Most Americans never seriously consider a dictator but every once in a while the idea is thrown out there. Considering the result of the election this week, the split chambers of Congress will likely produce very little meaningful legislation and a great deal of finger-pointing. During times of gridlock, when our country has myriad problems, and when we are completely underwhelmed with our choices for president, it can seem appealing to have a dictator that can cut through the red tape. Moreover, there is a sense of being morally self-righteous in condemning all the choices. While there are significant problems with just about every politician, and there is often gridlock in Washington, the foundation of American liberty and our system of government is still stronger than the alternatives…and this election outcome is great for America.
Nikolai Tolstoy wrote about the attractiveness of a monarchy: “Indeed, the modern history of Europe has shown that those countries fortunate enough to enjoy a king or queen as head of state tend to be more stable and better governed than most of the Continent’s republican states… No British statesman was more supportive of the colonists’ cause than Edmund Burke, yet none was more eloquent in defense of the benefits of Britain’s monarchy.”
He compares this to a strong man by pointing out that a monarchy has limits on its power. The advantage, he claims, is that it provides an important stabilizing influence. America’s government, for example, often changes every four or eight years, and when there is a decade-long problem such as the Cold War or Global War on Terror it can lead to precipitous withdrawals of soldiers (such as from Iraq in 2012) or investments in foreign wars (such as Vietnam in 1964). But British policy particularly during the end of the 19th century, had the opposite problem. They had a lack of change that hurt them in several areas. Long-ruling monarchs unaccountable to the people continued policies that were disastrous, such as the early part of the Boer War. The navy had trouble modernizing effectively, though they eventually did. The monarchy arguably prevented meaningful reform because they were not regularly facing elections. During roughly the same period in contrast, America was experiencing the vigorous leadership and reform of Theodore Roosevelt, who rode into office on a platform of reform and largely delivered.
Looking at Asia and political entanglement, Aaron Task praised the benefits of a strong man in China: “From Xi Jinping on down, China’s new leadership is trying to cool off the nation’s red-hot real estate sector, stem overall inflation, tackle rising income equality, curb corruption and make the economy more driven by domestic demand—all while managing China’s ever-important role in a still-sluggish global economy…China is holding up pretty well despite what’s happening in the rest of the word.”
This sounds nice, but the benefits of the Chinese system are not as great as the author makes it sound. China is suffering from a good deal of corruption. Without the accountability brought by a “messy” democracy, the anti-corruption task force is more like the muscle behind Xi’s rule. For example, even a high-level member of Interpol recently disappeared in China because of corruption charges. Government-directed investment often ignores market principles. This means that government investment in housing is creating a super bubble, with entire villages worth of houses still on the market. In America, we all know how the housing bubble turned out for us. People lived in homes that were suddenly worth far less than their mortgages, with mortgage payments that were increasing. The China policies sometimes look really amazing, but government-directed policies created a bubble that will dwarf American problems, and American people do better at removing corrupt politicians than an autonomous anti-corruption force that has become corrupted.
The temptation in having a dictator is not simply a foreign one. Even Detroit got an emergency manager with broad sweeping powers. When the city couldn’t keep the lights on, the police were so understaffed they took an hour to reach distressed callers, and there was so much red tape they had trouble demolishing abandoned houses. The new emergency powers from 2013-2014 allowed Kevyn Orr to slash almost seven billion dollars in debt and reinvest one billion-plus in projects scheduled for the next ten years.
This wasn’t without controversy as he had to unilaterally slash pension funds that many relied upon. If they were incredibly high and bankrupting the city, they were made in good faith and represented the retirements of many people. He also had to make decisions where investment would go without the normal input of the city council. It was also quite dangerous, as even a short-term emergency manager had the potential for turning into a long-term dictator, especially when his marginal success seems preferable to the messy and ineffectual democratic government.
In contrast to active government intervention and monarchies and dictators without proper checks, doing nothing can actually be a good thing. In this case, the Trump tax cuts are preferable over previous rates, and the economy is doing well and likely won’t have any wrenches thrown into it by government overreaction. Big solutions will have to be hammered out in bipartisan fashion. A large part of this gridlock was built into the system by the Founding Fathers in order to protect our liberty and save us from overactive government tyranny and micromanaging. All you have to do is look at a long list of failed, wasteful, inefficient, unfair, or corrupt government programs to realize that doing nothing is often preferred. That messy democracy can help modify or end stupid government policies and help prevent corruption. They protect the rights of Americans and hold politicians accountable.
The gridlock over the next two years seems frustrating to many Americans. But this gridlock can be a good thing and it’s better than the seemingly attractive alternatives we see around the world. As Winston Churchill once said, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”