Can authoritarianism ever be justified?
The UK is currently grappling with a third wave of the Covid-19 epidemic. China, on the other hand, has been more successful in containing the disease. In fact, the country has so far managed to avoid a second wave. And with fewer than 6,000 deaths from Covid-19, China’s performance puts many democratic countries to shame.
Comparing the performance of a country often referred to as authoritarian to the somewhat less impressive performance of many established democracies gives rise to a conundrum. A major objection to authoritarian regimes is that they tend not to work for the people, whereas a democracy, the argument goes, can ensure that a government serves all citizens and not just partisan interests. As Abraham Lincoln said in his Gettysburg address, democracy is government by the people and for the people. Authoritarianism, on the contrary, is neither government by the people nor for the people. Call it the “service” objection against authoritarianism.
There is no doubt that good government works for its people. Good government helps its citizens to thrive – ideally not at the expense of citizens of other countries, but in cooperation with them and with the interests of future generations in mind. A bad government, on the other hand, sacrifices the interests of its citizens to satisfy the greed of a small elite.
But is a democratic government always best placed to work for the people, or does working for the people sometimes help bypass democratic control? It’s a puzzle worth solving in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, and there is reason to believe the picture is more complicated than the services objection to the government suggests. authoritarianism.
At the onset of the pandemic, governments around the world were pressured to “follow the science” and introduce highly coercive measures to protect their citizens from disease. Most implemented the recommendations with some form of lockdown, some (like New Zealand) faster than others (like the UK). Governments that were more willing to rely on scientific advice appear to have done better than those that were not.
In terms of containing the spread of the disease in the country, China’s response has been one of the most successful in the world. Once the epidemic of a new coronavirus was established, Chinese authorities drew on their medical and political expertise to design and implement strategies to limit the disease. A combination of top-down decision-making mechanisms and the institutional power to ruthlessly enforce those decisions has led to a set of policies – including a strict lockdown of the Wuhan city epicenter and the separation of families in health centers. quarantine – which have been described as “brutal but effective”. As a result, China has managed to avoid the high death toll and long, drawn-out restrictions seen in countries like the UK.
The Covid-19 case thus shows that, contrary to what the service objection suggests, authoritarian regimes can work for the people. Why is that? An important part of the explanation is that democracy is not always necessary to identify the best way forward. Good government sometimes stems from deference to an undemocratic authority – in this case, the authority of scientists with expertise in how to handle a pandemic. What justified the containment at the start of the pandemic was above all that it was the right decision at the time, not just any democratic pedigree. Any government that wants to implement the decisions necessary to protect its people – as long as it also has the means to implement them effectively – can succeed.
But we should not conclude that the service objection to authoritarianism is overstated. The reason this objection must be taken seriously lies in the political culture that authoritarian regimes like China tend to create.
Democracy is not just about elections and occasional referendums. Without a broader democratic culture, elections and referendums mean little and are compatible with electoral autocracies. For a regime to be fully democratic, democratic decision-making must be rooted in a political culture that encourages active citizen participation, tolerates dissent, and holds political leaders to account. An authoritarian political culture, on the other hand, generally limits political participation and removes accountability from any emerging opposition.
[See also: China’s income inequality is among the world’s worst]
The political situation at the start of the Covid-19 epidemic was exceptional in many ways. One of the hallmarks of this situation was the overwhelmingly strong evidence of what governments needed to do to contain the pandemic. It is this characteristic, combined with the serious threat that the pandemic posed, and continues to pose, that legitimized the introduction of highly coercive measures.
Yet political decision-making usually takes place under very different circumstances. The normal case in politics is when there is not strong enough evidence to warrant authoritarian control. People may have strong opinions about what government should do, but there are just as opposing views. In addition, we often do not have access to an independent standard to decide between opposing points of view. Each party claims to have access to information or ideas that the other lacks, with no common standard to assess their respective merits.
A government that works for the people is generally sensitive to well-founded opposing views and supports an inclusive political culture that encourages free public scrutiny of government actions. John Stuart Mill made this point in On freedom long before the great expansion of democracies in the twentieth century. Mill warned that a government that tries to limit political scrutiny could miss important advice on what to do.
In the context of Covid-19, for example, China’s information stronghold has been blamed for a slow response to critical reports from medical scientists on a new coronavirus. Meanwhile, China has also been accused of blocking international scrutiny of the investigation into the origins of the virus. A more open international cooperation approach could have helped prevent a pandemic. More generally, if there are opposing views on a particular political issue, free debate is needed to identify valid concerns on either side. And as Mill argued, staying open to opposing views helps prevent the emergence of a dogmatic culture that could become a breeding ground for disinformation and false beliefs.
More recently, Amartya Sen has argued that centralized political regimes tend to be less sensitive to well-founded opposing views than more decentralized political regimes, and that this works to their detriment. One of Sen’s important studies shows that famines have so far only occurred in countries without a free press.
Philosopher Elizabeth Anderson also pointed out that in order to dispel false political beliefs and make it easier to make good political decisions, it is important to engage with the political ideas of those who disagree with us. And as his fellow philosopher Olúfémi O Táíwò made clear, to avoid the grip of the elites in political decision-making, the political debate must be actively inclusive and respond to concerns that are poorly represented in the mainstream politics.
The problem, then, with authoritarian governments, or democratic governments with authoritarian tendencies, is not the type of control they exercise over political decision-making as such. This type of control can sometimes be necessary to allow the government to make the right decisions. Rather, the problem is that they create a culture that limits public scrutiny of political decisions, which undermines their ability to work for the people at large.
[See also: Do capitalism and democracy go together?]
Years before Donald Trump came to power, commentators on American politics had pointed out that the Republican Party was on a path of exclusion from the political opposition. As conservative thinkers Thomas E Mann and Norman J Ornstein wrote in an important article in the Washington post in 2012, it “became an insurgent outlier in American politics. It is ideologically extreme; despising compromise; insensitive to conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and disregarding the legitimacy of its political opposition.
In the UK, the Conservative Party has also been accused of avoiding scrutiny, when, for example, it tried to limit political debate on the Brexit bill in parliament. In other European countries, but also in India, the fundamental institutions of a democratic political culture are also being eroded.
Democracy may not always be necessary to ensure that governments work for the people, as the pandemic has shown. Yet the weakening of democratic political cultures we are witnessing today is concerning, as good government cannot be sustained without public scrutiny of the policy proposals and actions of political leaders.
Fabienne Peter is professor of philosophy at the University of Warwick. She is the author of “Democratic legitimacy ”, and she tweets @annefabpeter.
This article is part of Agora series, a collaboration between the “New Statesman ”and Aaron James Wendland, Principal Philosophy Fellow at Massey College, Toronto. He tweets @aj_wendland.