Politics & Policy

The Problem with China Envy

What liberals want to copy is the authoritarianism.

In 2008, I wrote a book called “Liberal Fascism.” That title came from H. G. Wells, one of the most important socialist writers in the English language. He believed, as did his fellow Fabian socialists, that Western democratic capitalism had outlived its usefulness. 

What was needed was a new, bold, forward-thinking system run by experts with access to the most modern techniques. For Wells, the label for such a system mattered less than the imperative that we implement a revolution-from-above. He admired how the Germans, Italians, and Russians were getting things done. In 1932, he proposed calling his revolutionary movement “enlightened Nazism” or “liberal fascism.”

Wells was hardly alone. Such arguments were being made in all the Western democracies, under a thousand different banners. Most progressives rejected terms like “fascist” or “Communist,” but they still touted foreign tyrannies as superior to the outmoded democratic capitalism of the 19th century. 

Lincoln Steffens, the muckraking journalist, was a great fan of both Italian fascism and Soviet Communism. He returned from a trip to Russia to proclaim, “I have seen the future, and it works!”

Some things never change.

Andy Stern announced recently that he’s been to the future, and it works. In this case, the future resides in China, which he says has a superior economic system. “The conservative-preferred, free-market fundamentalist, shareholder-only model — so successful in the 20th century — is being thrown onto the trash heap of history in the 21st century.” 

Who’s Andy Stern? He’s just the guy who, until last year, ran the Service Employees International Union, which under his leadership spent more than any organization to get Obama elected in 2008, some $28 million. Comparatively, Stern’s influence in the Democratic party eclipses that of, say, the allegedly sinister Koch brothers or anti-tax activist Grover Norquist among Republicans. Stern himself visited the White House more than any other person during Obama’s first year in office (53 times).

Stern sees the Chinese government’s allegedly keen ability to “plan” its way to prosperity as the new model for America. It is an argument of profound asininity. China had five-year plans before it started getting rich. Under the old five-year plans, China killed tens of millions of its own people and remained mired in poverty. What made China rich wasn’t planning, it was the decision to switch to markets (albeit corrupt ones). The planners were merely in charge of distributing the wealth that markets created.

Indeed, rapid economic growth always makes government planners look like geniuses when the reality is that the planners are more like self-proclaimed rainmakers who started dancing only after it started raining. When the rain stops, which it will, they’ll have much to answer for.

Oh, and what about labor? There’s one labor union in China, and it’s run by the government. (The Nazis had pretty much the same system.) Stern doesn’t seem to care.

More intriguingly, SEIU is a huge supporter of the Occupy Wall Street movement, which, taken at its word, is most concerned with income inequality and the back-room corruption that comes from “crony capitalism.” And Stern touts China as the model for how to fix things? China has 115 billionaires and at least 115 million people living on a dollar a day or less. Nearly all of those billionaires got rich gaming a corrupt political system. 

Obviously, the core problem with China envy is not economic but moral. To the extent that China’s economic planning “works,” it does so because China is an authoritarian country. (Japan has been planning its economy within democratic restraints and has been dying on the economic vine for nearly 20 years.) You can hit your building quota a lot more easily when you can shoot inconvenient people and trample property rights at will. The Three Gorges Dam displaced more than a million people who were given three choices: move, jail, death. 

Stern joins a long list of liberals who’ve seen China embrace authoritarian capitalism and conclude that the secret to that success had to be the authoritarianism. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, my usual whipping boy in this department, has written thousands of words rhapsodizing about his “envy” of China. President Obama himself has said he’s envious of China’s president and has touted China’s infrastructure spending as something to emulate.

If you want to copy China because its authoritarian capitalism is better than our democratic capitalism, it seems pretty obvious that what you envy is the authoritarianism. H. G. Wells had a phrase for that.

Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. You can reach him by e-mail at JonahsColumn@aol.com, or via Twitter @JonahNRO. © 2011 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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