Sympathy for Despots

Thomas Friedman recently stuck his foot in his mouth with an ode to the "leadership" of China:

One-party autocracy certainly has its drawbacks. But when it is led by a reasonably enlightened group of people, as China is today, it can also have great advantages. That one party can just impose the politically difficult but critically important policies needed to move a society forward in the 21st century.

Unsurprisingly, this has ignited a fair amount of controversy. And yet, I'm not sure he's 100% wrong, although I couldn't quite express why I thought this way.

John Derbyshire finally put into words why I felt a twinge of sympathy for Friedman's rather outlandish position:

A lot of us, including a lot of conservatives (remarks by Mark Steyn and George Will come to mind) feel that we have become so bureaucratized, lawyered-up, regulated, and PC-whipped that great national projects of the past — the trans-continental railroad, the transformation of Manhattan, the interstate highway system, wars we can actually win in less than a decade, . . . — are no longer possible. Our system has seized up somehow, and no innovation much bigger than a hand-held gadget stands a chance.

To us, stuck in this glue-trap, the sheer ability to get things done is bound to have some appeal, even when the agent of it is a brutish and callous despotism like China's.

Yep. A few weeks ago, I complained about our inability to dream of anything big anymore. But I think I undershot the problem, because I was talking about not being able to think of grand, new things. It's worse than that. It's difficult to even imagine building things that are already in existence.

To borrow a phrase from Arnold Kling, my "most wrong belief" is that productivity growth in construction has actually been negative over the last, say, 75 years.[*] I mention this to people, and they tend to chalk it up to improvements in safety standards, but I'm not so sure. It's difficult to even imagine constructing something like that Empire State Building in sixteen months. I'm not even confident we've made positive progress, let alone approaching anything like the growth we've seen in other manufacturing sectors.

And that's private sector. The situation in government is even worse. Subway systems largely built at the turn of the last century are bigger and better than what we can turn out now. Highway construction is a non-starter in urban areas.

So, like Derbyshire, I can see why Friedman gets frustrated. Unlike him, I don't want to see despotism. Deregulating at the national and state level would be a large step forward in allowing things to actually get built. We will still be stuck with the local NIMBYs, of course, but at least progress will be made somewhere. Maybe.

[*] A friend of mine, on hearing a rant from me on this topic, dug up some statistics and found that the total factor productivity growth rate in the U.S., for the construction sector, was -0.02 from 1970 to 1987. So that's something, although I don't know where that statistic came from.

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Road to Serfdom

Of course this is one of the great points from Hayek's Road to Serfdom. The public invariably becomes frustrated with pluralist governments that can't produce the results they demand. As a consequence, dictatorial governments become appealing.

I'd say that much of this is

I'd say that much of this is due to the relatively recent anti-industrial affectations of the western world. Ironically these affectations are fueled by the same fundamental forces (romanticism, broadly speaking) that gave rise to the ideology of communism et al.

One of the most dangerous trends in this realm is for people to become accustomed to the benefit of various technological improvements and constructs to the degree where the benefits become taken for granted, and then only the detriments stand out as noticeable. The demonization of the automobile, a standard in leftist circles in the west, is a perfect example of this. This despite the fact that the automobile has been responsible for a far greater improvement in the health and wellbeing of humankind, both rich and poor, than almost any other invention or activity.

Perhaps eventually the western world will shake off this silliness. It's interesting to surmise whether this is just a fad or a fundamental phase of industrial development. Time will tell.

This Too Might Pass

Perhaps eventually the western world will shake off this silliness. It's interesting to surmise whether this is just a fad or a fundamental phase of industrial development.

I'm "hopeful" we can get rid of this nonsense anti-industrial attitude as well, but I'm dreading what we'll have to go through to do it.

Take Britain. It seems to be facing a looming electricity shortage. When blackouts start rolling, I think the British citizens will start demanding new infrastructure, NIMBYs, BANANAs, and Greens be damned. But it won't be a pleasant process.


Getting rid of the useless bureaucracy is as simple as requiring that our politicians rank it. A great deal of the cover that the stupid portions of our government have is that we're rather unclear as to what is vital, cool to have, so-so, unnecessary, and finally downright dangerous. That's sort of ok in a republic where the full timers, the politicians, rate that sort of thing and work hard to prune the worst bits. Today, they just don't.

Come up with a Contract with America style pledge to rate the whole government and cut the bottom 2% every year would be a revolution because it would focus us all on the worst of the worst and who can argue against cutting that?