Friday, April 30, 2010

On Democracy, Authoritarianism and School Violence

Democracy has a well-documented downside: an irresistible urge to vote oneself a share of the spoils disproportionate to one’s economic contribution.

Of course, the wealthy in any society have a stronger voice because of their wealth, and they naturally fight increasing redistribution of income. But in truly representative democracies, there will always be at least one political party whose major claim is to fight for the rights of the poor, the powerless, the downtrodden – basically, everyone who would like a greater share in their nation’s wealth. And in a truly representative democracy, that party occasionally – and in some cases, frequently – wins elections.

Perhaps this is why China continues to so vehemently reject any variant of what they term “Western-style” democracy. With a massive population, only a small sliver of whom have truly benefited from China’s experiments with markets and capitalism, China’s leaders are concerned with how the poor would handle the potential ability to vote themselves a massive redistribution of income. They are also concerned about maintaining the support of the co-opted bourgeoisie who seem content to keep their mouths shut as long as they have opportunities to increase their riches. As study after study have demonstrated, China’s wealthy are not interested in agitating for democracy.

Indeed, this is the single most common argument you will hear from average Chinese citizens about why democracy is not appropriate – not yet anyway. Try this. Go to China and ask any Chinese why China doesn’t have democracy. Nine out of ten people will tell you it is because China has too many poor and uneducated people who are incapable of making informed decisions. (To which I often respond, “Oh, like California?” – which, for me, has been a very enlightening revelation in and of itself.)

The Chinese path of partial economic reform, combined with practically no political reform, has produced some astounding results when viewed in aggregate. China’s 30-year average of double-digit economic growth is unprecedented. Deng Xiaoping’s market reforms have lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty – more than ever before in human history.

Given this astounding feat, is it any wonder then, that developing country dictators find China’s model to be far more palatable than constant Western harassment to clean up their governments and democratize in exchange for aid?

While the China model draws increasing interest from among poor developing countries, we increasingly see discontent bubbling up from China’s “poor and uneducated” population. The increasing number of public demonstrations is an open secret in China. The citizens of thousands of local communities have felt the need to gather in large numbers to counter what they perceive to be the capricious and unchecked power of local officials.

Lately, we have also seen a rash of school attacks in China. At the risk of reading too much into this situation, I would like to suggest that these are further symptoms of disappointment among China’s lower classes due to their powerlessness. If this were simply a matter of mental illness, as some observers have suggested, then why aren’t the mentally ill stabbing children worldwide? Why is this happening in China, and why now? And even if most of these are copycat incidents (and I believe that is the case) just how bad do things have to get before people start to think that killing children is an effective strategy for calling attention to injustice?

Since Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao ascended to power in 2002, their concern for China’s common people has been quite visible. They chose to divert the Party’s sole focus away from getting the wealthy on-board toward getting the poor on-board as well, and some tangible results prove their dedication to this goal. However, despite all their efforts to shore up support among China’s poor, the number, frequency and intensity of demonstrations and protests in China continues to grow.

While the notion that democracies eventually vote for redistribution may be true, it doesn’t begin to address the real issue. Perhaps the hypothesis should be broadened to include the poor in any society – from democratic to fully authoritarian. Perhaps the idea is that poor people in any society eventually grow tired of their lack of opportunity and will resort to whatever means they have available to make their voices heard.

In democracies, the poor vote for redistribution and only occasionally demonstrate. In authoritarian countries, they frequently protest and demonstrate, and when those options seem no longer to get enough attention, some may resort to even more drastic means to get their points across.

The purely democratic option is beginning to seem unsustainable over the long term – for proof of this, we need look no further than California where direct democracy has allowed voters to tie government’s hands to such an extent that the state is ungovernable. But the authoritarian option, while it has allowed China’s leaders the freedom to experiment and develop the economy, has also failed to satisfy those at the bottom rungs of society.

Maybe it is time people in all countries begin to take an honest look at the political sustainability of their systems.

Is democracy nothing more than a 250-year march toward excess and disincentive? Does authoritarianism sow the seeds of its ultimate destruction by suppressing freedom? Is there a mode of governance somewhere in the middle that gives the poor an honest shot at improving their lives while simultaneously giving the rich a stake in the success of the poor?

The rich are going to get rich. That’s what they do when provided with a system that allows them to do so. Most of the rich, I believe, don’t hate the poor; they simply see the poor as unwilling to work hard or to educate themselves to a level that would allow them similar achievements.

But what if, in addition to all of the necessary elements such as relatively free markets, relatively low tax burdens, and solid property rights, the state were also to provide the rich with a stake in the future of poor people?

Our current systems – both Chinese and Western – offer the rich a stake in the existence of the poor: the poor work themselves to death for a minimal wage so the rich get richer. It’s a great system – if you happen to be on the right side of that equation.

But what if our systems, instead of offering the rich a stake in the existence of the poor, offered them a stake in the success of the poor? What would that look like?

The problem in the US is that we have two parties whose interests lie ostensibly with these two groups: the Democrats support the poor and the Republicans support the rich (while both claim to support the middle class).

In China, there is one party who claim to represent everyone, but who will only allow a select few to become members. Still, the fact that both rich and poor have been allowed to join is at least a tacit recognition of the importance of both segments of society for the continued reign of the Communist Party.

The truth, regardless of whether we are talking about the democratic West or authoritarian China, is that the lives of the rich and the poor are more intertwined than many are willing to recognize. The rich could not become rich if there were not millions of poor and middle class toiling away in the trenches of business day-in and day-out. The poor and middle class could not make a living if not for the capital investments of the rich that create the businesses for which they toil.

China’s Marxist-Leninist model clearly didn’t work. While it took aim at the right problem, the gap between the rich and the poor, its solution offered no incentive for innovation and made everyone equally poor. Its semi-capitalist model, while a vast improvement, doesn’t seem to be working very well either; now that China is more than thirty years into its capitalist reforms, the rich-poor gap is wider than ever and growing wider by the day.

Which brings the discussion back around to China’s recent school violence. Perhaps foreigners who are getting all hung up on China’s ban of media reporting about the school stabbing incidents have directed their disdain at the wrong problem. Clearly, there is an issue of copycatting going on, and China’s government is right to want to prevent other similarly disaffected people from getting any ideas.

The problem that foreigners – or indeed anyone, especially China’s government – should be focused on is not media coverage, but the root cause(s) of these incidents. How can China’s poor be given greater hope, greater opportunity and a larger voice in society?

If the answer to this question is “more of the same”, then we should not be surprised to see China’s trend of violence continue to escalate. Whether through democracy, or by some other means, China’s leaders have to figure out how to give their most successful citizens a stake in the future success of the poor.