550. A slide into autocracy
There is much warning against the. external threat of autocracies such as China, Russia, Turkey, Brasil, Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, etc. , but the real threat comes from inside, in an internal slide into autocracy. I see three causes of it.
The first cause is cultural. Citizens have gravitated en masse to a self-centred, hedonistic life style of consumption as a perceived right,. a right not only to an opinion, but also the right to be right, regardless of arguments, on the basis of counterfactual conspiracy theories and fake news, claiming that every opinion is as good as any other. Arguments on the basis of facts and science are branded as part of one’s pet conspiracy. Above all, disastrous for democracy, one has lost the civic duty of contributing to society, and listening to opinions and arguments of people with contrary opinions, and respect them.
A second cause is a systemic failure of unmanageable complexity facing limited budgets and civil service capacity. These are the problems of institutional crowding, and the dilemma of benevolence and justice, which I discussed before, in this blog.
A third cause is the perverse lure of autocratic leadership. Many people are ripe for autocracy, in their admiration of the decisiveness and speed of its decisions, in contrast with the bumbling indecisiveness and problem avoidance and the ineffective to and fro of government and opposition in a parliamentary democracy. The readiness for autocracy is often enhanced by the projected safety and sense of belonging of nationalism. Apparently, people are blind to its loss of free elections and freedom of expression and association.
Currently, every measure taken for the sake of society is met with vociferous blocking by interest groups, in the face of their having to accept a fall of prosperity or established ways of life. Think of measures for protection of the environment, with repercussions for farmers and fishers, reduction of traffic, for reducing congestion and emissions, for alomst everone. How many more roads can one build before the whole country is road. A stiff price for CO2 emission will greatly raise prices of airline travel, blocking associated holiday travel. The current congestion of Schiphol airport near Amsterdam hardly deters consumers to fly, and is now leading to court injunctions to maintain, i.e. increase capacity. Scarcity of energy will force people to isolate their homes, which only the well to do can afford. And so on.
One can now object that in the past the progress of knowledge and technology, together with the dynamics of markets, have solved many problems of scarcity and coordination, and will do so again.
Will there not be technological fixes to ameliorate the problems? Indeed, the problem is not inevitable, but the solutions one can think of are not primarily technological
A major fix would be to resist the accumulation of wishes citizens claim to have a right to, and to make regulations fewer and simpler, and with that more vulnerable to misuse. Will people accept this, or will discontent rise to the point of uprisings and sabotage? Culture will have to change, in a re-emergence of civic responsibility, in order to make room for policy for the good of society. That is a matter of education and upbringing, which will not happen soon, if ever. Increasingly. measures will have to be imposed on farmers, fishers, car drivers, holidaymakers using air travel, obese people, drug users, and compulsory inoculation against new viruses that will emerge. Since no parliamentary majority will be found for such draconic measures, this will gravitate to an autocracy or junta.
I am not advocating this drift into autocracy, but see it as difficult to stop or divert.