Monday, May 20, 2024

The Rise of Authoritarianism

Once upon a time a political scientist by name of Francis Fukuyama came up with an idea about the end of history. In truth, it was recycled and warmed over eschatology, via the great German philosopher, and godfather of Marxism, Hegel himself. In place of the end of days, which comes to us from the Bible, we have the end of history.

Do you feel enlightened?

Fukuyama’s thesis, if I may call it thus, was that the final battle was between Communism and liberal democracy. With the fall of the Berlin Wall, he proclaimed, liberal democracy had won the debate. No one would ever again fail to recognize that liberal democracy, with its free elections, its free expression and its free enterprise, was the most effective way to organize political and economic life.

Of course, in the same year, 1989, liberal democracy arrived in Tiananmen Square in China. The goddess of democracy reigned supreme there for several weeks, before it was crushed under the weight of tanks, its proponents shot down by snipers.

Evidently, Deng Xiaoping had not read Fukuyama. And he did not think that liberal democracy was the future or that it was the most efficient and effective way to run a country. 

A great grape farmer turned journalist, one Nicholas Kristof, declared that the repressive Chinese regime would soon be overthrown, by an uprising of the oppressed people of China. Evidently, Kristof should have stuck with his grapes, because, on that score he was clearly wrong.

True enough, China has been suffering growing pains, but, if you examine the record of economic growth, wealth production and poverty reduction from the onset of the Deng Xiaoping reforms in 1978, the record is probably the best the world has ever seen. 

Given credit to capitalism and to free enterprise, if you will, but this success was not produced by Communism. It was produced in an authoritarian system, one that the leaders of China in 1989 decided would be compromised by too much liberal democracy.

While we think that liberal democracy involves happy people living in freedom, the Chinese leaders saw it as a return to the days of the Cultural Revolution. They were willing to go to great lengths to avoid that.

Obviously, it would have been much more convenient for Fukuyama if China had imploded or if the regime had fallen apart.

Yet, true believers in Hegel will tell you that the Chinese example is merely a blip, a negative dialectical moment on the path to liberal democracy. Besides, whereas the Heavenly City of liberal democracy had not quite descended on the planet, Fukuyama insisted that the debate was over and everyone knew that they should believe in the greatness of liberal democracy.

One Gordon Chang has been predicting as much for the past quarter century. Chang has been wrong, but he has never been in doubt.

In time, however, a Harvard professor named Samuel Huntington offered an alternative theory, called the clash of civilizations. He argued that cultures compete to show which one is more efficient and more effective. The struggle between capitalism and communism constitutes one chapter; the conflict between Protestantism and Catholicism constitutes another; the wars between the genteel British and the thuggish Germans showed another one.

Huntington did not believe that historical inevitability would bring the Heavenly City down to earth. History does not follow a script. Civilizations compete and clash. The better one eventually prevails, until something better comes along.

Besides, defining the clash between liberal democracy and authoritarian government is too simplistic and inaccurate. Such is the thesis offered by David Brooks in a confused column about the current stage of the clash of civilizations. According to Brooks, liberalism is in a conflict with authoritarianism. The liberal West is clashing with the authoritarian East.

Among the thorny theoretical issues is this: does liberal democracy necessarily include free enterprise economic policies or can an authoritarian system sustain a free enterprise system?

Evidently, in June of 1989 the Chinese politburo decided that the two were not wedded to each other, and that free enterprise could function well, even better, in an authoritarian state.

It could not function, however, in a totalitarian, or Maoist tyranny. Nor could it function in a system where the game was rigged, where the government exercised too much control over market competition.

Nor could it exist when the outcomes were predetermined and where competitive striving was sometimes overridden by other considerations, as in DEI.  

Some cultures value competition. They value competition in the marketplace and they value fair competition in elections. 

Other cultures do not value competition. They value results. They want to rig the marketplace so that equity will reign supreme. They also want to rig elections so that their side will always be able to do what it wants. More than that, they believe that the proper function of government is to correct supposed inequities, the kind that occur when too many of the wrong kind of people do better.

There is more to life than elections. A nation’s culture is defined primarily by the way it constructs economic policy. If it believes that it must be a welfare state, one that is dedicated to caring for citizens, and by producing a culture where all groups are represented at all levels of competition, then it has undermined fair competition. 

A culture might undermine competition by promoting people on the basis of pedigree. It might undermine competition by promoting people based on ideology. It might also do so by undermining merit in favor of a skewed vision of correct societal outcomes.

Liberality might very well value free and fair competition in the marketplace. And yet, our current liberality emphasizes results more than fairness. Worse yet, too many politicians insist on winning at all costs, and on imposing their values on the culture, whether the culture wants them or not.

Back in the day, the nation’s founders feared that the majority might impose its will tyrannically. Theirs was not a thoroughly liberal vision. They did not pretend that we should have a totally liberal Heavenly City.

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