Authoritarian Capitalism

Nat O'Connor23/11/2009

Nat O'Connor: A Wall Street Journal article raises the question of whether authoritarian capitalism is a robust alternative to liberal democratic capitalism.

In the first ten years after the Berlin Wall fell, there was an initial rush of democratization, but since 1999 to 2009 there has not been an increase in the proportion of liberal democracies in the world (which remains at 46 percent). And countries such as China and Russia, as well as highly developed countries like Singapore, are examples of resilient authoritiarian regimes despite the fact that they adopted capitalist economic systems.

I think this is an important 'big picture' question. For example, it challenges the long-held assumption that global free trade with non-democratic regimes is OK. It was always assumed that internal prosperity and a growing middle class would lead to more freedoms and ultimately democracy in those countries. (Note, I wouldn't throw out this argument just yet, but it is open to challenge as the evidence develops).

One particularly interesting comment came from Prof. Francis Fukuyama. Talking about China's unexpected success at developing a capitalist economy while keeping one-party rule, Prof. Fukuyama said: "They've mastered economic development under authoritarian circumstances, and you can argue they've done it faster because they're authoritarian,"

If it is the case (and it's an 'if') that authoritarian regimes can be more effecient at capitalism than liberal democracies, than we perhaps need to make it very clear that we are not willing to sacrifice democratic freedoms for more efficiency. This may sound obvious, but it is not an argument that has been much discussed or fully articulated, because of the assumption that liberal democracies have the most efficient capitalist economies. That is, we've never had a situation where the indicators of capitalist success were in tension with the indicators of democratic strength.

Of course, the relative 'success' of capitalist economies around the world depends on how they are measured. And much of the success enjoyed by China and Russia may rely on GDP growth measures (which include for example polluting industries, resource depletion, arms manufacturing and poor labour conditions) rather than more nuanced socio-economic measurements. This in turn reinforces the arguments for finding and developing other ways of measuring economic performance and social progress, such as the recent work of Stiglitz, Sen and Foutoussi.

We may ultimately need alternatives to GDP, not just to direct our economies in a more progressive direction, but also to explain why we regulate capitalism to protect democracy.

Posted in: Democratic accountabilityEconomicsEurope

Tagged with: free market capitalismdemocracyglobalisation

Dr Nat O'Connor     @natpolicy

Nat O'Connor

Nat O’Connor is a member of the Institute for Research in Social Sciences (IRiSS) and a Lecturer of Public Policy and Public Management in the School of Criminology, Politics and Social Policy at Ulster University.

Previously Director of TASC, Nat also led the research team in Dublin’s Homeless Agency.

Nat holds a PhD in Political Science from Trinity College Dublin (2008) and an MA in Political Science and Social Policy form the University of Dundee (1998). Nat’s primary research interest is in how research-informed public policy can achieve social justice and human wellbeing. Nat’s work has focused on economic inequality, housing and homelessness, democratic accountability and public policy analysis. His PhD focused on public access to information as part of democratic policy making.


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