The Free World fears China’s rise. It will soon be the largest economy in the world.
People witness the speed of Chinese construction with awe.
But they laugh at the US’ sluggish progress.
So will authoritarianism win? Is it a viable model? Will China show the world that an authoritarian regime can become the world’s biggest economic power and lead the rest of the world? Will other countries take inspiration from China and follow its path?
Maybe it’s already happening, as authoritarianism is creeping up everywhere, repeating the 1930s one century later: Russia’s Putin, Venezuela’s Chavez and Maduro, Turkey’s Erdogan, Hungary’s Orban, Brazil’s Bolsonaro, Philippines’ Duterte, USA’s Trump, Italy’s Meloni… Can these models prevail?
There are certainly precedents of authoritarian regimes succeeding. Singapore’s Lee Kwan Yew, Taiwan’s Chiang Kai-shek, South Korea’s Park Chung-Hee, China’s Deng Xiaoping—and successors like Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao.
So is authoritarianism a viable contender for political success?
Here’s why I don’t think so:
1. You can’t grow past a certain level without freedom of speech.
2. And once you have freedom of speech, you can’t avoid democracy.
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Growth Requires Freedom of Speech
For a simple reason: You can’t improve what you can’t criticize. You need to be able to look at something and say: This doesn’t work.
If you can’t criticize something, you can’t identify problems, so you can’t solve them.This is what freedom of speech does: It allows people to criticize how things work. It identifies problems, so it leads to more rapid progress.
But in an authoritarian rule, you can’t! Remember what China did to the doctor who sounded the alarm on COVID, how they shut him down? How they silenced Jack Ma for challenging the government through tech wealth and power? How the state controls the media in countries like Russia?
The results are obvious. It took the Chinese government too long to respond to the growing COVID crisis. By the time it did, it was too late. Luckily, fighting COVID early on is the type of problem that benefits from intense governmental coordination. In other words: China had a hard time identifying the problem and only acknowledged it—begrudgingly—once it exploded in their face. However, the Chinese government was well suited to solve it then, because strong governments are ideally suited for strict measures like non-pharmaceutical interventions.
The inability to identify and tackle problems is the biggest handicap of severely restricted speech. Here’s another example: In Russia, you can’t criticize the government overtly, or the powerful will penalize you—maybe even kill you. But since you can’t criticize the government, the government doesn’t know about the problems that exist! Listen to the Russian soldiers complaining about the system on social media. Their bosses lie to them, and to their own bosses, but they can’t say anything about it. They’re powerless. So they go to social media.
As the Russian government collapses, its ability to suppress these voices weakens, so we can see the rotten skeleton of the state more transparently. But the same rotten skeleton exists in China. We just don’t see it because the government suppresses dissenting voices more efficiently.
If this is true, then why do authoritarian countries grow?
Most don’t. Many African countries are authoritarian. So are countries like Burma, Iran, or Afghanistan. The few authoritarian regimes that do grow do so despite authoritarianism. But then why do they grow?
Because they catch up.
All these stories of authoritarian growth are about taking very poor countries and making them less poor. That is easy because rich countries have paved the way, and it’s possible to simply copy what they’re doing well.
Look at all these countries.
The lines represent the countries’ GPD per capita as a share of the US’. The colored overlay corresponds to the phases when they were authoritarian.
Many of them grew during their authoritarian phase: Spain, Portugal, South Korea, Taiwan… But all began in extreme poverty and opened up to the US while they were still authoritarian, taking investment and best practices from it.
Then many of them transitioned to democracies. Some of them kept growing, like South Korea and Taiwan. Others also continued, but at a slower pace—countries like Spain or Portugal. Note that when they joined the European Union in the early 80s they started growing fast again.
China has been an authoritarian regime for all this time and didn’t grow, then started growing, and has slowed down again. It grew the fastest during its most liberal years, between Deng Xiaoping and Hu Jintao.
Meanwhile, Singapore has been pretty authoritarian all this time, but nowhere near as authoritarian as China, it’s a city-state, and it’s uniquely well managed. No lesson can be drawn from their example except “If you’re a geostrategically important city-state, a world-class, benevolent, freedom-appreciating authoritarian regime can be really good for you”.
Another reason why the economies of authoritarian regimes grow early on is because they are more effective at implementing decisive policies, but those same policies prove unsustainable in the long run as there is a growing incentive to extract money from society which in turn leads to less prosperity.
In other words: Some authoritarian regimes grow early on, as long as they’re catching up with other countries. Because when you’re dirt poor, it’s easy to see what your richer neighbor has invented and copy it while keeping authoritarianism. What you can’t do is invent it yourself. Because invention requires challenging the status quo, and every citizen in an authoritarian regime knows that is something you can never do.
Every single one of these countries stopped growing as an authoritarian regime, and either converted into a democracy or stayed poor. In other words: The only authoritarian regimes to ever grow past a certain level of wealth are some extreme outliers.
If you look at the top 40 richest countries in the world and eliminate all the petro-states, you only have 3 outliers, all closer to city-states than countries: Macao and Hong Kong, which are part of China but were successful thanks to their time before China, and Singapore, which is among the most free authoritarian regimes you can see!
And these are the best-managed authoritarians. If instead you look at countries like Venezuela, Russia, or Saudi Arabia, what you see is that they could only grow thanks to natural resources. Their political system had nothing to do with economic success.
So you do need freedom of speech to grow because otherwise you can’t challenge the status quo. That was our first point. Now the second: Once you have freedom of speech, you get other freedoms.
Freedom of Speech Gives Other Freedoms
Because if you can criticize, you can influence people’s attention. People love criticism! That’s what newspapers and social media peddle day in, day out: People complain, others pay attention, and then they demand action. If grievances continue but no action is taken, people start talking to each other, organizing, gathering power, and forcing change. That’s why all the countries that limit speech also limit social gatherings. Speech means people, and people are power. The more grievances people have, and the more they’re corrected, the more freedom they get. Because one of the core grievances for humans is the restriction of freedoms.
So now we have both steps: Beyond a certain point, you need freedom of speech to get economic growth, but once you have the freedom of speech, you also get other freedoms. You can’t have economic development to the edge of human possibilities without the freedom.
The Myth of the Productive Dictator
In summary, I’m saying that countries with the most freedoms are also the most successful, and the only reason that’s not obvious is because authoritarian regimes hide it. If all of this was true, what would we see?
Wealth and freedom should go hand in hand.
Authoritarian regimes should consistently grow less than equivalent democracies.
The perception of authoritarian productivity should show holes the moment media suppression weakens.
All these things are true indeed.
1. Wealth = Freedom
Indeed, the more democratic a country, the richer it is.
This is not just a correlation. It’s not money that gives you freedom—or else you could walk naked on Saudi Arabia’s beaches. It’s freedom that gives you money.
It’s no surprise that there’s a very strong correlation between personal freedom and economic freedom.
Freedom of speech goes hand in hand with other personal and economic freedoms.
Some research shows that the main mechanism advancing this effect is better institutions, which reduce corruption, and increase growth. Some other research found that democracy has a strong and significant indirect effect on growth: Democracy is associated with higher human capital accumulation, lower inflation, lower political instability, and higher economic freedom.
2. Authoritarian Regimes vs. Comparables
Wherever you look at pairs of similar countries where one government was authoritarian and the other wasn’t, the freer country is consistently richer:
Taiwan is 5x richer than China on a per capita basis.
South Korea is 24x richer than North Korea.
In 1975, just as Spain and Portugal were leaving their dictatorships, they were 38% poorer than France, Germany, Italy, and the UK. The difference is only about 25% now.
Despite its huge size advantage, China is actually a laggard in its region. Most other surrounding democracies have done better: Taiwan, South Korea, Malaysia, Thailand… The only one that has clearly underperformed it is the Philippines.
3. The Holes in the Myth
People said during Mussolini’s regime in Italy that “At least now trains run on time”. They didn’t. But authoritarians live off of this type of myth.
The hole in the myth has been most obvious in Russia in 2022. It started the year as a feared military and intelligence power. But while the US intelligence services exposed Russia’s invasion plan to the world, Ukrainian social-media dexterity has overshadowed Russia’s, and Ukraine’s military is wiping the floor with Russia’s. The Russian incompetence is glaring, from unusable equipment to lies across the command chain. The moment we scratched the façade of the myth, the house of cards fell.
The recent turmoil in Iran is another great example. Without murderous repression, its population rebels. And now, even with that repression, the population is saying enough, and social media gets flooded with videos of Iranians clamoring for more freedom.
But the biggest beneficiary of this authoritarian myth is China. Its fans gawk at its efficiency—but don’t connect it to its dark side: the fall of its real-estate industry, of its tech industry, of its education industry… These things go hand in hand. It’s no surprise that China publishes impressive GDP growth data that are false, as studies looking at the growth in night lights have shown.
The freer a country, the truer their growth numbers. Authoritarian regimes are compelled to lie
And now reality is catching up with fiction.
So summarizing, freedom of speech drives both economic growth and helps generate other freedoms, despite what authoritarian regimes would prefer to convey.
What does it mean for you for the future?
First: We shouldn’t be so scared of China. It will keep growing, but at some point its growth measured in GDP per capita will slow down to the level of the rest of the world’s—if it hasn’t already. It might still become the biggest economy in the world, but not because its citizens are the richest, simply because they’re the most.
Until now. India’s population has probably surpassed China’s.
And although India doesn’t benefit from China’s efficient government, and has lots of regulations, it still has substantially more freedom than China. That freedom costs it in the short term, but is an asset in the long term. Eventually, it will surpass China in GDP per capita. It’s a matter of time. It will take decades, but it will happen.
The consequence is that for the developed world, it matters much more to befriend India than to antagonize China.
Also, we should fight the growth of authoritarianism in the world, but we shouldn’t have an existential fear of it. The USSR lost to the USA because of freedom. It might take more or less time, but authoritarian regimes will lag so far behind that most of them will eventually transition to a liberal democracy.
Really interesting analysis and I hope you're right. Would be interesting to see how income inequality maps on to these variables. GDP per capita doesn't provide an accurate picture if much of a country's wealth is held by a small percentage of the population, as in the US and Russia. Some analysts have suggested that our high level of economic inequality is a factor in why parts of the population devalue democracy.
Another weakness of authoritarian systems is that leaders do not get reliable information from their bureaucracy out of fear of punishment for reporting bad news. This overlaps with, but is not the same, as free speech. We saw this in the initial reporting on covid in China as you said, and it helps explain why Putin's invasion of Ukraine has fared so badly. Given the critical importance of reliable information to economies and governance of large countries, this seems like a fatal weakness of autocracies that create a climate of fear among their bureaucracies.
You need freedom of speech and the ability to criticise or you crash and burn. Literally. Speaking to pilots, they tell me they would never fly on airlines belonging to authoritarian countries because if something goes wrong, you are unable to pass it up the chain of command due to it being perceived as criticism.
Plane engine on fire. Can't tell the pilot because I can't criticise him. Plus they have been indoctrinated to think that their superiors always know best.
Authoritarianism and restricting free speech, always leads to crash and burn.