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Autocracy’s Fatal Flaw

Putin speaks at concert
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By: Kevin D. Williams – nationalreview.com – March 20, 2022

The lesson of the hour: Unfree societies are weak.

The allure of strongman nationalist government — Vladimir Putin’s Russia, Xi Jinping’s China, Viktor Orbán’s Hungary, the America that Donald Trump and his acolytes dream of — has always been the promise of power. You can take the word of the foreign caudillos themselves or listen to the slavering of their American admirers — the story is always the same: While liberal societies slide into softness and decadence, illiberal societies have the resolve to spurn cheap gratification, particularly in the form of consumerism and sexual license, in order to secure the genuine common good.

That this line of analysis is almost invariably framed in sexual terms — the masculine patriarchal nationalist vs. the effeminate liberal globalist — says more about the psychology of the authoritarian follower than it does about the actual issues of political economy in question.

But the more important thing to know is that the promise of autocratic power is a lie.

Does Russia look strong today? Vladimir Putin’s thugs are pretty tough guys when the contest is, say, a five-on-one fight against an unarmed female journalist (Anna Politkovskaya) or when they’re quietly poisoning his critics with polonium-210 (Alexander Litvinenko), but they aren’t much in a real fight with Ukrainian patriots. Instead, they have been reduced to vulgar terrorism, bombing hospitals and residential buildings in an attempt to use atrocity as a substitute for victory. Meanwhile, Ukrainian farmers are towing abandoned Russian tanks around with tractors, taunting the cowards who left them behind.

The nations of the free world bicker among themselves, and they have plenty of fierce internal disagreements. But the purportedly soft and undisciplined West put Russia on its ass in about five minutes when push came to shove. Putin’s right-wing fanboys are transfixed in rapt homoerotic admiration to see him half naked on horseback, but he doesn’t look so tough getting pushed around by materteral bureaucrats such as Christine Lagarde, Ursula von der Leyen, and Janet Yellen.

Putin thought he might turn to the man who sometimes calls him his “best friend,” Xi Jinping, for help. Xi, in response, has illustrated two of the great political proverbs: Charles de Gaulle’s observation that “nations do not have friends, only interests” and Harry Truman’s advice that the politician in need of a friend should “get a dog.”

China, which has attempted to manage Covid-19 in its preferred way — through authoritarianism and brutality — is at the moment getting absolutely hammered by the virus. Tens of millions of Chinese people are under what amounts to house arrest. Important industrial and business hubs such as Shenzhen have been taken entirely or partly offline. Xi is worried enough that he is reassuring his Politburo that his government will “strive to achieve the maximum prevention and control effect at the least cost and minimize the impact of the epidemic on economic and social development,” which, as Bloomberg points out, is a rare acknowledgment of the real costs of Chinese policy.

Xi has some serious problems at home: 20 percent of China’s housing stock is vacant after a speculative building boom that made the Dutch tulip mania seem like sensible long-term investing; businesses are carrying too much debt, and creditors are worried about not getting paid; Beijing’s recent crackdown on real-estate and Internet firms has spooked investors; a top economic official (Liu He, educated at Seton Hall and Harvard, naturally) called an emergency meeting of advisers and afterward promised to implement “policies that are favorable to the market.”

Joe Biden knows that he is one bad recession away from being sent home. But Xi Jinping knows that he is one bad recession away from something even worse than exile in Delaware — he’s well aware of how his party came to power.

Putin’s European fan club has gone quiet. Even such ankle-grabbing sycophants as Orbán and Marine Le Pen are crab-walking away as fast as they can.

The old truths remain unchanged: The free world isn’t free because it is rich — it is rich because it is free. Freedom is not only a moral good but also a practical one: Because we have a system that enables us to fail quickly and fail cheaply, we can try many different approaches to social and material problems, throwing everything we have at them and seeing what works. Authoritarian societies, in contrast, have trouble adapting to fluid conditions, often discomfited by problems that cannot be solved with bayonets. One by one, Americans and Germans and Englishmen aren’t any more intelligent than Russians or Chinese or Saudis, but the institutions of free societies — from the free press to competitive elections — enable free people to rally and deploy their collective intelligence in a way that is difficult or impossible in unfree societies.

Authoritarian societies do not even really confer the one advantage you would think they would: stability. If Vladimir Putin were to be hit by lightning tomorrow, the entire character of Russian public life would change immediately, and the country would be thrown into crisis; if Joe Biden were to throw in the towel on Monday, the United States would keep on keepin’ on. We may treat every presidential election like it is an existential dilemma, but, as you may have noticed, American life does not change radically from administration to administration. (On the other hand, if you erase three nonpoliticians from American history — Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, and Roger Ailes — the political culture looks very different, indeed.) That’s why Putin is scrambling around arresting his advisers and looking for saboteurs under his bed, while Dwight Eisenhower left Americans with the impression that he had spent the remarkably eventful years of his presidency playing golf: Real stability is dead boring.

A few people in the free world — mostly but not exclusively idiots — are easily ensorcelled by autocrats such as Putin and Xi for the same reason an earlier generation of Americans were impressed by Mussolini and Lenin: While the public life of a free society feels like an endless series of committee meetings, autocrats give the illusion of action. Peace, prosperity, genuine diversity — different people going about their own lives seeking their own ends in their own ways — can at times seem monotonous and boring, especially to young men, who so often define themselves not only as citizens but as men through conflict. And it probably is a great deal more exciting to be Vladimir Putin than it is to be Olaf Scholz, the chancellor of Germany and vice principal of Europe. Things got pretty exciting for Nicolae Ceaușescu there at the end. Saddam Hussein, too. Surely such examples come to Putin’s mind from time to time, even if his Western admirers do not think of them.

They may offer excitement, but, in the end, figures such as Putin leave their nations weaker, poorer, less stable, and more vulnerable than they have to be. We saw this play out in the 1940s, we saw it in the 1990s, and we will see it again in our time. Autocracy wears a snazzy uniform, but it can’t take a punch — which is why Ukrainians are stacking up dead Russians like cordwood.  Autocracy is good at knocking things down, but it isn’t very good at building things up — which is why the GDP per capita in China and Russia is lower than it is in Panama or Romania, and half of what it is in Lithuania.

The fatal conceit of men such as Vladimir Putin is the belief that their countries can rise in the world the same way they rose in their countries — with a little bit of cleverness and a great deal of ruthlessness. Except in the very short term, that never really works, because it is very, very hard to build a strong and powerful country without the things that liberalism is good at: property rights, entrepreneurship, long-term investment, social experimentation, cooperation, trust. These are the sources of wealth, innovation, stability, and confidence. Putin, for all his experience with the dark side of human affairs, apparently still hasn’t figured that out.

He should know better: The forces that are going to beat Russia this time around are the same ones that beat Russia last time around.

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Source: Russia & China: Autocracy’s Fatal Flaws | National Review