We hear every day how we need to get tough for our new cold war with China. The unstated subtext is that threats and bluster are the “getting tough” that’s going to win. In fact we know exactly what won the last Cold War. It’s worth paying attention to what that was.
The dynamism of our economy won the last cold war. Our technological base reinvented itself many times over, and the top down economy of the USSR just couldn’t match it. There were many individual factors behind the collapse—low growth, corrupt state enterprises, spending on defense, oil price collapse, Chernobyl. But what it all came down to is that the Soviet economy collapsed because it just couldn’t find the resources to keep up.
Many factors made the difference—the historical strengths of the United States:
– A free market for new technologies. A venture capital industry supported by anti-trust enforcement to protect new companies from powerful old ones.
– The US as world’s best destination for entrepreneurs from everywhere to realize their dreams.
– Openness to ideas from everywhere and active participation in international organizations of all kinds.
– Government support for pure research–to be on the forefront as new developments translated to opportunities.
– Expanding equality of opportunity, so ideas can come from everywhere.
The USSR had a well-trained population of elite engineers and scientists, but ultimately they couldn’t compete with the ability of the US model to reinvent itself and grow.
What can we say about the current situation with China? There are three points:
- The rise of China actually followed the US model.
One part of this is familiar—China invested in its people: education, infrastructure, health care, etc. The regime tolerated no disagreements, but it put money (as we used to) into the environment necessary for success.
However the bigger part is less-discussed—what kicked off the Chinese miracle was an accidental surge of free enterprise. As a weakening of collective economic control, Chinese municipalities were freed to carry out their own businesses once obligations to the state had been met. That minor bit of freedom took over the economy. Independent municipal businesses became dominant to the point that they dwarfed the hugely-corrupt state-run enterprises. Municipal businesses grew into the independent private sector.
- Under Xi, China is abandoning that approach in favor of a return to central planning and control.
Xi is a princeling—a child of former revolutionaries brought up to believe he was born to rule. All of his recent actions have been directed at crushing independent forces in the Chinese economy. Appointments have been based on loyalty above all.
China is back to the old Soviet and Chinese world of massive state enterprises and a dictated economy. That won’t change the immediate future, but we have no reason to despair of our ability to compete.
- Under Trump we are similarly abandoning our strengths.
Trump, like Xi, is an autocrat who view himself as the all-encompassing genius who needs to run everything. He picks winners and losers with tariffs. He awards exceptions to supporters. He ignores real problems (such as Covid) that he doesn’t want to deal with. Job appointments are based on loyalty over competence. Every one of the listed US strengths is at risk:
– New enterprises are sacrificed to the existing powers that be.
– Xenophobia and nativism are pushing entrepreneurs elsewhere.
– Global participation is discouraged.
– Science is discredited and only mainstream technologies (e.g. AI) or Trump whims are funded. Climate change can’t even be mentioned.
– A political strategy of divisiveness means we’re fighting internally rather than drawing on everyone for progress.
We didn’t beat the Russians by mimicking their authoritarian control and top-down economy. We won because they couldn’t compete with our ability to reinvent ourselves over and over again. We have that opportunity today, but we’re losing it to the false god of dictatorship.
Democracy is not a nicety but the core of our success.
Dictatorships lose. All-powerful leaders make disastrous mistakes that cannot be remedied. They can ignore the well-being of the population. They create massive corruption that cannot be contained. All these tendencies are visible today (Covid alone shows several), and the effect is—as always—accelerating.
We still like to talk about the power of democracy and free markets, but both are slipping away. Voter suppression is an openly-discussed goal. Anti-trust enforcement has effectively ceased to exist. The power of corporate lobbyists has starved the public sector (including infrastructure of all kinds) and defended the economic status quo against all comers.
Our problems today are not weaknesses of democracy but an indication of how far we’ve strayed from it. There’s no reason to despair for our competition with China—or for the country generally. It’s just a sign we have to get back to doing what we’ve always done best.