Tuesday, November 29, 2022

Is There a Dictator Trap? How about a Democracy Trap?

In the NY Times, Susan Shirk informs us that Xi Jinping as fallen into the "Dictator Trap":

President Xi Jinping’s first decade in power has been a study in hubris. He has purged political rivals and adopted heavy-handed policies that have imperiled China’s economy. He laid the groundwork for a crackdown in the Xinjiang region that drove Muslim citizens into thought reform camps and has alarmed and alienated neighbors with an aggressive foreign policy. . . .

Mr. Xi fell into the same trap that has ensnared dictators throughout history: He overreached. He has concentrated more power in his hands than any Chinese leader since Mao Zedong, looming so completely over the country that he’s been called the “chairman of everything.”
Thinking about this I asked myself, is there a “dictator trap”? Is there something about being a dictator that forces, or strongly tempts, leaders into policies that are ultimately bad for the nation? Probably so, but is that more true of dictatorships than other governments?

You could certainly say that the desire to stay in power leads dictators to make bad choices, for example cracking down so hard on real or imagined opponents that you do real damage to the government and the economy (Stalin), or thinking that you need great military victories to stay in power (Napoleon, Hitler). Or encouraging corruption so as to enmesh the whole elite in your governing scheme (Putin). It can be a problem that dictators sometimes have the power to make dumb decisions with nobody to stop them, but then all governments sometimes make dumb decisions.

Changing directions: is there a Democracy Trap? Libertarians and small-government conservatives have long maintained that there is. They believe that democratic governments will inevitably try to make the voters happy by spending money, which they will get either by printing it or ruining the rich, destroying the economy and ultimately diminishing freedom. This is pretty much what happened with Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, and the turmoil over on-again, off-again democracy in Thailand has a lot to do with a fear of Robin Hood populism.

Against this I would say that few democracies have actually done this, and that in fact democracies have a better record of economic management than other systems. 

A different kind of conservative thinks the problem with democracy is that most people are foolish, short-sighted, and dominated by fads, so over the long term foolish, short-sighted voters will remake a truly democratic state in their image. What the nation needs is not democracy but the guidance of wise leaders. This is, I suppose, the justification for the current Chinese state, and the main source of their legitimacy was that they were making the country better. Now that they are not obviously making the country better, they seem to be turning toward surveillance and police violence to stay in power.

One thing I would say with more confidence is that in our world, maintaining any sort of state that is not either a democracy or a harsh dictatorship seems to be very difficult. The only real sources of legitimacy seem to be democracy and force. So the Russian state has trended toward Putin's dictatorship, and the Chinese state has trended toward Xi's dictatorship. Without the need to get support from voters, Xi easily smashed the constitutional limits on personal power put into place by Deng, which were supposed to prevent a repeat of Mao's disastrous personal rule.

In that sense it is not Xi who has fallen into a Dictator Trap, but the Chinese state. Deng's arrangements were supposed to keep the state balanced between dictatorship and anarchic democracy, but it turned out to be an unstable point, always in danger of tipping toward one side or the other. 

I think Xi's consolidation of power will be bad for China. I have never been sure that democracy is a great option for China, so I have not been calling for radical reform of a system that really seemed to be benefitting most people. But Xi's turn toward grim despotism changes the equation. I expect the bad trend to continue, which worries me. Twenty years from now China will either have undergone some kind of revolution and become much more democratic, or it will be an awful place, perhaps exporting awfulness around through world through war or economic mayhem.


David said...

To me so far, the most impressive thing about the Chinese protests is that they're happening at all. The NYT schtick about China had been that it was turning into a sort of perfectly-designed 1984 state. Meanwhile, the Russians (I mean especially the ethnic Russians) are strikingly passive. This immense, imperturbable Russian popular passivity seems to me one of the great unremarked phenomena of the Ukraine war.

I'm afraid I have some of my usual quibbles. I don't think Hitler fits at all the Napoleon mode of thinking that he needed victories in order to stay in power. I think H. represents another dictator trap: that of the dictator completely believing his own official ideology (yes, he was also an opportunist; his messianic narcissism allowed him to rationalize tactical deviations, such as allying with Stalin for a while; but the fundamental, obsessive worldview always remained at the center).

I don't think democracy and force are the only sources of political legitimacy left in our world. Democracy is certainly one; probably, in spite of everything, the major one (most dictators in the last hundred years or so, including the Big Three, have claimed to rule in the name of "the people"). But force? Yes, there's a portion of humanity that really admires force, and the capacity for force. But raw force almost always comes with some more ethical type of legitimation. Even among gangs, there are concepts of loyalty, honor, and gratitude. In the case of Russia and China, there's a concept of "the people"; in both cases, there's a basic ethnic nationalism attached to that concept. In fact, I would say ethnic nationalism has to be rated as a very powerful form of legitimation still flourishing in our world. It has a democratic aspect ("the people," again), but it does not require democratic institutions, procedures, or protections. Indeed, many nationalisms today reject democracy as a decadent foreign import.

Religion is also a factor that has still to be taken seriously. I think a sixth or more of Americans would be happy to have our government rule in the name of Christ and be happy to restrict democracy to whatever promotes that. Religion is still a key source of legitimation in Islamic, Hindu, and Buddhist countries as well. (Yes, one can always say this isn't "really" about religion; but a lot of support for the Saudis, for example, really does come from devotees of Salafist-brand Shari'a, and they really, truly mean that in a religious way. The same for the BJP, a core of whose upper-caste supporters really are preoccupied with ritual purity issues.)

John said...

Certainly religion is part of how the Saudi and Iranian governments stay in power, but I would say that in both cases they rely very much on force. I doubt either would survive for long if the people did not fear the state. While the religious party in India relies on democracy for their legitimacy.

I went back and forth on Hitler, but certainly one of his themes was that the German had to conquer eastern Europe, for a shifting array of reasons.

Shadow said...

Here is something to consider: As long as a country is creating debt by investing in projects whose economic benefits exceed the costs of labor and resources, GDP outpaces debt, and the country is in a healthy economic and fiscal situation. But as soon as it starts investing in projects whose economic benefits fall short of labor and resource costs, debt outpaces GDP -- an unhealthy situation. For years now China has been able to invest in infrastructure (and other) projects whose economic benefits far outweighed the costs of labor and resources. But those days may now be over. This is one reason why year over year growth in China is tapering off. Xi might have walked right into this, and he and his policies will get the blame for it. Of course, he's been building a technocracy, placing smart people in important positions, just to handle such events. Let's see if they are this smart. But how smart is the U.S.? Did the trillions of debt the U.S. spent on war and paying people for not working during a pandemic create economic benefits that outpaced the costs? I think it's probably the other way around. Keep this up, and all that debt some people like to say doesn't matter will start mattering a lot.

David said...

I'd say both the Saudi and the Iranian governments have to use force to keep a portion of their populations in line. But your statement was that "The only real sources of legitimacy seem to be democracy and force," not that otherwise completely illegitimate governments have to use force.

In addition, something's got to motivate their force personnel, and I think, especially in the case of Iran, many of the Revolutionary Guards and the Basij still actually believe in what they're doing, and think the protesters are just suffering from Gharbzadegi (west-sickness). In both Saudi and Iran, there are also powerful factions of clergy and their followers whose support for the government is crucial, and conditional on the maintenance of Shari'a. In neither case do we see the government truly isolated and trying to keep down a united population. The Iranian population, certainly, is divided against itself, just as ours is. (An analogous situation happened in Egypt. The seeming unity of the population against Mubarak was temporary, and no one should have been surprised that the religious-secular divide returned to define the situation once he was gone.)

There may have been a "keep the momentum going" aspect to Hitler's choice of timing to invade Russia. As I said, he was a tactical opportunist and may have chosen specific moments for various reasons, but the worldview always remained central and quite consistent. (This is the Kershaw thesis, which in turn is based on Eberhard Jäckel's fundamental work translated as "Hitler's Worldview.")

David said...

(An excellent source on these aspects of Middle Eastern politics is Kim Ghattas, The Black Wave. It has the signal distinction of focusing hard on Islamic Middle Easterners themselves and their relations with each other, rather than American influence or Israel. It's especially good on the Saudi clerical establishment and its following.)

G. Verloren said...

Like all governments, democracies are only as good as the people who participate in them.

A democracy where the majority of the people are informed, principled, and selfless will prosper. But a democracy where the majority of people are ignorant, unscrupulous, and selfish will fail. The broad tendency to fail to realize that is the "Democracy Trap" - a democracy is not automatically good because it is a democracy, and can in fact be quite awful.

American democracy, I feel, has become of the latter type. To paraphrase Kennedy, the average American asks only what their country can do for them, never what they can do for their country. Politics favors clannish loyalty to parties over considered weighing of actual policy; people don't vote to promote the good of the entire country, but to empower themselves and spite their opponents; reason and evidence do not mean as much to us as stubbornness and shouting others down; morality, principle, and decency has given way to cynical bad faith dealing.

American culture has become dangerously toxic and self-destructive. I don't know that we can fix it before things fall apart. It will take more than just hoping for such improvement - it will take a powerful concerted effort by those with the power and resources to enact meaningful change. Alas, the people with power and resources are currently a large part of the problem...

szopeno said...

My own country may soon fall into consequences of "democracy trap". The current nominally rightwing government is trying to cover its incompetence by introducing more and more welfare programs (in economist terms, they are the most leftwing Polish government since 1989). The leftwing opposition is saying that they would increase welfare even more. The nominally rightwing opposition one day is saying it's bad, and the next day they say actually they would keep welfare programs, and the only truly rightwing opposition consists of bunch of clowns, fascists and few good libertarian types stuck in-between, with no chances to change anything. And the voters cheer, either voting for whoever will give them more, or concentrating on some unimportant ideological issues (like the latest affair where Kaczyński said, paraphrasing, "women are less fertile because they drink too much, and women are more easily addicted to alcohol than men" - that's the real issue, not the rising public debt and inflation)

We are heading towards collapse, despite people still quoting stats proving actually we will be better than UK in 12 years.