Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Authoritarianism on the Rise

The idea has been floating through the media for quite some time now. I have occasionally presented it on this blog. The liberal democracy that everyone believed had emerged victorious in the clash of civilizations has been eclipsed by the authoritarian capitalism practiced by the current Chinese government. Links here and here and here.

People tend to copy what works. They emulate their betters. If the Chinese system seems to be working better than American-style democracy, nations around the world will reject the democratic model and embrace the autocratic model. As I have often pointed out, if America wants the world to be more democratic, it must show that democracy works. If anyone imagines that nations are going to line up to have their own versions of the Resistance, of Black Lives Matter, and of public debates about manspreading and transgendered restrooms… he is smoking the wrong kind of cigarettes. If democracy in America has descended to the level of mindless frivolity and disruption for the sake of disrupting-- especially when these stifle economic growth-- do not expect the world to become more democratic any time soon.

We might say that it’s all about the best form of government. From another angle, we might say that after eight years of Obama the American people were tired of the culture wars and wanted to get back to business. Perhaps that was one of the reasons, a reason that transcended ideology, that they voted for Trump, but especially why they voted for Republicans. Now, if the Republicans prove that they cannot govern… that will change the equation.

On Monday of this week Tyler Cowen offered a similar argument about the role and the influence of the Chinese example. For obvious reasons I find the argument persuasive.

Allow him to present his case.

First, he points out that the Chinese example is pushing Western democracies in a more authoritarian direction:

I believe that much of Western politics is becoming more authoritarian and less liberal because of the greater presence of autocracies on the world stage, most of all because of the success of China.

He should have added that Western democracies have been showing weakness in the war against Islamic terrorism. They have veered toward more feminine values and attitudes. Empowering women-- in Germany and Sweden-- has been shown to promote weakness and empathy. This is provoking a reaction, one that often shows a more macho version of masculine values.

Cowen believes that the issue is power, not freedom or prosperity:

Individuals have a mimetic desire to copy or praise or affiliate what is perceived as successful, and a lot of our metrics of success have to do with power rather than freedom or prosperity. So if there is a powerful system on the world stage, many of us will be drawn to it and seek to emulate it, without always being conscious of the reasons for those attractions.

Here, a caveat is in order. There is more to it than power. China has produced an enormous amount of wealth in the past forty years. It has accorded its citizens far more economic freedom than they ever had. People do not emulate China for its will-to-power. They emulate its success, its prosperity and its economic freedom.

As for the measurement of Chinese success, Cowen makes the case persuasively:

It’s not just about the emerging economies in general, but rather one such economy in particular: China. By purchasing power parity measures China is now the No. 1 economy, and the world’s leading exporter, in addition to its longstanding role as the world’s most populous country. It has had an almost unbroken string of high-growth years since 1979, often at double-digit rates, and it avoided much of the negative fallout from the financial crisis. Its geopolitical influence and its military have been gaining on the U.S. or Europe for decades.

Nations around the world are asking themselves whether they can produce prosperity by following liberal values… freedom to expression, human rights. And they have been answering that they would rather not:

Nonetheless the economic successes of China and some other countries may have helped create an underlying crisis of confidence in liberal ideas and values. In Africa, for instance, Ethiopia and Rwanda have been improving living standards fairly rapidly, but they too have moved toward authoritarianism systems.


trigger warning said...

I disagree the Left's affection for authoritarian government has anything to do with China (despite Tom Friedman's wistful longing to be like China for "one day"). Leftists have always tended toward personality-cult style leadership. The Obama White House was hanging Mao ornaments on the "Winter Holiday" tree, and you can't walk into a leftoid political office without seeing a portrait of murderous psychopath Che Guevara hanging on the wall. Even Hitler was popular for a time.

Sam L. said...

The left loves totalitarianism.

Sam L. said...

Well, so long as it's THEIR kind of totalitarianism.

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

Authoritarians get stuff done. It's great until you do or want stuff that doesn't fit their program. Then you're done.

Ares Olympus said...

I do think we have to get deeper into details. According to Republicans FDR was a dictator, and Republicans still rally against the federal government dictating its will upon the states, whether on school integration, or climate change. Of course, if it wasn't for civil rights, the republicans might now be the liberal party, and the democrats as the conservatives. And it might swap again very soon.

The libertarians used to have a "political map" with Liberals on the left, Conservatives on the right, Libertarians on top, and authoritarians on the bottom. They also noted that politicians left and right always moved towards authoritarianism the longer they were in power, probably because there are problems that have no political problems without oppressing someone in some way.

Recently they changed authoritarians to "populist" which is a funny change perhaps, although populism does seem to be a way authoritarian keeps power - as long as you can keep the majority happy and the minority repressed, you can keep power, whether the minority in question is the 0.1% who don't want a 90% top marginal tax rate, or the 0.1% of gender confused who just want to go to the restroom that matches their appearance without getting harrassed.

I think everyone can agree the libertarians largely live in a fantasy land, one where they imagine a world of good honest people all standing as equals, all able and willing to walk away from a bad deal and find another one, and where law enforcement isn't needed becaused everyone is too busy winning to need to cheat anyone else.

The fact that law enforcement plays such a minor role in the day to day living of an average citizen does support the Libertarian fantasy. And the small cases where people do break the law, like speeding, its obviously an issue of personal responsibility, so breaking the law is just a personal risk factor, not a real sin.

So its only in poorer neighborhoods, where there is high joblessness, and where drug abuse is rampant that law enforcement really gets overwhelemed, and where police brutality becomes almost a necessity, and where justice of the gun seems simply expedient, like Dirty Harry's "Go ahead, make my day."

Anyway, if authoritarianism is in our future, it seems most likely to be of the socialist sort, FDR-style, once the Republican again prove themselves only capable of chaos.

Since W re-envisioned himself as a war president after 9/11, it easily seems possible that Trump will re-envision himself as a socialist after the 2018 economic crisis. His call for "affordable heathcare for all" could have been spoken by Bernie Sanders. And Trump, like any good authoritarians really only wants to be be loved, so its curious succeeded at all with the "punish the people" republican mentality. I mean Trump wants to punish people, but only peoplee who "deserve it".

I guess populist and authoritarians are similar.

Ares Olympus said...

I see the NYT has an article on a rise of authoritarianism too, calling for a imperial presidency who is above party politics. Certainly Trump tried to play that role in his campaigning, while so far he's mainly just passed the keys of power to the GOP, outside of a few pet issues for spending large amounts of other people's money to ineffectively deal with largely nonproblems.
One of the hard truths of human affairs is that diversity and democracy do not go easily together.
A new paper from the economists Oded Galor and Marc Klemp finds a strong correlation between diversity and autocracy in pre-colonial societies, with a legacy that extends to today’s institutions as well. The authors suggest that authoritarianism emerges from both bottom-up and top-down pressures: A diverse society seeks strong central institutions for the sake of cohesion and productivity, and internal division, stratification and mistrust increase “the scope for domination” by powerful elites.
In one common pattern, authoritarian rule evolves as a way for a majority or plurality group to hold power against the claims of diverse minorities, and to impose a kind of uniformity on weaker ethnic or religious groups.
In another pattern, an authoritarian leader — sometimes from a minority group himself — casts himself as a protector of diversity, promising to shield minorities who would be threatened should a majoritarian populism take power.
Neither continent [Europe or the US] is poised for a real slide into autocracy — I think! But on both, paradoxically, the cause of liberal order might be better served by leaders who took a slightly more imperial perspective — not in the sense of imposing policy at sword point, but in the sense of realizing that their societies are so diverse as to require a more disinterested kind of vision from their rulers.
From that alienation and fear came Trump, who is barely even trying to reach out and reassure, to make his nationalism seem larger than just white identity politics, to make the groups who feel afraid of his administration sense that he has their anxieties in mind. There might be a form of nationalism that helps bind a diverse society together, but Trump’s seems more likely to bind a “real American” ex-majority in opposition to every other race and faith and group.

His eventual successor, liberal or conservative, should not seek to learn from Assad or Erdogan or Putin. But he (or she) might learn something from an earlier age’s custodians of diverse, fragmented societies — from monarchies like that of the Austrian Hapsburgs, in particular, that worked to contain and balance religious and ethnic divisions, to prevent disintegration and forestall totalitarianism, and might have succeeded longer absent the folly of 1914.

If we’re going to have an imperial presidency, we should want a president who thinks less like a party leader and more like a good emperor — who doesn’t just divide and conquer, but who tries to make all his empire’s many peoples feel like they’re safe and recognized and home.