Hard limits on growth
On Thomas Edison, bullet trains, and secret police
Global circumstances -- including China's unwillingness to break with Russia over the invasion of Ukraine -- have reinvigorated interest in some of the broader strategic themes of geopolitics. There is ample reason to believe that China watches the conflict with an eye towards Taiwan, and of course there is the omnipresent concern that the size of China's economy is catching up to that of the United States.
■ These anxieties are good for stoking lots of analysis, and sometimes that takes the form of worry -- like columnist Noah Smith's observation that "Without China, the contest between Putin-style autocracy and industrialized democracy would be incredibly lopsided -- atavistic macho bullies who didn't know how to build things vs. the keepers of technology. The bullies wouldn't stand a chance. China has made the competition far more equal, because they figured out how to combine bully-style rule with competent functioning business and bureaucratic institutions capable of accumulating knowledge and executing complex tasks on a grand scale."
■ On one hand, yes: There is considerable reason to be wary of what the Communist Party has assembled in China. But on the other hand: The thing about dragons is that they aren't real.
■ It's easy to highlight certain prominent feats of the Chinese state-controlled economy. The country has built skyscrapers and aircraft carriers, complex tasks that shouldn't be taken for granted. But flagship projects don't always reveal the true state of affairs.
■ For example: China has eye-catching bullet trains, but a 200-mph train serves (at enormous expense) a specific kind of passenger: People living in dense urban areas with the affluence to pay for the ride.
■ When the United States first got a transcontinental rail network, much of the benefit accrued to farmers living in far-flung homesteads, since it gave them access to the nation's biggest markets. It certainly benefitted urban dwellers, but the rail system did much more to level out economic and cultural connections across the continental nation. China's high-speed rail network is unlikely to have any such leveling effect, since it is bound to bypass the countryside.
■ There were, of course, dire consequences for Native Americans when the railroads were built, and the United States is still reconciling with the damage done. But China's government is still actively detaining minorities in camps (on the scale of a million prisoners) and dismantling democratic institutions in Hong Kong rather than face political competition.
■ China isn't really a "genuinely alternative model of human organization" so much as it is a chimera. Economic growth begetting economic liberty ultimately results in people realizing that wealth is an illusion if you don't own your thoughts. The basic liberal virtue of freedom of thought is ultimately incompatible with a system that fears popular sovereignty.
■ Just as was the case for Marxist-Leninist Communism in Russia, a lot can be materially achieved in the leap from an agrarian economy to an industrial one. And have no doubt that China's economy is developing an astonishing number of technicians, including almost twice as many STEM Ph.D. graduates as the United States. But the system itself is fundamentally unsound.
■ It would be impossible to keep 330 million people under a command-and-control model, much less 1.4 billion. Even people intentionally kept in the dark through surveillance and censorship know enough about themselves to realize when they're being lied to and held down. (It's impossible to keep a lid on putting millions of people under lockdown.)
■ Imagine Thomas Edison trying to build Menlo Park while constantly looking over his shoulder to make sure he hadn't offended the political authorities with a misplaced remark. There is only so much mental bandwidth a person can devote to great ideas and achievements when secret police will might chase you anywhere on the globe and even billionaires can just go missing without warning.
■ People who are free to see, speak, hear, and seek out the truth have inherent advantages over those who don't -- among others, they get to learn from their own mistakes and from those committed elsewhere. No unitary state can eclipse that advantage.
■ There may be further growth ahead for the Chinese economy -- and, in the interest of total human happiness, we ought to cheer for those who are lifted out of poverty -- but there is also a ceiling on just how much can be achieved, both economically and socially, when people are deprived of their natural right to personal liberty. No shiny baubles should make us think otherwise. There is no property more valuable than the expanse of one's own mind.