Coronavirus: Why we need democratic freedom

/ 04:05 AM February 11, 2020

The grand debate of the 20th century (the “age of extremes,” according to historian Eric Hobsbawm), centered on the question of which political system was most conducive to economic development. At first, the Soviet Union seemingly had the upper hand. On the surface, Stalin’s Russia was, indeed, impressive. Guided by the legendary five-year plan doctrine, later adopted by China and other communist regimes, the former Georgian agitator transformed a backward agricultural czardom into a modern industrial behemoth. The myth of Soviet supremacy, however, was progressively shattered over the coming decades, as Stalin’s gulags revealed the regime’s immense brutality and economic sclerosis forced Mikhail Gorbachev to call it quits on the Cold War. The spectacular collapse of the Soviet model of development, however, came as no surprise to a number of astute economists, who identified the core weakness of authoritarian-totalitarian regimes.

The ongoing coronavirus epidemic shows that even 21st-century Chinese communism, which has adopted elements of capitalism while shunning democratic freedoms, exhibits a similar malady. As Nobel laureates Joseph Stiglitz and Amartya Sen observed, authoritarian regimes are capable of early miracles, including turbo-charged industrialization and land reform, but are highly susceptible to massive manmade failures.


What top-down regimes such as the Soviet Union fatally lacked is what the Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek described as “spontaneous order.” In other words, freer societies are governed by interlocking feedback loops that ensure maximum productivity. In contrast, artificial and false targets set by the ruling technocracy, which often fail to anticipate the complex needs of rapidly evolving societies, govern authoritarian regimes.

Authoritative studies by a wide range of experts from Adam Przeworski (“Democracy and Development”) to Ruchir Sharma (“Breakout Nations”) show little support for the argument that authoritarian regimes are more economically successful among developing nations. Moreover, authoritarian regimes’ “success” is largely confined to earlier stages of development, but few of them have escaped the middle-income trap.


Crucially, economists have observed that while democracies were average on average, namely unable to boast many bolt-from-the-blue economic miracles, they were less susceptible to massive disasters. This is largely because of the presence of democratic checks on the ruling regime, most especially independent media and civil society groups.

Throughout the developing world, meanwhile, enlightened autocrats were more exceptions to the rule. For every Lee Kuan Yew or Deng Xiaoping, there were more than a dozen kleptocratic Mugabes, Gadhafis and Marcoses, who reduced promising nations into pariahs.

As Nobel laureate Paul Krugman correctly observed, earlier misjudgments about Soviet invincibility have been supplanted by a more contemporary version: the myth of the Asian miracle. And this is where China presents a cautionary tale.

It’s true that the communist regime in Beijing has successfully overseen the country’s transformation from a poor, agricultural society into a middle-income industrial powerhouse. But we are now beginning to see the rotten core of another authoritarian-totalitarian regime.

China is struggling with impending ecological disaster and demographic winter following decades of unsustainable development schemes. Meanwhile, the ruling regime has reportedly built modern gulags across Xinjiang as well as an unparalleled “Black Mirror” campaign of social engineering in recent years.

Moreover, there are signs of economic slowdown and internal debt stress, coupled with rising geopolitical tensions with the United States, Japan and numerous Asian neighbors. And its record in dealing with new plagues has been less than stellar. Initially, many were impressed by China’s draconian measures, including the lockdown of megacities afflicted by the 2019 novel coronavirus (nCoV).

But now it has become clear that the epidemic, which could fester into a global pandemic, is the upshot of a weeks-long internal cover-up along with bureaucratic paralysis, unmitigated sycophancy, and systemic fear amid the relentless centralization of power in a single man in recent years. In the words of China expert Minxin Pei, “the coronavirus is a disease of Chinese autocracy.”


Absent independent media and civil society, China is highly susceptible to massive manmade disasters under its mortal communist rulers. No wonder, then, that “We demand freedom of speech” became a trending hashtag in China following the tragic death of Dr. Li Wenliang, one of the “eight brave” nCoV whistleblowers silenced by the regime.

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TAGS: authoritarian states, China, Horizons, nCoV, novel coronavirus, Richard Heydarian
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