rather than American democracy. But, it is not clear that they are willing to emulate Chinese free market capitalism. Many countries that are shunning democracy prefer economic stagnation to economic vitality. Time will tell whether they embrace free enterprise or continue to fall behind the world.
Perhaps culture counts. In the absence of Judeo-Christian values China can ground itself in Confucian values. These seem fully congenial to free enterprise, but also to social harmony. Certain other cultures, not so much.