The Benefits of Authoritarianism | Gene Veith
The Chinese Communist government has decreed that young people can only play online video games three hours a week. Not at all on school days and only one hour a day on weekends and holidays, between 8 p.m. and 9 p.m.
Chinese parents, like their American counterparts, may have tried to limit the time their children spend playing video games, but probably to no avail. The government, however, by taking over the authority that properly belongs to the parents, will enforce this rule by restricting the companies that provide the games.
Some parents would probably be grateful to have all the strength of an authoritarian government on their side, helping them discipline their children.
We recently blogged how some Americans like the idea of having a “strong leader” who could just do what needs to be done regardless of a legislative body or the election. Today we’re going to take a look at why so many people find authoritarianism so appealing.
If there is a problem in society, all the authoritarian leader needs to do to fix it is to issue an executive order. How simple! How decisive! Instead of politicians endlessly debating the issue and sorting out the various special interest groups and getting checked and balanced by other branches of government, the head of government can determine what needs to be done and what is right. . .do it!
Of course, it can be attractive. This sentiment is evident in New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, who fantasized about how we might solve our problems if we could only be “China for a day.” In 2010 he said this about Meet the press:
What if we could just be China for a day? I mean, just, just, just one day. You know, I mean, where we might actually, you know, allow the right solutions, and I think there is meaning in that, on everything from economics to the environment. I don’t want to be China for one second, OK, I want my democracy to operate with the same authority, focus and persistence. But right now we have a system that can only produce sub-optimal solutions.
This, in fact, has been a constant theme of Friedman. The year before he wrote this:
One-party autocracy certainly has its drawbacks. But when led by a group of reasonably enlightened people, as China is today, it can also have great benefits. This one party can simply impose the politically difficult but critically important policies necessary to move a society forward in the 21st century.
“Reasonably enlightened”! Those who commit genocide against the Uyghurs, revise the Bible to fit communist propaganda, force mothers to abort their babies to insure small families, watch their citizens with high tech surveillance to punish any dissent!
But here we are beginning to see the intrinsic problems of authoritarianism (government by one authority with no input from anyone else) and totalitarianism (government having full control over all facets of life). If a single “leader” has a say in his entire company – not only over public policy but over the hours children are allowed to play video games – the leader’s “will” trumps the “will” of the leader. all the others. There can be no individual freedom at any level.
A lot of people are fine with this, as long as they think their will is being carried out. But, at some point, there can be a conflict of wills. And the leader always gets what he wants. Communist gulags were and their equivalents in China are still filled with party members who, despite their ideological agreement, clashed with the leader.
Another problem is that the one man rule, despite its apparent effectiveness, does not eliminate all the problems, despite the leader’s ability to implement changes quickly. China has a lot of problems. In reality, one person does not have the knowledge or expertise to fully tackle complex political issues.
Representative democracies, with their multiple levels and branches of government, are collaborative in nature. Many different brains and different types of expertise are brought to bear to solve the problems. And the many people involved in these complex issues – who are closest to them – also have a say in what will affect them.
Totalitarian systems tend to be collectivist enterprises, minimizing individualism. And yet, ironically, by entrusting their government to a prospect, they trust an individual to rule them. While democratic systems, while encouraging individualism, in fact take a collectivist approach to governance, where it is arguably most important.
Our desire for our government to just get things done is understandable. And yet, how do you know what to do? This answer is not always clear. And forceful, effective and decisive action is often exactly what causes problems for a government and the nation. (For a related discussion read this.)
Our constitutional system deliberately establishes barriers to energetic, effective, decisive, but reckless actions. This is not a weakness of representative democracy. This is one of its greatest assets.
By announcing the new video game rules, the Communist Party newspaper People’s Daily said: “The signal sent by this decision is very clear: the government can be ‘ruthless’. “
Yes he can. And the statement demonstrates one of the other attractions of authoritarianism: the joyful pleasure of wielding power over others, forcing them to your will.
But I think the new video game rules can have unintended consequences. Chinese adolescents are likely to cultivate a deep and lasting, albeit hidden, desire for freedom. These rules, along with the government’s resentment overseeing their every move and other party-imposed impositions on daily life, may spark a new generation that will demand self-government.
Photo: One laptop per child – Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, CC BY 2.0