At the center of today’s pessimism about the future of America as a great power is the accusation that its governing institutions are “dysfunctional.” This unlovely term has real punch.
Public commentary is largely driven by the news, and the news is dominated by today’s mistakes and failures—bills not passed, forecasting errors, dyspeptic polling results, vacuous communiqués, and partisan gamesmanship. As well, smart individuals who fail in Washington often make compelling pessimists.
Fresh reports of dysfunction can crowd out our faith in and our attention to the fundamentals. And the fundamentals of US and Western representative democracy not only deserve loving repair, but also offer hope for the future.
Joel Kotkin eloquently takes on the darkest scenario of the day—the approaching victory of China and its authoritarian capitalist model. Writing in NewGeography.com, he confronts a glamorous cast of Western neo-pessimists.
“Former Obama Management and Budget chief Peter Orszag is the latest to endorse the down-with-democracy movement. Concerned with our inability to deal with our fiscal problems, climate change and rebuilding the economy, Orszaq proposes shifting power from Congress to more “independent institutions” made up of unelected policymakers. He argues that democracy can be “too much of a good thing.” Comfortably ensconced at bailed-out Citigroup, Orszag has benefited from a financial system that increasingly resembles China’s, with its intimate ties between the state and banks. Crony capitalism, on both sides of the Pacific, it appears, has its rewards.”
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Kotkin doesn’t argue that America is better than its squalid politics. Rather, he insists that America’s legal and political system is at the heart of the case for America’s future.
“Arguably our biggest advantage lies in the very thing our upper echelons increasingly disdain — our messy multicultural democracy and our addiction to the rule of law. ‘The secret of U.S. success is neither Wall Street or Silicon Valley but its long-surviving rule of law and the system behind it,” Liu Yazhou, a Chinese two-star general, recently said. ‘The American system…is designed by genius and for the operation of the stupid.’
“The stunning lack of such constitutional guarantees is just one reason why many of China’s entrepreneurial elite seek to immigrate to the U.S., Canada or Australia. Indeed, among the 20,000 Chinese with incomes over 100 million Yuan ($15 million), 27% have already emigrated and another 47% have said they were considering it, according to an April report by China Merchants Bank and U.S. consultants Bain & Co.
“To be sure, the U.S. and its allies need to change in order to compete. Greater incentives for savings, investments and productive industries must supplant those that promote asset speculation and financial manipulation. But we can do this without importing Asia’s hierarchical structures. Rather than trying to outdo the Politburo in developing crony capitalism we should seek to reinvigorate our diverse, grassroots economy.”
On the rise, Kotkin observes, authoritarian states look very impressive; they can announce grand new strategies and target industries, and bully and motivate people. It remains to be seen whether, in harder times, these regimes can keep up with the West’s capacity to see what’s wrong, accept change, and carry on.