Wednesday, October 12, 2022

Is Liberal Democracy Ascending?

Once upon a time Francis Fukuyama had a very big idea. Following the lead of Hegel and assorted Hegelians he pronounced the end of history and the triumph of liberal democracy. By that he meant that liberal democracy was the only viable system for governance.

That American conservatives should have lined up to sing Hosannas for a thought that had sprung half-formed from the godfather of Marxism should have given us pause. It did not. Everyone embraced the idea that we had the best system and that the world would soon figure it all out. If nothing else, we have very high self-esteem.

Anyway, to be clear, Fukuyama was not really saying that all countries would have liberal democracy, but that all the people would come to believe that liberal democracy was the best.

The two are not the same thing. According to the great seer, it meant that eventually the world would make its practice correlate with its belief and that liberal democracy would rule. It is, fairly obviously, the inevitable ending of the Enlightenment project of bringing the Heavenly City down to the earth. See Carl Becker’s seminal book, The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth Century Philosophers.

But then, along came China, and, by the by, along came the quasi-democratic states of Asia. When China, in particular, emerged from its Maoist torpor to produce the best record of economic growth, wealth production and poverty reduction in world history, countries around the world stood up and noticed.

This was not some fairy tale spun by German philosophers. This involved practical results, produced by a somewhat autocratic regime, without the advantage of democratic elections and certainly without social media canceling the speech of people it didn’t like. Oops, for that one. 

Of late, as we have been reduced to cheerleaders for someone who has been called a tee-shirt model, the war in Ukraine seems to be going badly for Russia. By the way, China is shutting itself down in order to promote a zero-covid policy that makes no sense to anyone-- at least for now. And Iran, which is a theocratic despotism, has provoked a rebellion against its absurd and degenerate cultural policing. 

So, Fukuyama fans are rising up to say that, after all, the old philosophers were right all along. And that autocratic regimes would never be able to compete against countries that are led by democratically elected demented fools and imbeciles.

And besides, now that Russia seems to have found its true mission in Ukraine, that is, to bomb the place back to the Stone Age, things do not look quite as rosy. We are still, we might say, winning the propaganda war, but still.

And lest we ignore the facts, Western Europe is about to face an energy-less winter. Surely, a continent where people cannot heat their homes does not feel victorious.

And, of course, the Western financial markets have not been looking too good of late.

Lest we forget, the Chinese goal is to create a counterweight to Western hegemony. As of now, it seems to be succeeding. Keep in mind, the government of Saudi Arabia just spit on Joe Biden’s whining and the government of the United Arab Emirates seems to be moving toward the Russian/Chinese side.

Some people are in it for the long haul. Not us, but that is perhaps our fault. We think it’s a propaganda war; they think that it’s about global strategic realignment.

Among the more balanced analyses of the issue is one by Gerard Baker in the Wall Street Journal. He recommends that we not get overconfident about the troubles descending on Russia and China:

Yet while we should be watching all this with a delicate balance of alarm and satisfaction, we remain firmly focused on the intolerable state of our own fluffy navel. President Biden says half his opponents are semi-fascists. His predecessor claims to be a victim of a repressive police state. Conservatives and progressives share only one belief these days—in the irredeemable iniquity of America and what it stands for.

And Baker adds a paradox of liberalism, though I would ask whether this is the natural outcome of liberal democracy, a nation where we whine and complain about everything, where we are chronically addicted to fault-finding, and where, incidentally, we are having some serious problems building bullet trains, among other things.

One might ask whether this is the inevitable outcome of liberal debate or discussion, or whether this is what happens when we become too democratic and when we allow idiot celebrities to lead public debate. And if you imagine that the currently disgraceful American educational system is going to produce the human capital we need to advance our nation you have been smoking the wrong kind of cigarettes.

This of course is the central paradox of liberalism, the perennial vulnerability at the heart of democracy. Since we’re free to air our faults, we can talk about nothing else. There is no denunciation of America uttered in any politburo or revolutionary council anywhere in the world that will match in eloquence or persuasiveness those you hear every day on any American campus or in any Washington television studio.

For years now, the critics of liberal democracy seem to have had the upper hand. They can point to the malaise of the West since the turn of the century: repeated economic failure, disastrous foreign adventurism, cultural collapse and conflict at home. For most of that time the so-called strongmen seemed to be gaining the upper hand. Whatever moral qualms there might have been about the messy moral realities, the long-term strategic advantage seems to be in their favor.

Points well taken. But, Baker improves the conversation by explaining that the practical basis for liberty has been accountability. Are leaders accountable to the public?

But setting aside the moral case for liberty, its essential practical virtue has always been accountability. When you can audit, scrutinize, interrogate and ultimately remove the people who govern you, history and logic tells us you should get better government. Exposing failure and venality and punishing it creates incentives for success and probity.

The primary contrast between our system and that of the autocrats is the application of this accountability. We have too much of it. They have too little. If Russia had more, it’s possible at least Vladimir Putin would have known his military was so corrupt and inept that his mission was doomed. If Iran had more, the ayatollahs might understand the simple grievance that women demand to be treated as respected human beings. If China had more, they might not be pursuing ruinous economic policies and cruel acts of inhumanity.

There is some considerable truth to these observations. After all, one suspects that Putin seriously miscalculated both the ability of his troops and the ability of his enemy. What China is up to, who knows? Come back in five years and we will see. As for Iran, I do not include it on the list.

But, Baker sagely qualifies his analysis by saying that if leaders in Russia and China are barely accountable-- which is not self-evident-- we are inclined to go to the opposite extreme. We are so filled with righteous rage that we do nothing but hold our leaders accountable-- we are incapable of having a balanced judgment about them. We have overdosed on critical theory. We are mired in apocalyptic hysteria:

In the West, meanwhile, we exercise the privilege of accountability to the opposite extreme, to the threshold of self-destruction. Everypresident must be impeached, every election result we don’t like delegitimized. Every opponent needs to be taken down. Every election is the “last chance to save the republic.”

For my part I suggest that this extremist thinking is characteristic of general idiocy, the condition of a nation whose children are not being educated and who, while thrilled to be living in a liberal democracy, are not qualified to do the jobs of tomorrow.


Anonymous said...

The world today is locked into a pissing match between the stupid corrupt West and the evil and over confident Russia and China. If none of these fools had nuclear weapons the worst that would happen is a few years of war with assorted tragedies and suffering. But they have nukes so it is likely we will all, briefly, witness a Armageddon of biblical proportions. I have only two words in response; Let's go Brandon.

rotator said...

I don't think Europe will come to 'can't heat homes', German gas storage is at 97% of 'usual'
for this time of year, BUT thousands of businesses will have to suspend operations, metal refining and working will grind to a halt, the electric grid will be dicey at times for residential consumers and not available for large consumers and very pricey for everyone. The economic hit will be grotesque. For mid to late 2023, we will have to wait and see. Meanwhile Uncle Joe's minions will be quietly beavering away to duplicate the results here in the U.S. by 2030.

Anonymous said...

One thing that is detestable is when people like Baker try to stand astride the great divide and proclaim the rest of us alike in our perfidy. No, it is one side that is causing the problems, and it is not MAGA conservatives. It is the obama-social-justice types still on the loose, who have been cheating and lying their way through American politics since early this century, to the detriment of everybody else.

They have created one conspiracy theory after another, turned a truly great president into a "white supremacist," and yes, called half of America (semi) fascists (and the semi was only implied in that Speech from Hell.) So nice try, WSJ, but no, both sides are not alike -- one side is just trying to live their lives and mind their own business while the other side is in attack mode 24/7, and it's tearing the country apart (all the easier for the globalization, we know.)