Don't get soft on authoritarians

It's possible -- it was easy to oppose Communism when its public face was the grim, depressing, and economically-backwards Soviet Union. But China has the ability to put a lot of shine and sparkle on display (like the cities built practically overnight from scratch), and that may cause some people to think that an authoritarian government might not be all that bad, especially if it's able to "deliver the goods" that make the difference between poverty and at least some form of wealth. But we proceed down a dangerous path when we let this kind of thinking run about unchecked.

First, it's hazardous to assume that the economic success of a nation like China is more than skin-deep. Other countries have achieved substantial transformations in their economic status, too -- Japan, South Korea, and Singapore are all relevant examples from the same region of the world. But they each had important fundamentals undergirding their economic growth, and they each have paid a toll in the modern day for shortcuts that were taken in the past. South Korea's government intervened heavily in order to promote development in heavy industry -- and today, they continue to pay back a sort of civic debt in the form of political scandals tied to the favoritism that went unchecked a long time ago. Japan's economy had one of the world's great booms, but their strong resistance to immigration seems to have created avoidable obstacles to future growth. Singapore, being much smaller than the other two examples, is perhaps a less informative case study, but it is not without its own internal critics of the strength of the state. Ultimately, China will pay a major penalty for its growth if it doesn't start to rectify some of the weaknesses in its own structural approach.

Second, economic growth in a country that starts out very poor will happen at a much faster pace than in a country that starts out in the world's middle class or better, just like a startup company can show much faster growth rates than a mature one. Moving from poverty into the middle class will tend to look like a much faster and bigger achievement than moving from prosperity to greater prosperity, simply because it starts from a lower base. That doesn't mean they've discovered some special form of mastery.

Third, if looking to other countries causes Americans to think that the answer to prosperity is found somewhere in stronger centralization of power by a political elite rather than from the diffusion of power and control, then they're taking away exactly the wrong message. Sometimes, government has managed to concentrate a whole lot of attention and brainpower on select goals and achieved great success -- the Manhattan Project, for instance, or putting men on the Moon. But most of the transformative improvements in American life have come about from the accumulated small improvements made in many places by many self-interested individuals, families, and firms, which taken together have produced great rewards. Individual ambition among lots of people who are free to exercise their own motivation is a whole lot more effective at making great things happen in the long run than putting some purportedly great planner in charge. As Milton and Rose Friedman wrote, "The depression convinced the public that capitalism was defective; the war, that centralized government was efficient. Both conclusions were false."

Fourth, the economy isn't the only thing that matters. So does liberty. So does character. So does honor. So does dignity. So does the rule of law. These things all require hard work -- and though they may be harder to quantify than per-capita GDP growth, they should never be sacrificed in the name of simply making more money. Prosperity is good, necessary, and desirable -- but wealth shouldn't also cost our souls. Economic prosperity is more important as a tool for defending our freedoms and liberties than as an end unto itself. As Margaret Thatcher said, "The sense of being self-reliant, of playing a role within the family, of owning one's own property, of paying one's way, are all part of the spiritual ballast which maintains responsible citizenship, and provides the solid foundation from which people look around to see what more they might do, for others and for themselves."

 
Brian Gongol

Brian Gongol

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