Some prominent American captains of industry of the 1930s openly admired Italy’s Fascism, even Hitler’s Nazism, sure the crushing grip on workers those authoritarian regimes maintained would defeat American liberalism. This popular idea was useful to Charles Lindbergh and others in selling the original “America First” mentality. Of course, those same totalitarian impulses helped push both nations to disaster unparalleled in modern times.
In a Cato Institute essay that wonders whether free societies will be ascendant in the coming decades, Tyler Cowen argues China’s ballooning share of the GDP has served as significant soft power, encouraging other players on the world stage that their system is superior. I’m not convinced. While it stands to reason that any supersized idea in the market will hold some sway, it doesn’t seem like insurgent forces in the U.S. and the U.K.–and certainly not their rank-and-file supporters–aspire to the Chinese model. The factors provoking the political tumult seem to be economic concerns, underlying bigotries exploited by opportunists and the aftereffects of 9/11, the Iraq War, the 2008 financial collapse and the very uneven outcomes of the Arab Spring.
Of course, there’s no exact science to decide where the blame lies.
The percentage of global GDP which is held in relatively non-free countries, such as China, has been rising relative to the share of global GDP held in the freer countries. I suspect we are underrating the noxious effects of that development.
Just think back to the 1930s, and some other decades, and consider how many Westerners and Western intellectuals were infatuated with communism and also Stalinism, even at times with fascism, at least before WWII. I would say that if a big idea is around, and supported by some major governments, some number of people will be attracted to that idea, even if we don’t understand the mechanisms here very well. Nonetheless that seems to be an unfortunate sociological truth. Today that big idea isn’t so much communism as it is various forms of authoritarianism. Authoritarians have more presence on the global stage today than has been the case for a while. Furthermore, a lot of the authoritarian states are still in their “rising” forms, rather than their decadent forms, as was the case for Soviet communism in say the 1980s. For instance, while predictions about the future of China are difficult to make, the Chinese Communist Party hardly seems to be on the verge of collapse, and thus its authoritarianism may not be discredited by current events anytime soon. On the global stage, Putin’s Russia has won some recent successes as of late, including in Crimea and also by interfering with democratic elections in the West, apparently with impunity.
To put it simply, global authoritarianism is probably poisoning our political climate more than many people realize.•
Tags: Tyler Cowen