Sixty years ago, Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman gave a series of lectures at Wabash College that inspired one the most famous works in his oeuvre: “Capitalism and Freedom.”
In this small but powerful volume, Friedman asserted principles of limited government and decentralized power, enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, as essential to preserving freedom. He also explained that while “economic freedom is … an indispensable means toward the achievement of political freedom,” political freedom is not essential to attaining economic freedom.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about Friedman’s conclusion that a country could be both capitalist and undemocratic in the context of China’s rise as a 21st-century economic power. Does this mean that today’s experts are right when they warn that the Communist Party’s model of “authoritarian capitalism” could triumph over democratic capitalism?
Or is there something unsustainable in the China model and, therefore, still hope that billions of people in the developing world might come to experience what Friedman called the “absence of coercion” in both political and economic life?
A growing list of specialists is trying to understand the effect of China’s arrangement. In a 2013 Atlantic article, journalist Joshua Kurlantzik gave one of the best descriptions I have seen of the China model of “authoritarian capitalism” and why the United States should be worried.
China’s “hybrid form of capitalism,” he writes, has produced strong economic growth and lifted millions out of poverty while retaining strong government controls. It also has gained adherents from Vietnam to Russia and beyond who are making the China model a “viable alternative to the leading democracies,” as Kurlantzik puts it. This, he says, poses “the most serious threat to capitalism since the rise of communism and fascism.”
Democratic capitalism’s days might be numbered, but I believe there is still evidence and opportunity to the contrary, including in China.
First, China might have authoritarianism down to an art, but it’s far from capitalist. In fact, use of the term “capitalist,” authoritarian or otherwise, masks how little China’s economy has actually liberalized.
In the two decades that the Wall Street Journal and the Heritage Foundation have published their annual economic freedom index, China has consistently been in the tier of countries considered “mostly unfree.”
Of the 10 economic freedoms the study tracks, only China’s scores for trade freedom, monetary freedom and freedom from corruption have improved over the period. All the rest have regressed to varying degrees. They include scores for private property rights, free flow of investment capital, and freedom from government control in the financial sector.
The real issue, I think, is whether this model can last.
In the short term, China has prioritized state-led projects to boost a flagging economy and reach President Xi Jinping’s growth targets. For now, that strategy still appears to be working, with growth rates this year expected to exceed 6.5 percent. Yet some analysts are warning that bubbles could burst in 2017, threatening not just growth but overall economic stability.
In the long term, even some of China’s own leaders acknowledge that further liberalization is needed to sustain the growth of such a massive economy. If that’s the case, then political liberalization might still have a chance.
Second, China’s economic success hasn’t completely squashed the desires of the Chinese people for greater freedom. Take China’s growing middle class, which is an estimated 11 percent of the population. According to Minxin Pei of Claremont McKenna College, China “is not facing an imminent middle-class revolt … (but) the writing is on the wall.”
Already, protests are on the rise over issues like land and labor rights. This includes China’s urban areas, where the middle-class is concentrated. More and more, they know that China cannot modernize with one-party rule.
Third, the United States can either accept the dominance of the China model as inevitable or do something about it. There’s a role for U.S. leadership to reassert principles of economic and political freedom and to strengthen global institutions and alliances that reflect them. There’s also a role for U.S. leadership to expect improvements from countries in areas like rule of law, human rights, even political participation in return for stronger economic relations.
Recent openings to Iran and Cuba fall short of this mark. Neither does the protectionist, anti-trade rhetoric coming from both major parties in the United States bode well for the democratic capitalist model. Still, the United States must press for both economic and political freedom.
In a 2003 interview, the now-late Friedman predicted that “China will move increasingly toward political freedom if it continues its successful movement for economic freedom.” For now, the momentum may be against that happening, but it’s still too soon to declare defeat.