The pandemic doesn’t prove the superiority of Asian countries

Authoritarian or quasi-authoritarian Asian states are handling the coronavirus pandemic better than the West. However, this does not automatically mean that Western democracy is weak — says Professor James A. Robinson, an economist from the University of Chicago.
The pandemic doesn’t prove the superiority of Asian countries

(© James Robinson)

ObserwatorFinansowy: You wrote in your book, that liberty exists only in a “narrow corridor”. What does it mean?

James A. Robinson: This relates to the corridor between the power of the state and the power of the society. In North Korea, we have a strong state and a powerless society. In Yemen, on the other hand, we have a weak, divided, and dysfunctional state, but also a powerless society. The narrow corridor for liberty arises between despotism and lawlessness, where a strong, but not all-powerful state serves the creation of a strong society.

The book was published before the coronavirus pandemic broke out. What does that corridor look like today, when our freedoms are being limited in order to combat the disease?

Well, this depends on a state. Asia, and in particular China, has chosen a different path than Europe. They introduced some really restrictive measures. Europe, on the other hand, adopted a more liberal approach, yet also took exceptional emergency measures. The question is whether such a narrowing of the corridor as the one we see in China could also work for us. I believe that it probably wouldn’t. China is applying draconian measures not because it is the optimal strategy, but because the country isn’t able to act differently and it also cannot act in any other way as the Communist party does not enjoy the confidence of the Chinese people. They wouldn’t cooperate voluntarily, and they wouldn’t follow the recommendations for the lockdown to the necessary extent.

However, China is getting back to normal. Is it possible that this pandemic “authoritarianism” has proved to be an effective way to quickly broaden the corridor of liberty, whereas, paradoxically, the European liberalism has condemned us to suffer months of paralysis and quasi-freedom?

Similar concerns were being expressed in the United Kingdom in the times of the First World War. At the beginning of the war, Germany seemed poised for victory. It was perfectly organized, and in practice it also wasn’t a democracy. The country was run by the army, which remained under the influence of generals Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff. On the other hand, the United Kingdom was a democracy in which most of groups could express their opinion publicly and influence public policy, where each topic was hotly debated which often involved a decision-making deadlock. Many Britons believed that it would be better to import certain solutions from the Weimar Republic, and to introduce “iron hand rule” at least for the duration of the war. This wasn’t done, but in the end it was Germany that lost the war. Democracy — even though it is chaotic and dominated by endless chatter — proved to be more flexible than the alternative authoritarian systems, which did not admit to mistakes, did not accept change, and which tried to suppress any voices advocating for reforms or organizational changes.

China acted in the same way. Before the information about numerous cases of COVID-19 flashed around the world the Chinese authorities tried to suppress voices warning about the virus.


Tomasz Wróblewski, a Polish economic columnist, pointed out that if China were a democratic country, the world would have learnt about the threat much faster and would have been able to react more efficiently. And now you see what we have?

This is also true. But we also need to keep in mind that the Western countries’ reaction to the pandemic was and still is far from perfect. It’s been chaotic and muddled. And that is no longer China’s fault. This can be partly justified by the fact that we haven’t had a real, large-scale pandemic for more than a century. Meanwhile, the epidemics that did occur, such as the Ebola, were relatively short-lived. This is not a sufficient excuse, however. This lack of foresight shows the weakness of Western nations.

Or at least weaknesses of their elites. It turned out that Western democracies are less meritocratic than Asian countries. The pandemic threat was looming on the horizon, but nothing was done. Meanwhile, the Asians were preparing contingency plans just in case.

Still, I think we should refrain from judging whose reactions are better until the pandemic is over. At the very least, we should refrain from claiming that meritocratic autocracy is better than democracy. Viruses come and go. They cause disruptions and then the situation eventually gets back to normal. This has been the case for centuries. Therefore, maybe it is not worth making our political regime more restrictive just because another virus has appeared. Besides, we shouldn’t lump together countries such as South Korea, Taiwan, or China. These countries differ in terms of political legitimacy. What’s more, people who claim that the present single-party system allows China to implement effective management fail to recognize that this country used to be known for its effective public administration even in the imperial era. China had developed a unique way of formation and selection of elites due to a combination of specific historical circumstances. The Communist Party simply inherited this system and started taking credit for it in its propaganda.

Since the 2008 crisis we’ve been involved in a never-ending discussion whether we should be moving toward greater democracy or meritocracy. Asian countries are being brought up as examples in this discussion. You’re saying that Asians do not have a meritocratic model, and they have simply been lucky due to their history.

You could say so. Additionally, I don’t believe there is inherent conflict between meritocracy and democracy. Experts could make our democracy stronger, not weaker. Unless we fire them, as it has been the case in the United States. The Trump administration simply cut the funding of programs devoted to combating epidemic threats. Trump is guided by a libertarian conviction that a small government is a good government, and this belief is currently proving to be destructive.

He seems to be a rather naive libertarian in this regard. Many representatives of this movement believe that protection against events such as epidemics is the same as protection against aggression — one of the fundamental tasks of the state.

Unfortunately, Trump is destroying democratic institutions, and that is a problem. He doesn’t seem to understand that democracy is better than alternative systems. Democracy builds better roads, it is better at resolving disputes, it educates and treats its citizens better, and it enables them to get richer faster. Of course, it is not a perfect system. There are better and worse models. Let’s take the Americas as an example. After these continents were discovered, the colonizers started off with more or less the same level of development, facing the same problems. History shows that North America created more efficient and effective institutions. One of the key features in the American system is that it protects us from bad elites. Believe me, Trump is not the worst president in history. We’ve had worse leaders, and our democracy has survived. Democracy can get unlucky with a prime minister or a president, but will survive them. This is not the case with authoritarian systems. If a destructive individual is a leader in such a system, this could have catastrophic consequences for the state and the people. Who can guarantee that in some time China will not experience another Cultural Revolution or another Great Leap Forward similar to the one ordered by Mao? No one can. Moreover, I believe that sooner or later something like that is bound to happen. The functioning of the Chinese system is not geared towards the welfare of the society, but towards the welfare of the elites. Today, they are getting along with each other, but what will happen tomorrow?

You’re not a libertarian.


So why do you feel the need to write about liberty and think about its future?

We wanted to move beyond the traditional economic discourse, which is focused on the tangible measures of prosperity, and liberty is one of those intangible values that people value the most. We mean liberty as defined in John Locke’s work “The Second Treatise on Government”, that is, the ability to pursue self-fulfillment provided that this does not interfere with the liberty of others.

On the other hand, you talk about the state’s capacity to take action as a necessary factor to build a strong democracy. Isn’t there a conflict between these two values?

We must not forget that individuals cannot do everything on their own. The state has to provide public goods and the pandemic shows that health is one the them. What is more, today it is clear that this particular area may even require global governance, because without international cooperation it will be difficult to resolve this crisis.

And this is where the role of the individual diminishes.

In a certain sense. It’s possible that in the current situation people will realize just how many things are beyond their control, and how important it is to cooperate. Maybe this will teach them not treat such measures as an intrusion into the sphere of liberty. As we wrote in our book “Why nations fail?” [with Daron Acemoğlu], crises can be a source of social change and they can shape and reshape beliefs and institutions. The period of world wars changed, among others, the meaning of the social contract, which made it possible for social democracy to flourish. After the post-war times it ceased to be something controversial, a new type of society was born. The pandemic could lead people to develop additional layers of solidarity with others, and could lead them to understand how important it is to provide high-quality public goods for everyone. It is possible that it will make declining institutions, such as the European Union, regain their vigor. It is possible that the United States will reverse their move towards isolationism in international politics, which has been observed under Trump’s rule.

You are critical of the belief that “a good government is a small government”. Does this mean that a big government is a good government?

For many years I’ve been working on various development projects in sub-Saharan Africa, where the governments are small and bad. There are no roads in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a country which is the size of Western Europe. But at least taxes are low, right? And where do we see good governments? In Norway, Germany, the United Kingdom, Sweden, countries where governments are big, and where taxes are much higher.

Let’s raise taxes in the Congo, and it will be as wealthy as Europe?

No! God forbid, this is not what I meant to say. I’m an institutional economist and as such I oppose such simplifications. Building a strong, efficient state is a very long process. However, as a starting point the state should direct its efforts towards the welfare of the citizens, including both their security and liberty, because both these values depend on each other. You cannot have freedom without security and vice versa, but you also cannot have security and freedom without good public institutions. Everything is interdependent here. A government can focus its efforts on the welfare of citizens only if citizens have control over the government, and this is truly the greatest achievement of modern democracies.

The number of such democracies is growing at a rapid pace. Pretty soon, the entire world could be more or less democratic. Is democratization a sign of progress?

The number of democracies is growing, that’s a fact, but this is not the metric I use to measure progress. I look at the quality of the system and its institutions. In Venezuela we had democracy before Hugo Chavez and Nicolás Maduro, but it was so corrupt and weak that it caused enormous public discontent. In the statistics it was recognized as a democracy, but was that an indication of any real progress? No, because that democracy sowed the seeds of today’s crisis. Then there’s another thing. When talking about progress I refer to the material aspect. However, it is not expressed in terms of GDP growth, but in terms of human sovereignty. I have a PhD student from the Philippines who was forced to work on his family farm in his youth. Over the past 20 years we have seen the disappearance of various forms of forced labor, and for me this is a measure of progress. Unfortunately, progress is neither given for granted or certain to happen. The entire 19th century and the early 20th century were a time of progress, but then we had totalitarian regimes and wars.

Getting back to the problems related to the pandemic, do you fear about the future of humanity?

I’m not afraid of the virus, but of economic problems. I’m more afraid of a run on the banks and of inflation, which may occur in the future, than of SARS-CoV-2 killing me.

So, the economists won’t save the world? But so many rescue plans are going to be implemented.

And it’s probably necessary, but I’m not a macroeconomist and I wouldn’t want to speak on this subject.

Do you think economists should focus on describing the world as it is, or should they also be attempting to change it?

They should focus on the descriptions. I don’t think they have the competencies necessary to organize society. Their way of looking at the world is too narrow, too materialistic. Material well-being is important, but it is not the only thing that matters. Working in Africa, among the poor, I can see, for example, that social ties are much more valued there than in affluent Western countries, while material things are less valued. I support this attitude.

James A. Robinson is an economist and professor at the University of Chicago.

(© James Robinson)

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