Friday, April 02, 2004

Authoritarianism, State and Utopia

Matthew Yglesias recently had some laudatory words for the city-state of Singapore, which elicited accusations of authoritarian sympathies from both right and left, as well as a complimentary firsthand account of Singaporean healthcare from Belle Waring. For his part, Matt has responded quite thoughtfully about where authoritarianism might have advantages over liberal democracy, from which a tangential connection can be made to today's Tom Friedman column as well as comments Jagdish Bhagwati made last month on NPR's Leonard Lopate Show.

It is true that a few authoritarian states like the Far Eastern economies did manage to do very well but I would say it wasn’t the fact that they were authoritarian; they made good economic choices and we know lots of authoritarian states which make terrible choices, like Indonesia and the whole Soviet Bloc and so on and even China until the early Eighties was extremely autarkic [unintelligible]. So I think if you wanted me to vote for authoritarian regimes on the ground of economic performance, there are far more failures than successes and I would rather buy into democracy.
- Jagdish Bhagwati
The [Mexican] government has set out five areas for reform: labor markets; the judiciary; the constitution and electoral system; tax collection, which is abysmal; and opening the energy and electricity markets to foreign investors so a gas-rich country like Mexico gets out of the crazy situation of importing natural gas and gasoline from America. The old autocratic Mexico could have ordered these reforms from above. That's how China still does it, giving Beijing an advantage now that it will pay for later. But because Mexico is now a democracy, and needs to remain competitive, it can upgrade its institutions only by going through the messy, time-consuming process of consensus building.
- Thomas Friedman
[W]hat could be "easily" done in a dictatorship is not the same as what could be easily done here in the US of A. Indeed, in the United States it is barely possible to ever do anything that would involve coordination between state, federal, and local governments (see also: security, homeland) -- such is the genius of federalism....[A] political system that for whatever reason includes a large number of veto points makes it hard to find an optimal solution. Other sorts of systems with fewer veto points (either because they're authoritarian or just because they're set up like the UK) have the potential to do a better job. But of course we don't have all these veto points in the American system for no reason. Authoritarian set-ups are more prone to abuse. And in addition to abuse, the fact that it's easier to change things makes it easier to change things for the worse just as much as it makes it easier to change things for the better. All-in-all, your odds with authoritarianism are a good deal worse than your odds with the alternatives. It's probably fair to conclude, then, that having a dictatorship is always a bad idea. That isn't to say, however, that it's never the case ex post that a dictatorship has implemented a sound policy agenda and, even, an agenda that's sounder than what the likely results of democracy are....[I]t's not the case that if the United States became a dictatorship tomorrow we would probably wind up with a well-designed Singapore-style health care system. By the same token, however, the conditions of pluralist democracy make it essentially impossible to switch from what we've got now to what they have over there. It's too complicated a bargain and the current system has too many stakeholders. A dictator could do it. The problem, though, and the reason you don't want to turn your nice liberal democracy into a dictatorship is that odds are any would-be dictators out there aren't motivated by a burning desire to see health care rationalized.
- Matthew Yglesias (emphasis his)
To the delegates of the American Constitutional Convention, absolutism was the summum malum. Against that end, they designed the US Constitution to embody the principles of federalism and devolution of power. Remember, the Constitutional Convention was only found necessary because the even more devolved Articles of Confederation were found too loose. The United States goverment is deliberately designed, out of fear of absolutism, to frustrate the the concentration of power, though both the left and libertarian right would disagree with its effectiveness. The establishment of universal healthcare and the other accoutrements of the welfare state need precisely that concentration of power. Despite the effectiveness of the National Recovery Administration (which, among other things, limited the numbers of hours worked, established a minimum wage and outlawed child labor), the Supreme Court judged it unconstitutional in 1935 for giving the President the power to regulate interstate commerce (which the Constitution reserves for Congress). Though leftists will explain this by arguing that the Supreme Court was controlled by powerful interests who favored laissez-faire, the Court was technically correct in its judgment of unconstitutionality. Moreover, this judgment was a textbook example of the system of checks and balances functioning exactly as the drafters of the US Constitution intended.

The American Constitutional Convention wrote a document so clear that it can still be understood by the modern layperson. To provide a comparison, not only is the current draft of the EU constitution a forest-killing beast but, in order to understand it, the common European will require interpretation from legal experts. (Does this remind anyone else of the near-monopoly on literacy held by the Catholic Church in pre-Reformation Europe?) Nor, to my knowledge, does the constitution of any other industrialized country share the brevity of the American founding document.

For all the anticipation of its drafters, the US Constitution is still of its time or "conditioned by history" as the Marxists would say. I would agree with the states' rightists that the federal government currently possesses a level of power that the writers of the US Constitution never intended. However, I would disagree that the powers of the federal government should therefore be ratcheted back. Westerners and Americans in particular are currently trying to convince Muslims to relax their strict adherence to a document written centuries ago. Why should we therefore allow strict constructionists and other Constitutional fundamentalists to dictate to us what we can or cannot do through the government based on their interpretations of the intentions of men who lived two hundred years ago?

In foreign policy, the United States and the West must recognize where their example cannot be followed. According to international observers, the 1991 Algerian parliamentary elections were free and fair; however, they would have brought about an Islamic fundamentalist state. By insisting on democracy (and the institution of elections in particular) in countries that were not ready, well-meaning Westerners have brought about civil war and dictatorship in many developing countries. The only developing countries that have successfully made the transition to stable democracies as well as enjoying a nearly developed country quality of life are Taiwan and South Korea. Moreover, judging by my firsthand observations, still-authoritarian Singapore enjoys a better quality of life than either, though in the quality of life stakes, all three occupy the top spots on the developing country league tables. It is easier for an authoritarian state to make good economic choices (or terrible ones) because it doesn't have to bother with the "messy, time-consuming process of consensus building" that is part and parcel of democracy. Before we give our unqualified support to democracy in any particular country, we must ask ourselves, "How well can democracy in this country withstand terrible economic choices?"

Statistics might suggest that some developing countries must luck out and succeed economically, the equivalent of happening to let everything ride on Microsoft back in 1986, compared to the Constitutionally intrinsic conservatism of the United States, the equivalent of dollar-cost-averaging into an index fund. The concentration of such countries in East Asia as well as the similarity of their developmental paths strongly indicate otherwise. The success of the initially authoritarian Asian tigers is my main reason for opposing libertarian laissez-faire prescriptions for developing countries as epitomized by the Washington Consensus. Moreover, their powerful empirical example (as well as the disastrous consequences of state impotence in developing countries) reinforces my skepticism of libertarians' faith in an anarcho-capitalist utopia.