Eric X. Li: Is Democracy Necessary?

In the comment section of “Why Thinking about China is the Key to a Free World,” Kierto Duong claims that I underrate the Chinese government. The video above was a key part of his defense.

The video is somewhat off target for what I was saying in “Why Thinking about China is the Key to a Free World.” I never said that democracy was crucial to prosperity but that freedom is crucial to prosperity. The following passage in “Why Thinking about China is the Key to a Free World.” gives the working definition of freedom I am using:

When Dan Benjamin, Ori Heffetz, Nichole Szembrot and I surveyed more than four and a half thousand Americans about what they viewed as the most important objectives for public policy, the top two (of 131 choices) were “freedom from injustice, corruption, and abuse of power in your nation,” and “people having many options and possibilities in their lives and the freedom to choose among them.”

This pairing of responses shows an awareness of the danger to freedom from those who would organize the institutions of a nation to serve the interests of an in-group at the expense of an out-group. At the beginning of the struggle toward freedom, the in-group is very small and the out-group large. At later stages of the struggle toward universal freedom, the in-group will be large and the out-group small. But adding up across the world, it is not at all clear that a majority of the people in the world today can be called truly free.

This kind of freedom is not synonymous with democracy. In particular, I think the kind of counter-majoritarian rules in the Bill of Rights (including the 9th amendment to the US Constitution that suggests there are many, many other rights not explicitly listed) take freedom a long way beyond where it would be from democracy alone. And indeed, the US is now much less free than it might be because over time, majoritarian forces described in Barry Friedman’s excellent overview of Supreme Court history The Will of the People: How Public Opinion Has Influenced the Supreme Court and Shaped the Meaning of the Constitution have eroded some of the freedom-enhancing principles in the constitution. 

Also, the United States would now be significantly more prosperous than it is if Franklin D. Roosevelt had not pushed the Supreme Court to abandon key principles of economic freedom. (The gold standard and other bad monetary policy ideas thus not only contributed greatly to Hitler’s rise to power but also to the erosion of key US constitutional principles.)

At the end of “Why Thinking about China is the Key to a Free World,” I give two examples of how freedom might be supported that are not about ordinary democracy: 

So, as I advocated here in “Yes, There is an Alternative to Austerity vs. Spending: Reinvigorate America’s Nonprofits,” it is enough to use the arm of the government to require more substantial charitable contributions, while giving people wide latitude to decide which particular causes they want to support. This can both assist in things the government is now doing, such as taking care of senior citizens and supporting medical research, and begin to take care of things that should be done, but aren’t. With millions of people each required to do something, but allowed to think and decide for themselves what most needs to be done, the odds that the benefits of freedom and prosperity extend into all the nooks and crannies of society improve dramatically.

Finally, though efforts to measure national well-being in ways that respect the full range of things human beings care about are still in their infancy, there is hope that developing such measures as counterpoints to GDP can guide public policy toward ways of improving the quality of life in nations that use them in unexpected ways. Such measures of national well-being might also be used by autocrats to keep those they rule over just happy enough to forestall rebellion, but those rulers would be faced with this truth: people love freedom, and will never be content for long without it.

There is a lot to think about in trying to define freedom, but it is not synonymous with democracy.

I stand by my prediction that greater freedom in China would ultimately lead to more prosperity. But many of the key dimensions of freedom that would help China the most are not about democracy per se.