Democracy and Authoritarianism 2.

How do Democracy and Authoritarianism compare in addressing long-term and major problems?  Climate change offers itself as one example, crowding to the front, waving its arms, and going “Me, me, call on me!”   

American solipsism might lead people to think that Authoritarianism beats Democracy like a carpet during Spring cleaning.  As one reporter for the New York Times phrased it in July 2022, “the United States’ climate plans collapse[ed] under the opposition of a senator who represents one half of one percent of the population.”[1]  In fact, other democracies have been very aggressive in adopting policies to fight (or just adapt to) climate change. 

On the other side, China has announced “one dramatic climate policy after another.”   In the theory of Innocents Abroad, it can seem that policy is formulated “without the fuss of legislative horse-trading or infighting.”  Really?  China’s government is very much a black box, so it is difficult to tell what goes on inside the government.  The history of the Chinese Communist Party is full of factional disputes over issues of revolutionary theory, but also of substantive policy decisions.[2]  Why would it be different now?  Just because you don’t see the horse-trading or infighting, doesn’t mean that none takes place. 

Another problem arises with the considerable difficulty in implementing those policies.  Beijing doesn’t often lay down the law to provincial leaders.  They seem to have learned their lesson about central planning when carried to an extreme.[3]  Instead, they offer guidance documents or aspirational goals.[4]  Local officials have to figure out what the guidance means and how to achieve the goals, especially when goals conflict. On the one hand, China needs economic growth, so China needs electricity.  On the other hand, Zi Jinping has committed China to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.  Green technologies aren’t in a position to step in right this instant to power machinery and light cities.  What to do?  No sooner was the ink dry on the Paris Climate Accord than state-owned enterprises and provincial governments forged ahead with the long-standing policy of building coal-fired power plants.[5]  Now Beijing’s pursuit of “zero Covid” have led to years of rolling regional lock-downs that have battered the economy. 

The American climate legislation blocked by “a senator who represents one half of one percent of the population” was President Biden’s “Build Back Better” bill (BBB).[6]  That bill included $555 billion for clean energy and climate change provisions.  In August 2022, the “a senator” agreed to a bill that dropped many provisions of BBB, but included $391 billion in spending on energy and climate change.  Leaders of environmental groups lauded the bill as “historic” and “transformative.”

So, if you’re not writing for a 5:00 PM dead-line, maybe democracy still works. 

[1] Max Fisher, “Are Democracies Better or Worse at Handling Big Crises?” NYT, 27 July 2022.  Pedantically, the plan “collapsed” under the opposition from 51 senators representing 44 percent of the population. 

[2] Sure, the losers get sent to a rice paddy until the wheel turns.  I can just see Progressive Democrats slobbering over “Joe Manchin, rice paddy” like Homer Simpson over donuts.    

[3] See, for example, the “Great Leap Forward.”  That caused any number of real crises for China.  Somewhere between 15 and 55 million people died.  Great Leap Forward – Wikipedia 

[4] I once saw a yard sign in Cambridge, MA that read “You can’t hug a child with nuclear arms.” 

[5] Other examples include the failed attempt to reduce steel production and the failed effort to reduce water pollution. 

[6] Lot of Bs there.  At least he’s not Bill Biden. 


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