In today's column, David Brooks laments the decline of democracies in the West, while looking wistfully eastward and saying, Man, those guys may be autocrats, but they sure get their trains to run on time:
... In the U.S., Washington is polarized, stagnant and dysfunctional; a pathetic 26 percent of Americans trust their government to do the right thing. In Europe, elected officials have grown remote from voters, responding poorly to the euro crisis and contributing to massive unemployment.It's never particularly surprising when Tories living in democracies find their hearts racing a bit faster as they gaze admiringly at an authoritarian state -- it's sort of like the good girl from a wealthy family daydreaming about a greaser on a motorbike.
... A new charismatic rival is gaining strength: the Guardian State.... In some ways, these governments look more progressive than the Western model; in some ways, more conservative.
In places like Singapore and China, the best students are ruthlessly culled for government service. The technocratic elites play a bigger role in designing economic life....
These Guardian States have some disadvantages compared with Western democracies. They are more corrupt. Because the systems are top-down, local government tends to be worse. But they have advantages. They are better at long-range thinking and can move fast because they limit democratic feedback and don't face NIMBY-style impediments....
But if you take Brooks's argument seriously, what's the difference here? He complains about the sclerosis in "democracy," but I'm not sure that word means what he thinks it means:
At the national level, American politics has become neurotically democratic. Politicians are campaigning all the time and can scarcely think beyond the news cycle. Legislators are terrified of offending this or that industry lobby, activist group or donor faction. Unrepresentative groups have disproportionate power in primary elections.That's not democracy; that's corruption. Politicians aren't really "campaigning all the time" -- what they're really doing all the time is fund-raising. And I'm sure Brooks thinks the Sierra Club is as responsible for the long-term decline of Western democracies as Koch Industries, but I beg to differ.
Brooks laments American influence-group politics -- but he says countries like Singapore and China are corrupt, too. So what difference does it make how palms get greased?
I think the difference is that, in Singapore and China, what powerful interest groups want isn't allowed to trump the best interests of the nation. It seems to me that there's more of a sense that the powerful forces in business and government are trying to row in the same direction.
In America, by contrast, we'd benefit from more spending on education, more investment in infrastructure, a shift to a post-fossil-fuels energy mix, and the revival of our middle class. But our elite class doesn't want to take its foot off the necks of consumers, the fossil-fuel giants want to spread the mass delusion that climate change isn't happening, and the typical America fat cat doesn't care if the kids are stupid and the bridges are crumbling as long as his profits are secure. In short, our elites don't care if this country is destroyed -- and European central bankers seem to feel the same way about their countries.
Maybe I'm naive or poorly informed, but I don't see this in China and Singapore to the same extent. I don't know if it's patriotism exactly, but it certainly isn't the anti-patriotism of our elites. Our elites could demand that trains run on time, but they'd rather secure only what suits their own interests. The rest, as far as they're concerned, can rot.