The benevolent dictator paradox

Posted in Liberty at 17:28 by RjZ

Dictatorship is bad. Democracy is good. Everybody knows that. Free market guy that I am, I feel much the same way about control economy (like dictatorship) compared to capitalism (like democracy.) That’s why my trips to China have really thrown a wrench into works of my brain. I’ve spent some time trying to pull that wrench out. Here’s what I think it looks like.

China is a dictatorship. Actually, it’s an oligarchy, but what it’s not is a democracy. The social contract that the Chinese have signed with their government goes something like: we’ll let you make all the political decisions so long as you leave us alone to make money and buy things. And the government has heartily agreed. For the most part, people are allowed to pursue what looks quite a bit like free market capitalism and the government is allowed to rule by fiat and to make long term social and infrastructure decisions that even when the people don’t much agree, they keep quiet about it.

Most Chinese people don’t like things like the Three Gorges Dam, or the lack of a free press, but they do like their dramatically improved standard of living over the last thirty years. Of course there are a great many poor in China, but, today there’s more than a United States full of people, that is 300 million of them, who live, more or less, pretty much just like we do in the west. They have computers and cell phones, Nike shoes and Chinese MTV. They’re more interested in fads then federal government and they’re hoping to try the new mediterranean restaurant that opened up down the block sometime soon. Day-to-day life is fine. They’ve got software that sneaks around the government censors for internet and they speak openly about how they feel to friends and even tourists. They’re fiercely (and justifiably) proud of the great and varied nation in which they live.

How is this possible if dictatorship is so bad? It’s kind of like Microsoft Windows. Microsoft may be (or even have been, if you like) a monopoly, able to control everything in its market like a dictator can in his country, but as long as they make good decisions and make relatively good software that works and does what most everyone needs, there is little reason to complain. Macintosh users may (or may not) have it better, but the whiny minority (of which, in the name of full disclosure I belong) is losing out on all the advantages that centralized power truly brings.

In China, when the government puts its mind to change something, it is incredibly effective. Compare a simple example. Recently, they decided that all these plastic bags at grocery stores were a bad idea. And, by edict, all grocery stores were banned from giving them out. It’s a great idea and the people quickly adapted. Meanwhile, forward thinking San Francisco and a few Alaskan villiages are some of the few in the United States to do the same.

During a business trip to China I was struck by government authorities I met. Mid-level people who are clearly competent technocrats and nothing like politicians I’ve met in the U.S. I can’t even call them politicians. They spoke about items of substance and understood the topics as well as any of the technical people in the room. These technicians of government do not have to ask their constituents for approval, but they’re highly educated people who have been, by and large, making good decisions for the past thirty years and China’s ascendance is undeniable proof of their success.

All this is a huge dilemma for me. The whole concept of a control economy run by a small oligarchy is anathema to me. Were George Orwell, Ayn Rand, and Anthony Burgess wrong in all those books I read?  I struggled to find flaws in the system and prove myself right. First idea: even the Chinese will lament the lack of a free press. We have a free press in the United States. I run little risk of arrest by writing this blog. Except, that we Americans seem unwilling to pay for the press that we have and barely value what’s left of it. Newspapers are closing down at an alarming rate and editors are forced not to seek out the news that we need to hear in favor of what we want to hear.  Far from being biased towards the left or the right, the U.S. media is biased towards keeping its job, which means making money, which means whatever it guesses will sell the most ads. If the people love George Bush, the papers do to. If they hate him, so does the evening news. If the polls love Obama, then NPR thinks he’s the power of change. If they turn against him, CNN will join the fray. Whatever sells papers and justifies ad revenues is what gets the most attention. Who can blame them? We have a free press in the United States, we’re just not using it.

So what’s wrong with these benevolent dictators then? During a recent discussion in China, and Chinese colleague put it succinctly and it finally answered my dilemma.

China is governed by people, not laws.

The Chinese model has been successful because of the people in power. Apparently, they’re honestly talented and well-meaning, and they are not required to kowtow to special interests at every turn. The Chinese people are in good shape…so long as they have good people steering the ship. But what if they don’t? What happens when someone not so benevolent comes to power?

Being governed by people instead of a system isn’t just dangerous, it suffers from a limited attention span, too. The Chinese oligarchy is, indeed, very effective. Beijing was cleaner for the Olympics and those pesky plastic bags are gone, but there is only so much bandwidth for the authorities to enforce regulation and address new concerns. Pollution is a serious problem in China that no one denies, but little is done so far. The people and the government are both troubled, but frankly, they have bigger fish to stir fry. Three hundred million people may be living middle class western lives, but that leaves another billion in a falling apart shack.

The Chinese have every reason to be proud of their beautiful country and amazing progress. There is much to enjoy and appreciate and, even if it pained me to admit it, their system works far better than I would like to give it credit. My worry for them is if it’s sustainable. Can those billion people rely on replacing great technocrats with new ones who also make the right decisions? Is it even possible for a system which depends on the vagaries of people to even effectively address all the concerns and needs of the people they govern and the society they guide?

Continued success in China will depend on the tradition of government being passed on to the next generation of leaders. Each of those leaders will face greater and greater challenges with the same limitations on bandwidth that their predecessors faced. No one would describe the United States as a flawless gem, (alright, some right wing nuts might) but, even in the face of economic crisis and adventurous wars, we can be confident that we are not at the mercy of a few individuals, and that our system of laws, like a good user manual, guides the country forward, even if people sometimes forget to read it.

Whew. I almost had to delete this old post .

1 Comment »

  1. someguy said,

    August 6, 2010 at 1:13

    Great article. I also believe the Chinese model may have quite some advantages. They are now implementing more democracy at a local level so people can decide what influence their daily lives and for which they have the necessary knowledge to make informed decisions.
    However macro-decisions about complex issues like the economy is decided by experts, not the whim of the public (which in the case of the US is highly influenced by a dumbing down media and shorter and shorter attention span so election outcome may be decided by irrational factors).

    The main issue as you describe is to make sure there is no rot within the government. I do think they are aware of this and are putting in place checks and balances, after all I don’t think many other countries enforce a death penalty for corruption within government.
    They are also now encouraging the press to criticise government in order to act as whistle-blowers – that is, as long as they do not criticise the one-party system itself.

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