It’s been 26 years since Francis Fukuyama published The End of History, arguing that liberal democracy marked an endpoint in human political development. The title led some to misunderstand the book’s meaning. Both the title and the book’s premise were largely an intellectual jab at Communists who had used this Hegelian language of historical inevitability to argue that their system must eventually triumph. Still, there was reason to imagine in the 90’s that rule of law, reason, human rights, and leadership selected in free elections were unbeatable pillars of successful social order.
As the new liberal democracies in Eastern Europe falter into illiberal democracy, and the world’s most powerful free nations stagger under their own weight, the risk of simply reverting back to less ideal forms of government seems very real. It’s easy to fault Fukuyama for imagining that liberal democracy might be inevitable, but it’s harder to attack his central thesis. Is there a better form of government out there waiting to be imagined and adopted? If liberal democracy isn’t the pinnacle of human social order, then what is?
For a couple of weeks I’ve been wrestling with this question and it may take a few more weeks to put an answer into text. What do you think? Are there credible alternatives to liberal democracy that could produce a higher standard of living by some definition?
Leave off all the dystopian doom scenarios. They’re obvious, easy, and not all that interesting. Remember, Donald Trump, Brexit, Turkey and Vladimir Putin are not counter-examples against the “End of History” premise, they are merely our failures to sustain history’s penultimate governing order. The question remains: Is there a better system of human social organization than liberal democracy? If so, what would it look like?
Hey Chris. Love your blog!
In his book Shield of Achilles, Philip Bobbitt theorizes the idea that the most likely scenario (though not at all desirable) to succeed the current format of government, the Nation State could be an erosion into a global corporatism called Market States. Rather than States continue to try and justify themselves in an age where war is no longer economical and companies are global, we could instead be replaced by transnational, privatized interests focused on maximizing profit and ‘opportunity.’ It’s a globalism run wild kind of theory that Bobbitt theorized in the 90s but maybe we’re heading away from with a new rise in nationalism after 9/11 (temporarily, anyway).
I’d really rather not have corporate interest in control of everything and replacing national cultures with global corporatism, it sounds like a race to the bottom in quality of life and negligence in regard to privacy, security and working conditions, but may be inevitable (or already happening). The largest corporations in the world are already multinational and play a large role in shaping local laws with lobbying local governments. It’s an alternative to fascism, communism and liberal democracy to consider.
I apologize for not being more eloquent on the topic, I have not read any of Bobbitt’s books.
Since I value freedom and self-determination within a cooperative framework, I can’t think of a better way to go than liberal democracy
This, from WX, is still rolling around in my head, based on the example of Disneyland (which includes much of its own government) and a comparison between US and European ski resorts:
**So perhaps the fault in Fukuyama’s premise that liberal democracy is the best way to provide for the needs of a country’s citizens is his misunderstanding of what exactly citizens want. Perhaps they want safety, freedom from deprivation, and just enough freedom-with-training-wheels that they can satisfy their urge to feel free, while avoiding actual freedom with all of its dirty consequences that can result. Especially if fully exercising the freedom that Fukuyama and political junkies like us desire without blowing ourselves up means making politics your second job.**
Your comment reminded me of something Orwell wrote in his review of the English version of Mein Kampf: “human beings don’t only want comfort, safety, short working-hours, hygiene, birth-control and, in general, common sense; they also, at least intermittently, want struggle and self-sacrifice, not to mention drums, flags and loyalty-parades.” It’s not universal, but a certain portion of humanity-which in America includes virtually the entire rank and file of the Republican Party-clearly wants to subsume themselves within a greater whole that is in a desperate struggle for power with some other group (almost always vaguely defined; very helpful to not have beliefs and enemies too sharply defined in case it becomes convenient to shift them later). Hence the eschatological fixation on the End Times of the theocrats, and the essentially mainstream Republican belief that Obama was some foreign evil out to consciously destroy the country he ruled. I’m not as familiar with the internal politics of other countries, but what I’ve seen coming out of countries currently falling into dictatorship almost always mirrors the Republicans, especially in the emphasis on an irreconcilably evil enemy who is responsible for all the country’s ills and the centrality of an all-important, near-infallible father figure who alone is capable of protecting them. In America, it’s liberals and Trump; in Hungary, it’s Muslims/George Soros and Orban; in Turkey, it’s secularists/Gulenists and Erdogan; in Russia, it’s the West and Putin; but everywhere democracy dies follows the same basic pattern.
It seems that we are in a headlong rush to throw the baby out with the bathwater. We don’t fix stuff anymore, we just replace it. Even if it’s not broke, we still want a shiny new model.
I would suggest our system of government is not fatally flawed, it just needs some updates. Kind of like the Yahoo email app on this tablet. I could suggest several but since a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, let’s start with one.
Pass an amendment limiting all federal elected officials to one four year term in any office. Have one election every four years. Think it through. Most politicians think getting re-elected is job one. Raising money for that purpose is 1a. Doing something useful for the for those who elected them likely does not make the short list.
It would not solve all our problems, but it would change the dynamic in DC. Hell Putin’s Poodle said he supported term limits in his campaign. Of course most of what he said resembles what comes out of the northbound end of a southbound bull, but if enough folks started calling for it who knows. He might wake up one morning thinking that it was his idea. Everyone hates the current crop of folk in DC so it shouldn’t be too hard to get folks behind it. At least it’s a start.
Short term limits are one of those things that sound nice in theory, but in practice pretty much just make everything worse. Oregon tried that, and the main result was that the legislators, etc. had zero institutional memory or knowledge about how to actually govern…. so where did they turn for that knowledge? Corporate lobbyists and the political party machines… it made everything far worse than the status quo, as rather than grant the reps independence, it just meant they we ill-equipped to counter the longer-term institutional power represented in those political machines.
I think there is some merit to longer-term limits – I think something like 6 House terms or 3 senate terms, with a max of 20 years total…. but short term limits just cede all the power to folks that don’t go away every 4 years.
It is truly stunning the times we live in. I can’t even fathom this topic would appear on a website like this 30 months ago.
I don’t have the depth of history and knowledge many others here have demonstrated, but I am certain we are witnessing the end of democracy in the world. The U.S. is far from the best democracy. It never was. But when it falls, that is it. The U.S. is the biggest domino. Oh, and we just saw two other nails in the coffin of democracy in the U.S. yesterday, with the latest assault against the press and with the beginning of the impeachment of Rosenstein.
The Chinese model, or a complete corporatocracy, are the likeliest survivors.
That said, I do think that a strongman, albeit one that clearly demonstrates his love and efforts for the people, can survive, perhaps flourish. Tito and Castro lasted decades. They ruled with velvet covered iron fists. One only has to look at what happened in Yugoslavia after Tito died to realize what a strong capable leader he was. To keep that powderkeg together for decades is not something a weak, corrupt leader could do.
Further, people are going to start gravitating even more towards authoritarianism as the refugee trickle (yes, it is a trickle right now), becomes a torrent due to global warming and the ensuing wars over arable land and water. The lifeboat theory (you can’t overfill a full lifeboat, or everybody dies) is antithetical to liberal democracies, but we are seeing all over the world that the masses have bought into it. Even if many of those lifeboats (U.S., Canada, Australia, Northern Europe) are not even half full.
Chris, I know you like to point out social capitalism – where companies stand up for liberal causes because their workers demand it, even when governments fail, but I want to point you to an interesting counterexample – China:
Companies follow the money, they have as much social conscience as their customers, and are easily susceptible to bullying by an authoritarian power.
I would argue that that’s a misunderstanding of social capitalism. Do Delta’s customers or employees give a damn about Taiwan? No. Even the Taiwanese are pretty ambivalent about reunification. Social capitalism is still all about $$, but it’s a scenario in which customers and employees start aligning their $$ with their values. A corporation is still just a machine, but social capitalism alters the inputs for that machine. It’s a kind of direct democracy, with all the potential upside and potential mob horrors of direct democracy.
I own Fukuyama’s book but haven’t yet got around to reading it. The title is a magnificent piece of anti-communist trolling, by the way, and thank you for recognising that – so few people do.
I’ve been thinking about forms of government and society a lot recently.
Machiavelli points out that no nation’s system endures forever, both because entropy happens and also because situations change. It is not reasonable to assume that old white men in horsehair wigs could write law to effectively govern a diverse, inclusive nation that communicates via Facebook rather than by fast horse, after all.
I keep coming back to France in 1958. Faced with enormous challenges that their moribund political system was unable to effectively face, the Fourth French Republic dissolved its constitution and formed a new Fifth Republic whose structures were better formed to face the problems of that age.
Jared Diamond points out that the ability of a nation to respond to crises is heavily determined by its society’s ability to react and mobilise effectively, putting aside their short-term interests to act collectively. He said this at least partially as a jab at our modern society’s inability to mobilise effectively against climate change, but I think it’s a wider point than that.
The more I think about it, the more I think that borders are the problems. A border made sense in the days when land belonged to kings and everyone had a liege lord. It is less relevant in a world where economics is global, Facebook is everywhere, nations dabble in one another’s elections constantly, and climate change affects the entire world.
Would liberal democracy work better if we didn’t have separate ones for every patch of dirt, and instead elected a single government?
To me a “Liberal Democracy” is an excellent way of operating – the US model is long way sub optimum but still works
The issue is NOT the intelligence of the voter or the skill/training of the politicians
The problem is that a liberal democracy will NOT work if some of the “citizens” are a LOT more powerful than others
We can have democracy in this country, or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.
Louis D. Brandeis
As long as the power of the mighty is controlled then a democracy can operate – we don’t need equality – just LESS inequality
Most other western democracies are still operating – the ones doing the worst are the ones with the greatest inequality and the least restrictions on the power of the mighty
This may be relevant but I’m reading about the French Jacobins right now and their short-lived alternative to liberal democracy and the author argues that the Jacobins descent into violence was caused more by cultural reasons than ideological ones (though that also played a part due to the primitive nature of the ideology).
A “Radical Republic” desired more citizen involvement in government (perhaps even partially through sortition though the Jacobins were obviously authoritarian near the end), heavy emphasis on civic virtue, Universalistic themes/beliefs, and roughly egalitarian ethics while having most decisions be made through “Citizen Assemblies” most citizens are apart of and an elected head of state. It temporarily worked in the Jacobin case as the number of “Clubs” skyrocketed but obviously the project failed due to lack of experience French Jacobins had with actually tolerating difference of opinion, governing, an inability to have a consistent ideology themselves, and being raised in a violentally politically authoritarian culture alongside the lack of stability post-revolution and aggression of neighboring monarchies. The author notes it could probably be used as a successful governing model if tweaked in a different culture (though this sounds suspiciously like the excuse made for Communism the Jacobin-styled Republic has not been tried in awhile nor often and the “tweaks” would have to be somewhat significant, including being not-literally-revolutionary) but for obvious reasons after their failure most nations chose the form of liberalism we know today.
A less extreme example would be “Classical Republicanism” as admired by Hannah Arendt and Machiavelli such as was the (somewhat) case of Florence and the idealized version of the Roman Republic (despite being an oligarchy in practice) which also desired a culture more centered around civic duty/virtue and citizen involvement in politics.
Obviously the downside of the Civic Republics over “Liberal Democracy” as it’s called today would be a more demanding culture as well a greater (though not total) risk of majoritarianism, but if successful it could partially solve the issue of atomization, apathy, and complaints we hear today about “lack of meaning” in modern liberal democracies.
It might be worth researching José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero and his tenure as prime minister of Spain as he explicitly said he was influenced by “Civic Republicanism” as a philosophy although it appears to have not been much of a success due to Spain’s economic problems and Zapatero being perceived as lacking much moral fiber…
Also hi Chris hope you’re doing well.
As liberal democracies lose their power, I see something like classical republicanism (like Medieval Florence) remaining as a legacy institution in places that can still afford it. Historically they have thrived (briefly) in places where the central government has fallen into chaos or irrelevance. You can’t make it work in place that’s poor or ruined, but in an enclave of relative prosperity and cosmopolitanism, it can pick up some of what a failed central government lets fall.
Very interesting question, Chris. I confess I haven’t read the book, but that won’t stop me from opining about its conclusions 🙂
If you put a gun to my head and ask me do I have a better system than liberal democracy at this moment, I’d say No. So in that sense I guess I agree with you. But I think there are outlines of perhaps something better. Allow me to play a devil’s advocate here:
1) Two quotes define for me the fundamental weakness of liberal democracy. Mark Twain: “democracy is founded on the sneaking suspicion that 51% of the people are right at least 51% of the time”. And Winston Churchill. (No, not that usual quote of his, this one): “The biggest argument against democracy is a 5 minute conversation with the average voter”. Call me an elitist, but the vast majority of people do not have the ability nor the interest in participating meaningfully in their governance. As the world becomes more technologically complex, interconnected, and difficult to execute good policy, relying on the average voter to pick the proper leaders is the wrong foundation for a government. Plato himself, in _The Republic_, advocated a totalitarian dictatorship of his so-called philosopher Kings so autocratic that it would make Stalin blush. Perhaps he’s right though?
I don’t think anyone would argue with the limits of relying on increasingly uninformed, uninterested laypeople to select their leaders. Whether it’s Trump, far-right leaders in Europe, sectarian agitators in India, etc. This is not a phenomenon that is limited to “dumb Americans”. I guess the real question is, what might replace it?
Perhaps a return to Chinese Confucian practices, where people were meritocratically selected, then groomed for governmental service, and intensively trained in all aspects including ethics and indoctrination into an ethos of public service to try to prevent or at least minimize corruption. Is there any other highly complex field of expertise where the “ideal” candidate is some random “citizen” who wears his inexperience in governmental affairs as a proud badge of honor? Imagine a surgeon who blithely tells you he thinks medicine is the cause of disease, not its solution, and therefore spent his time learning farming instead. Would you let him cut on you? About as ridiculous as a surgeon running HUD, no?
Maybe there’s a balance, where people who wish to apply for President must first submit a resume of public service (requirements to be published beforehand), beginning from city council through state government, perhaps some relevant technical private sector expertise, etc. from which 5 candidates would be selected, who would then stand for election?
There’s always the question of the elite turning on the rest of society, using their power and advantage to oppress everyone else. Yes. What we’re seeing is democracy doesn’t always protect from that. Perhaps the best we can hope for is selecting them at an early age, enrolling them in an intense indoctrination program, and then hope for the best. After all, this is what we do with the military, and so far, no general has overthrown our government, nor refused to follow a civilian order, even to his own death.
2) I’m assuming Fukuyama balances liberal democracy with very *illiberal* and anti-democratic institutions like an independent, appointed judiciary (the Supreme court is the most anti-democratic institution in our country: judges selected for life by 1 President and 51 Senators, with no ability to be impeached, with the power to undo any law, no matter how much it represents the will of the people). What we’re seeing is that those illiberal, anti-democratic institutions are becoming more important, while the liberal, democratic institutions atrophy and become vestigial sources of national policy. Congress has not passed a single major national policy to address a national issue since Obamacare. In foreign policy, aside from the PATRIOT Act, the vast majority of the largest shift in our foreign policy has been carried out by the President and the military. Not even by the State Dept.
Just like no actual trading occurs in the NYSE building on Wall St, no actual policy is implemented in our liberal, democratic institutions. They’re just a nice background setpiece for news reports, the way CNBC broadcasts from the trading floor of the NYSE even though nothing of financial importance ever happens there anymore.
So perhaps we’re already moving beyond liberal democracy, by stealth. And perhaps our real concern should be to ensure they remain meritocratic, technocratic, nonpartisan, and effective, and leave Congress to fulfill its destiny as entertainment: mud-wrestling for the college educated.
3) Maybe asking about the most effective type of nation-state is the wrong question. The real question is, do we even need a nation-state anymore? There’s two parts to that question. Has governing become so complicated that modern massive nation-states have proven too unwieldy for mere mortal minds? You mentioned the difficulties of governing the Roman Empire with its vast distances, cultures, and population. India has a billion people and >400 languages (not dialects, actual languages, with >50 different scripts). The single state of Uttar Pradesh in India now has 200 million people. Does a small group of people (e.g. a parliament) even have the ability to meaningfully govern such a colossus?
And secondly, the very primacy of the nation-state is being called into question. California by itself is the 5th largest GDP in the world. It already sets its own foreign policy (sanctuary cities, and other parts of immigration policy), drug policy, social policy (gay marriage) and environmental policy. It’s a large enough market that it can actually set policy for everyone else: car companies design for CA environmental rules (the strictest), and then sell those cars everywhere else. When GWB banned fetal research, Schwarzenegger created a California state fund to allow CA researchers to continue their work.
Similarly, last year, Chicago hosted mayors from around the world who signed the Chicago Climate Charter, which bound their cities to follow the Paris Accords, regardless of what their national governments might do. This was a stunning development: for once, cities under the jurisdiction of different national governments, conducted foreign policy amongst themselves, and signed a binding treaty between themselves. And there wasn’t a damn thing their national governments could do about it. Given that the cities that signed on account for a huge percentage of the world’s population and GDP, one could argue that it’s actually *more* important than the Paris Accords, which, with the U.S. out, can’t claim to have as big a reach as the Chicago Charter.
You’ve written before about how many people look to their employers and other corporations to effect policy. This too is a new development. Concurrent with that, is the decline of people’s ties to their nominal home country. For many people these days, your home country doesn’t even define what you eat or what you wear, much less what your hopes and dreams are, what you believe, what you follow in the news, who you seek to emulate in your life, etc. What does it mean to be an American if my livelihood depends on the state of markets in Frankfurt, I eat a dozen different ethnic foods, dress based on fashion trends in Milan and London, marry someone from Canada, interact with virtual friends in Brazil more than with my in-the-flesh neighbors, share political sympathies with French socialists, and have traveled more to Barcelona than to Birmingham, Ala.? The phenomenon of anchor babies is basically a manifestation of shopping for the best passport. That’s really the only thing that defines and distinguishes an American citizen.
The term Westphalian nation-state gets bandied about a lot by former poli-sci majors who need to justify their expensive educations 🙂 But are we seeing a return to a pre-Westphalian state? a tl;dr explanation for those who slept through their history classes: the peace of Westphalia ended the Thirty Years War and established the primacy of the nation-state as the sole sovereign over the people within its borders. Before that, national loyalty was nebulous: catholics, regardless of what nation they were part of, felt a duty to the Pope, while Protestants felt a duty to their own church. Similarly, a peasant may owe his loyalties to the local nobleman, and hardly cared who sat on some distant throne (e.g. the Holy Roman Emperor). Thus, the Thirty Years War, which was started as a war between Catholics and Protestants between local fiefdoms who were all nominally part of the Holy Roman Empire, but had allegiances with various other powers like France, Spain, Scandinavia, etc., was finally ended.
But does Westphalian sovereignty still hold? If cities sign treaties amongst each other, crossing national boundaries to do so; people move more easily among citizens of other countries than their own countrymen; and states thumb their nose at federal mandates, is the United States becoming the Holy Roman Empire redux, complete with a religious war boiling under the surface? Is every democracy splintering in the same way?
So these are the questions I think are important in determining what might be the alternative to liberal democracy. If I had to piece something together with the points I’ve laid out, perhaps post-liberal democracy looks like this: nebulous, fluid loyalties, identities, and groupings / alliances, unmoored from geography, that move and change at the speed of the internet, coming together for specific purposes and dissolving when no longer needed (e.g. the transnational Arab Spring), with a meritocratic class of overlords (some of them public, some of them private, some of them perhaps silicon-based AI, but all unelected and essentially invisible) ensuring the wi-fi never goes out, and letting their subjects figure out the rest. Does that sound like The Matrix? William Gibson’s _Neuromancer_? Terrorist cells? Idiocracy? I’m not sure. But those are my alternatives to liberal democracy, and from my vantage point, they all seem to be gaining on it.
Of everything that’s been discussed (and I think this is already becoming one of the best pages on the site), the situation in which globalism destroys the sovereignty of nation states is the only one I can see happening with America keeping anything close to its current GDP.
I would like to hear any rebuttals you all have to my claims, since this isn’t my area of expertise, but the road to any radically new US government would not be a revolution, where supporters of the new sweep over the old by virtue of outnumbering them 8:1. Rather, it would be more akin to a civil war: parallel societies, each with their share of elites, media networks, foreign allies, and polities, who could keep a feud running for decades. American authoritarians would face widespread popular resentment and would not be able to cow a neutral or sympathetic populace into agreeing with them.
Of course, fear of the extreme globalism scenario drives at least one push for authoritarianism. Not to hit every reason I think some of this fear is justified, but not everybody is in a position to be mobile and demoored, and besides, being moored gives us a motivation and a method by which to check international corporations (unless we’re the EU in which case to some extent we get both. Citizenship, in addition to a passport, is membership in a body which provides education, which may provide healthcare, which balances the need to attract balances with the need for environmental protections and making sure profits are shared or re-invested… It’s the basic theory of the left, supported by the principle that, in negotiations and economic interactions, a body can get a better result by having as few agents as possible making decisions. Weaken nation states and INCs will practice limousine liberalism while still perpetuating deep economic inequalities.
I think, though, that we’re largely in the same boat, weighing options and not much liking any of them. The only response I can come up with concerning the proud idiot voter or candidate is to point to that Atlantic article from a couple years back, How American Politics Went Insane. (Basically, the idea is that strong Party establishments helped keep the political class healthy in the past.)
“Rather, it would be more akin to a civil war: parallel societies, each with their share of elites, media networks, foreign allies, and polities, who could keep a feud running for decades.”
Keep the feud running for… thirty years, say? 🙂 I meant to post this in the last article about the Roman Empire, but I was going to comment on the American peculiarity of always looking to the Roman Empire as the example to compare itself to. There are other models to consider. I think the Holy Roman Empire is a better model for what we’re facing today. A weak, ineffective federal power increasingly unable to hold together its vassal states, with citizens’ loyalties to their religious, tribal (i.e racial, but also leftist identity politics), corporate, and local / regional affiliations being more powerful than federal sovereignty. Already we have people who will literally not step foot outside of perhaps a half-dozen cities in this country. Tell me your zip code and I’ll tell you which church you go to (if any), what news channel you watch, which culture (Hollywood, christian media) you imbibe, what political party you support, and which foreign powers you consider allies. Perhaps we’re already at the state of parallel civil wars that you foresee. So far it has been bloodless, but it pays to remember the Thirty Years war was one of the bloodiest, genocidal atrocities that Europe had ever seen. IOW, parallel civil wars don’t stay bloodless for very long…
There are other models worth considering as well. The Mongol Empire controlled 5x the landmass of the Roman Empire. We tend to think of them as barbarians, but Genghis Khan implemented a rigorous command and control system that unified the army in a way that Roman legions never were, implemented the first meritocratic civil service, and harnessed technological advances like the stirrup to expand his empire and maintain effective governance. They didn’t last as long as the Romans, but dismissing them as simple barbarians, as western historians tend to do, is perhaps missing lessons from their astounding success.
Or how about the Ottaman empire, which also succeeded in integrating numerous different cultures, languages, regions, and countries, into an empire about as big as Rome in its heyday?
Of course, if you think globalism and increasing corporate power will be the main threat to national sovereignty, then perhaps we should look to the largest empire of them all, the British Empire, which may have practiced democracy at home, but ceded control of large parts of its nominal land to corporations. The power and transnational reach of the British East India Company is something even the biggest global companies of today have yet to rival. The BEIC literally *owned* most of India, maintained its own army, hired Brits for its Indian administrative posts, and ran its territories as a purely profit-making enterprise. While they were nominally British, their real loyalties were to their shareholders and directors.
Unfortunately, for all those people who think our country would do better being run like a corporation with the President being a businessman (despite the painful experience of GWB and Trump, the only two businessmen to be President), the system of globalist corporations uber alles didn’t go so well for Britain: under BEIC control, India’s share of global GDP plummeted. It went from being the jewel in the crown, responsible for a large share of Britain’s wealth, to a basket case, with famines, declining industrial output, and becoming a net drain on Britain’s resources rather than a net contributor.
A similar process was carried out in the Congo, which was literally the personal property of King Leopold of Belgium, not actually under the sovereignty of the Belgian crown. He proceeded to sell licenses to other corporations for various resource extractions like rubber, at which point, freed of any pesky national sovereignty (this was private property after all), the rape and pillage of the country began in earnest.
Great question. I’ve been thinking a lot about this very question for awhile now, especially since I’m very fond of Fukuyama. However, while reading The End of History I definitely had moments that gave me pause to think, “That’s a bold assertion.” It’s been a long time since I’ve read it — I think eight years — so I’ve been meaning to return to it for a while.
Broadest summary I can give of my understanding of the book is that liberal democracy is the best system for providing maximum self representation, and self representation is the best method of nurturing social and civic order. So that’s two sides that can be questioned: either whether liberal democracy really is the best system for maximizing self representation, or whether self representation is the most elegant method of maintaining social and civic order. I would say my feelings are the former is true and the latter is unclear.
China provides a great counterexample. The collapse of huge centralized (communist authoritarian) governments due to their inability to manage the livelihoods and lifestyles of literally every citizen was held by Fukuyama as a philosophy problem. What modern developments in the Chinese surveillance state may go to prove is that it may have just been a technology problem. Having supervisory power over the livelihoods of billions of people is impossible when you’re just a bunch of bureaucrats pushing paperwork in city centers; but the problem is reduced significantly when a panopticon of AI algorithms with facial and identity recognition powers are set only to look for definitively aberrant behaviors, which of course a) are defined by being rare in the first place and b) are able to found in increasingly microfocused ways the more data is delivered. Every single day a group of Chinese businessman walks to work is more information the AI can flesh out which of them seems to be thinking about doing something else.
The question is if China can manage to develop that infrastructure without repressing thoughts and behaviors to the point of causing so much anxiety and distress that productivity either drops precipitously or violence explodes semi-suddenly. And even if China fails at that endeavor, that doesn’t mean that other states might not be capable of trying the same thing without making the same mistakes.
[Enter here the common caveats about ‘Western’ versus ‘Eastern’ culture and ‘individualism’ versus ‘collectivism’ and all that normal political thread debate. Moving on.]
To me I think the one thing that matters regardless of the system of governance a country has, is whether the governors within that system focus on the enrichment and standards of living of their populace and how those governors contend with the economic limitations of the country. This is something very important I learned when I lived and worked in the United Arab Emirates, which happened to be at the point when the Arab Spring was breaking out.
The argument Western news media got very wrong when they reported that ‘Young Arabs communicating with other people from different nations on the Internet are now demanding democracy’ is that Western news media assumed those Arabs were chatting with Americans and Brits and by ‘democracy’ they meant electoral suffrage. But whereas some of that influenced the conversation, for the most part the youths from places like Egypt, Bahrain, and Syria were talking to their distant cousins and fellow Arab speakers in places like the United Arab Emirates and Qatar. By ‘democracy’ they didn’t mean electoral suffrage so much as ‘Why is my oil-rich Arab nation not giving me a share of the wealth the way the Emiratis and Qataris get?’
The Arab Spring barely sparked in the Emirates, and when it did it was just a wet match quickly snuffed. The Emiratis didn’t care as much because if they go to school, the government pays them; if they get married, the government pays them; if they have children, the government pays them; if they build a house, the government pays them; if they plant trees in their back yard, the government pays them; if they start a business the government pays them, and if they don’t want to they’re guaranteed a job in the government.
The Emirati government can afford that largesse because of oil revenues. It is also very aware that end-of oil = major civic unrest. Thus the Emirati government’s drive to modernize and become a financial center as soon as, like, yesterday. Also, the Emirati government can guarantee jobs with only a minute amount of worry about things like ‘productivity’ because the actual labor of the place is done by Westerners (business and management), Filippinos (customer service and hospitality), and Central Asians (construction and heavy labor). In the case of some of that middle group and most of that last group, they are effectively slaves.
If you lived in a theocratic monarchy where you were not allowed to criticize the government, practice your own religion, or vote on your own representation, and the country essentially only functioned due to foreign business management and slave labor, but you were effectively given a millionaire’s lifestyle and allowed to spend every night bowling and playing video games, would you rebel?
This is not a defense of China’s or the UAE’s systems of government. It’s just that one of the biggest differences between the UAE and Syria is that the UAE royalty subsidized its citizens’ lifestyles while Syrian royalty kept all the oil revenue to itself, and one of the biggest differences between modern China and Soviet Russia (or Maoist China), is that modern China has pulled hundreds of millions of people out of poverty whereas Soviet Russia (and Maoist China) engaged in totalitarian purges.
So in the global frame of reference, liberal democracies were considered more stable and better at improving their populace’s quality of life. But if you look regionally, ‘like’ countries’ relative levels of stability can probably also be tracked to quality of life standards between two governments of equal non-liberal democratic systems.
So in the end, whatever system you preside over, if you’re not putting food on people’s plates, they’ll put your head on their plate instead. And that’s my warning to governors of literally any system, liberal democratic or otherwise.
Social Democracy, essentially socialism with free markets for non-essential products.
I don’t think the government should be running cosmetic companies. Or the media. Although the government, i.e. us, should regulate those companies to make sure their products are safe.
I also don’t think private companies should be running power, water, internet, power companies, water companies, internet companies, etc. Utilities should exist to provide humans with the basic necessities of life. And because they are necessary, they shouldn’t be run to create profit, because profit is inherently the extraction of value from natural resources/labor/finished products that gets sent to owners. If it’s necessary, than society itself should own it, and any excess production should be invested back into it.
There’s a nice article that explains possibilities for the future. If we’re going to assume that technology and automation are going to continue to decrease the need for humans to actually do stuff, there are 4 main systems of government and economics.
Egalitarianism and Abundance: Communism
Egalitarianism and Scarcity: Socialism
Hierarchy and Abundance: Rentism
Hierarchy and Scarcity: Exterminism
I don’t think that “abundance” is going to exist for a long while. So, I tend towards the socialism, or Social Democracy, paradigm.
If/when we have molecular assemblers (which we could get to as a species if we stop murdering each other in order to grab as much for ourselves), then we can actually have Libertarian (capital L) society in which each individual is self-providing and doesn’t need the entire society in order to exist. But that’s going to be a while.
Be still my aging heart!
Trump I am told said today that Russia will interfere in the 2018 elections!
To get democrats elected!!
If Trump voters believe this, they are even dumber than i thought they were. And my opinion of the intelligence of Trump voters is pretty damn low!
Right down there with a bag of stones and a tree stump!!
The thing is, they very well might interfere to help the Dems. Trump easily could have pulled that from an intel report.
Remember the Russian goal is not Trump or Trumpism… their goal is chaos and disfunction. Giving Trump a Dem Congress would paralyze the govt, lead to fun chaos like impeachment hearings (but not enough votes to remove), and further harden the victimhood culture of the Trumpists (which is so easily exploitable).
And the Russians would likely make it very discernible that they are/were helping the Dems… because that then reinforces the narrative Trump is spinning – MORE CHAOS. They want to make reality malleable… whatever will rile up the idiots the most, whether its giving them power or taking it away – that is what they will do.
Help Trump in 2016 because he’s an idiot. Help the Dems in 2018 because it will inflame the situation and rile up the idiot’s base. Help the Idiot-in-Chief get re-elected in 2020… the crazier things get, the better.
The Chinese model is the only recent system I know of that even approaches being a contender.
I could see it being the case for small and/or homogeneous countries that a socialist state is the ideal… thinking of Nicaragua, or Vietnam.
Maybe you don’t find this any more interesting than the doom scenarios, but there seems to me to be another obvious possibility: systems which are most successful in terms of building global influence and staving off internal revolutions are not those which are most successful in terms of promoting individual human flourishing and liberty.
Vietnam looks pretty good right now. Nicaragua appears ready to descend back into its normal pattern of bloodshed.
I don’t think there’s a tradeoff between internal stability and freedom. In fact, countries capable of sustaining a lot of individual freedom seem to have far less worry about collapse, even when they go through periods of severe dysfunction (like us, now).
The tradeoff seems to be between *electoral democracy* and stability, not freedom and stability. Life in Singapore, for example, is pretty broadly free in most respects that we would recognize, but they do it without a system of real elections.
I was going to mention Singapore, not necessarily as a recommendation. I would say just staying informed about our government is tiring, especially now. I like this from twitter.
Retweeted Robert Roue Grande🇫🇷 (@BobbyBigWheel):
I’m dead serious when I say the 2020 Democratic nominee should campaign on a platform of “You Will Go Days Without Remembering That I Exist”
Lately, democracy seems like running linux as an operating system, where you have to figure a lot of things out, as opposed to Apple stuff where they just give you one button to push and then they figure it out for you.
I wonder if anyone has done a study on productivity since the election.
“I wonder if anyone has done a study on productivity since the election.”
I cosign that curiosity.
I don’t think so. Recent events suggest to me that the bottleneck in our freedom and material prosperity is not meaningfully constrained by our system of government, imperfect as it is.
Some might point to China’s technocratic rule, but I am not so keen on it, myself.
I really thought the Chinese model would have broken down by now. Its continued success is a concern. They are proving far more adaptable than you’d expect from a one-party dictatorship. The new personal ratings system is darkly brilliant. It gives the police state a scale and flexibility that ought to be impossible under central control.
China continues to confound me. I thought it was done for after Tiananmen Square. Generally speaking, in western democracies, when the government orders the army to shoot its civilians, and the army refuses, the government is toast. There is usually a new flag flying literally the next day (e.g. Russia). Not only didn’t that happen. The Chinese leaders didn’t even have to reform. They just continued on their path.
Similarly, after the financial crisis in 07/08, everyone said China has the most insolvent banking system of all major countries. Yet it’s the one country that never had a recession. They just kept piling on debt, stimulus, etc. and the economy kept growing.
I think you and Aaron Dow above are onto something: maybe communism was ahead of its time: it needed modern surveillance and control systems to really be implemented effectively. Perhaps freedom is a blip: simply an admission by the leaders that they literally lacked the means to control the populace, so they let them be. Are 5 year plans more effective when you can track individual movements down to the second and force people into being the most efficient producers? China seems to be proving that premise.
Of course, intense surveillance doesn’t have to produce communism-style oppression. I’ve long argued that the model for our country’s surveillance state is Disneyland. The NSA has nothing on the Mouse House in the way it intensely monitors every single visitor to maximize their enjoyment. If there are crowds building up in one location, they’ll send out a few characters to a different place to entice the crowd to disperse. If there are lines to a ride, they’ll create a “spontaneous” parade or little skit just outside the attraction to distract you. You can literally forget your child there and be about 99.99% certain he/she will be returned to you quickly and in one piece, usually in a happier state than when you lost him, by authorities that appear out of nowhere. Their motto “the happiest place on Earth” always disturbed me. It read more like an order or commandment than an advertising slogan.
So to my list of possible alternatives to liberal democracy above, I’ll add Disneyland. A place designed to maximize people’s happiness, that they enjoy going to and paying good money for, which is run by technocratic, invisible authorities with absolute, unchallenged power, where you have a false sense of freedom and choice while secretly being scrutinized and directed around like an ant, “for your own good”. And you know what? People generally like it better than the liberal democratic world outside its gates.
One of the weird things about China: There’s a lot of freedom in China.
They seem to have set up a kind of tightly bounded liberty. Stay within the (unstated and fluid) guardrails and you can publicly criticize the government, compete with a state-run industry for contracts, even “run for office” (sorta) challenging a state-supported candidate. It looks like what the’re building is not a Communist dictatorship, but a Confucian dictatorship. They’re willing to go Medieval on anyone who demonstrates non-conformist or anti-social lifestyles, but someone who conforms with broad social norms seems to have a lot of room for independent thought and expression. Even getting caught with VPN software isn’t a big deal. It’s very strange.
Which is why I’m only half-joking when I propose Disneyland as the post-liberal solution. It is tightly run, with massive, intrusive surveillance, by an unelected technocratic elite who sets very strict boundaries and carefully guards their “brand”, but then allows relative “freedom” to make your choices within those boundaries. Even more relevant, just like people willingly *go* to Disneyland understanding that its freedom is fake and they have no real power, most Chinese citizens are happy with the restrictions placed on them. There is no hankering for the so-called “real” freedom of democracy.
I know every western Diplomat since Nixon firmly believes that as soon as Chinese people satiate their material desires, they’ll turn to demanding political freedom. That was indeed the reason touted for why investing in their economy was a good long-term strategy, even if the short-term pain was a bunch of unemployed blue collar workers. And yet, despite 30 years of staggering growth, there is no sign of that happening yet. Perhaps the diplomats were wrong?
There is a parallel to surveillance and privacy. Many activists of years past fought tooth-and-nail against even mild incursions of privacy like having a national ID card. One of the founding mythos of America, is that we came here to be left alone. It’s why the concept of wilderness is so important to us, far beyond just a love of nature that other countries may have. If you asked the founding fathers if people in the future would willingly submit details, including photographic and video evidence, of every second of their lives to a public server, knowing that it gets datamined for all sorts of hidden purposes, all in exchange for… well, I still don’t know what we get in exchange for all the information we give up to facebook and instagram… they would have been floored.
I used to be one of those geeks who used PGP encryption on their email 20 years ago (my first email account was in 1989), and was spooked by how easy it was to forge email addresses, hack into systems, etc. My friends thought I was weird. And now, I use gmail like everyone else, because even if I encrypt email on my end, what’s the point if the person I’m sending it to uses gmail? Might as well join the hive.
To take another example, I’m struck by the differences between American and European ski resorts. When an American ski resort labels something a “path”, they mean they have extensive markings, guard rails, it’s been plowed, perhaps even physically altered to make it safer, and well maintained. Just about the only way to hurt yourself is to fall in the snow (which is ensured to be soft because they’ll make more snow if necessary). If you attempt to deviate from the path, you can be sure ski patrol will be on you in a minute, “rescuing” you before you get into trouble.
OTOH, a “path” in a European ski resort often has no markings at all. It’s just a clearing in the forest, and you’re welcome to forge your own path. No one prevents you from doing it. Heck, you don’t even need to ski. If you want to parasail off the top, feel free to do so. While there is a ski patrol, they don’t actually patrol. If you need help, you call them. But you can easily fall off a cliff edge if you’re not careful and know what you’re doing. And if you do, everyone will shrug their shoulders and say “you should have known how to ski better”.
Like 99% of the population, I’m not an expert skier. I don’t want to spend the time to become a better skier. I have other things to do with my life. The “freedom” to forge my own path through a dense forest is a freedom I’m not interested in exercising. So I prefer an American ski resort, where I can have some fun using my poor skiing skills, secure that the powers-that-be made it a near certainty that no matter what I do, I’ll generally get through the afternoon without breaking a leg. And I don’t care if the expert skiers on the double black diamonds are snickering at my poor excuse for “real” skiing.
So perhaps the fault in Fukuyama’s premise that liberal democracy is the best way to provide for the needs of a country’s citizens is his misunderstanding of what exactly citizens want. Perhaps they want safety, freedom from deprivation, and just enough freedom-with-training-wheels that they can satisfy their urge to feel free, while avoiding actual freedom with all of its dirty consequences that can result. Especially if fully exercising the freedom that Fukuyama and political junkies like us desire without blowing ourselves up means making politics your second job.