Magazine article Ideas on Liberty

Beijing's "Cruel Choice"

Magazine article Ideas on Liberty

Beijing's "Cruel Choice"

Article excerpt

China, like other countries undergoing radical transition, must resolve the political and economic issues that determine its pattern of future development. The search for a workable model has often led to the conclusion that authoritarian rule may be a "necessary evil" as a means for speedy economic development. In this sense, the tradeoff between political freedom and economic prosperity is portrayed as a cruel choice.

Beijing continues to pursue a "dictatorship of the proletariat," obsessed with power that threatens its own economic vitality. Several outcomes of this tradeoff involve collateral damage that is felt in Hong Kong and contributes to instability in Taiwan.

The implied tradeoff between rapid economic growth and political freedom suggests that democracies are at a disadvantage relative to authoritarian or even totalitarian regimes during the transition process. While economic freedom may be required for development of political freedom, the reverse may not be true.

In fact, not only may political freedom not be necessary for economic development; indeed, it may perhaps be an obstruction to economic progress. Reasons cited include the formation of powerful interest groups that demand redistributive policies which reduce long-term economic growth.

Thus it is widely believed that a continuation of its authoritarian regime can more readily ensure rapid economic progress for China. Presumably, that would be accomplished through the extraction and disposition of savings from a relatively pliant population.

However, there are compelling counterexamples that exist in the real world. Numerous authoritarian regimes exhibit little or no economic success, such as Cuba, Zimbabwe, Burma, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Iran. Thus neither the imposition of authoritarian rule nor repression constitutes a necessary or sufficient condition for economic growth.

In sum, the visible hand of the interventionist state does not guarantee successful economic development. Policymakers are as fallible as the private decision-makers they seek to replace. This fallibility is to be expected regardless of whether the guiding principles are based on ideology, like communism, or paternalism influenced by Confucianism.

Competitive capitalism joined by a limited democracy can be seen to provide better incentives than authoritarianism through the wider disbursement of a direct personal stake in economic development. Access to personal rewards from involvement in the making of wealth is the source of a strong motivation for individual effort. Increased productivity arising from the incentive structures of liberal capitalism would offset the presumed advantages of coerced accumulation under China's perverse system of "market socialism."

Of particular interest are the evolving characteristics and role of real entrepreneurs in China. Their growth-promoting innovations go beyond the seizing of opportunities to "buy low, sell high" and to rely on political contacts. True entrepreneurs are by their nature iconoclastic and contrarian; they tend to challenge the status quo, whether the competitive structure of a market or entrenched authority. …

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