Autocracy 2.0

Further to the previous post and the erosion (if not yet the implosion) of the post-war world order, another significant shift lies in the rise of new kinds of autocracies. In the post-war era, democracies were generally much more prosperous and better governed than autocracies, most of which were disaster zones. The Soviet Union was full of shops that had nothing to sell and citizens queueing for hours to buy consumer goods and even bread. And — just in case they were minded to try their luck elsewhere — they were locked behind an Iron Curtain that kept them from fleeing to the West. (Cue images of the Berlin Wall.) I remember the occasional visitor from the Soviet bloc arriving in Cambridge and being transfixed by a visit to Sainsburys. China was a backward country that had just recovered from a major famine and Maoist madness. Albania and Romania and even Poland were backward dystopias. Ethiopia was a byword for famine, suffering and death. And so on.

But now? Here’s Tyler Cowen’s take on it:

Since that time, governance in those regions has become much, much better, even though China, Ethiopia and Russia still are not democracies in the Western sense. China for instance has built one of the world’s most impressive economic growth miracles ever, with the Communist Party still firmly in power. Ethiopia is coming off of some years of double-digit economic growth and is developing its manufacturing. Yet the country is autocratic and has a history of censoring the internet. Putin rules Russia with a firm hand, but today consumer goods of virtually all kinds are widely available and most Russians are free to leave whenever they want.

What led to these beneficial changes? In the 1970s and 1980s, it was a common view that if authoritarian or totalitarian regimes liberalized, it would bring an end to their rule. The collapse of Soviet and Eastern European communism over 1989-1992 seemed consistent with this prediction, as perestroika and relaxed travel restrictions caused those regimes to implode.

But maybe that was wishful thinking on our part. Tyler says that modern autocrats — most of all in China — have found ways of both liberalizing and staying in power.

The good news is that people living under authoritarian governments have much, much better lives than before. The corresponding bad news is that autocracy works better than it used to and thus it is more popular and probably also more enduring. The notion that autocratic government would fade away, either in practice or as an ideological competitor to Western liberalism, simply isn’t tenable any more.

The basic message, therefore, might be this: autocracy works! For most of us liberals, this is an appalling thought. But since most people are not much interested in politics — or perhaps in free speech, judicial independence, the rule of law, etc. — so long as the system delivers jobs, economic growth and public order then that’s good enough for them.