The COVID-19 pandemic has sparked debates as to whether centralized governing systems, i.e. authoritarian regimes, are inherently more effective than decentralized liberal democracies. Are authoritarian governments better equipped to successfully tackle emerging crises?
As the number of new cases in China is nearing zero, the Chinese Communist Party is pushing the narrative of the superiority of the China model, while painting the responses of Western countries as chaotic and ineffective.
As Yun Jiang, a former Australian government official, told the Washington Post, “In the past week, the propaganda has really been ramping up, highlighting the dwindling new infections and contrasting that with the rising infection rate overseas … They’re trying to tell a positive story about China’s and the Communist Party’s management of the situation.”
Powered by decades of spectacular economic growth, China is becoming more assertive and ambitious on the international stage, and its model is becoming increasingly alluring to the perennial enemies of the open society. Its handling of the coronavirus is seen by authoritarians as yet another proof of the superiority of its model.
China is a dictatorship, where power is heavily concentrated in the hands of a single entity: the CCP and, in particular, Xi Jinping, whose grip on power has strengthened in recent years, as have the crack-downs on civil liberties and the state’s control of the economy.
The United States and other liberal democracies are decentralized—the process of decision-making is distributed among multiple actors. The most important of these is the federal government, but many crucial functions are delegated to state and local authorities. Indeed, in America, authority over public health is largely in the hands of states and cities.
Donald Trump’s inaction and irresponsibility undermined America’s ability to contain the spread of the coronavirus. The enemies of the open society have contrasted America’s and China’s ways of combating the coronavirus in an attempt to demonstrate the superiority of the latter’s governing model. But such a way of thinking is faulty.
It is based on flawed generalization. The more general a comparison is, the more detached it is from the intricacies of the actual situation. A single instance of a phenomenon cannot prove the validity of an argument. Social events are complex and interdependent: no amount of evidence can prove a hypothesis right, but a single refutation is enough to invalidate it.
South Korea is a democratic country. But its response to the coronavirus outbreak has been even more effective than China’s in certain aspects—the mortality rate there is under 1%, substantially lower than the global average of approximately 3%. Seoul managed to tackle COVID-19 much more benignly than Beijing—via free testing and treatment rather than complete lockdown of the entire country. Of course, South Korea had the luxury of witnessing China’s experience—but Beijing’s extreme measures took place only after the virus had begun to spread around the world and the Chinese government’s own secrecy and suppression of dissent initially helped the outbreak to spread. What are seen as inadequate measures taken in the west are more often the result of the incompetence of the politicians in power than the flaws of democratic systems: as South Korea has shown, open societies can tackle crises just as efficiently as centralized autocracies.
Many observers, both inside and outside modern liberal democracies, have characterized contemporary open democratic systems as broken—especially that of the United States, with its hyperpartisanship, rising political polarization, division of the country into seemingly irreconcilable camps, etc. But, in a rare act of bipartisanship, Donald Trump recently signed an $8.3 billion emergency package to battle the coronavirus, the bill that was supported by both Republicans and Democrats (even though the administration initially asked Congress for only $2.5 billion). Moreover, the US Congress recently passed an even more sweeping coronavirus bill, after negotiations between the Trump administration and the Democrats.Although the Senate has yet to ratify this bill, its adoption demonstrates that even a politically divided country can act in a consolidated and consensus-seeking manner.
Even Donald Trump has begun to tweet unifying messages: a phenomenon previously unseen during his presidency.
Good teamwork between Republicans & Democrats as the House passes the big CoronaVirus Relief Bill. People really pulled together. Nice to see!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 14, 2020
Everybody is so well unified and working so hard. It is a beautiful thing to see. They love our great Country. We will end up being stronger than ever before!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 16, 2020
Nothing unites people more than a common threat, as we saw during the Cold War, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, and now with the coronavirus. In times of crisis, democracies become more united. They are antifragile: they benefit from stressors.
Even if decentralized systems were bad at resolving crises, this would not imply that they are worse in general. There are reasons to believe that decentralized states are better at addressing black swans (unpredictable, undirected, rare and dramatic events).
The key advantage of open societies and open systems is that—while they try to reduce chaos—they do not attempt to get rid of it completely, because chaos, uncertainty, entropy and randomness are the elements that make open societies open, allowing them to persist over time by adapting to changing conditions. As Jordan Peterson writes in 12 Rules for Life, “Chaos … is all those things and situations we neither know nor understand … In its positive guise, chaos is possibility itself, the source of idea.”
Order is the known, the explored, the convenient and the stable. Chaos is the unknown, the unexplored, the new and therefore unstable.
We need a certain degree of chaos as well as never-ending efforts to eliminate it. Chaos is intrinsic to the characteristics unique to open societies—both those we perceive as negative, such as protests, polarizing election contests, changes to the people in power, which threaten stability—and those that define open societies: bold, unconventional and paradigm-shifting, yet dangerous, ideas. Reactionary forces always have a hard time adapting to changes in the real world and adopting new opinions shaped by novel developments. Creative chaos differentiates open from closed systems.
In the short term, a decentralized, open system is inherently more unstable than a centralized, closed one because it allows people to express their dissatisfaction with the status quo, for example. Centralized systems are stable over long stretches of time. In decentralized societies, chaos is evenly distributed; in centralized societies, it manifests in the form of black swans: events with high levels of entropy, which result from the sudden release of chaos following a long period of suppression.
When chaos is distributed over a longer time, it is like information: the process of resolving small challenges provides lessons on how to deal with future challenges. In open societies, chaos is therefore useful, while in closed societies it may prove fatal.
Chaos will never disappear: it will just accumulate under the surface. That is why centralized regimes often end unexpectedly and abruptly after long periods of apparent stability, as soon as there is a release of chaos—this is what happened to the USSR in 1991 and to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in 2003. As Taleb notes, there is a “difference between true and manufactured stability”: between the antifragile stability of continuously adapting democratic regimes and the fragile, ephemeral stability of dictatorships. Centralization of power may sometimes help states tackle black swans—but such regimes will begin to stagnate intellectually, materially and morally sooner or later and will prove unable to meet the challenges of modernity and battle sudden releases of entropy.
The coronavirus crisis has been a grave test of the CCP’s leadership. So far, Beijing has managed to overcome the challenge. Will this remain the case in the future? This is far from guaranteed.