The Spectacle Blog

Why Liberals Apologize for Autocracy

By on 10.13.11 | 6:37PM

There is only one thing worse than one-party autocracy, and that is one-party democracy, which is what we have in America today.

Salon's Michael Lind would do well to reflect on the quote above from liberal journalist Thomas Friedman, from an article praising Chinese authoritarianism. Because he's written a rambling tract entitled "Why Libartarians Apologize for Autocracy." In it, he bounces from "Milton Fridman helped Pinochet" ("shaky knowledge of history," there) to "John Stuart Mill was against universal suffrage" to "dismantling the welfare state isn't popular."

There is a lot wrong with this article, but we'll focus on the grandest of errors. After you get past the guilt-by-association broadsides, what it comes down to is that, for some reason, he considers autocracy to be inextricable from a small-government philosophy. And for some reason, for Lind, the only "pure" progressivism is one that wholeheartedly embraces democracy in all forms.

Never mind his colleague Friedman above; never mind Obama technocrat Peter Orszag and his recent column "Too Much of a Good Thing: Why we need less democracy." Never mind the intellectual history of the American Left's infatuation with authoritarianism. To Lind, those are all apostates, impure progressives who have betrayed "the cause." See how easy it is when you define down the purity of your own side?

Democracies produce policies that many individuals are going to think are sub-optimal, and Lind would agree. I'm sure that Lind would say that our democracy has produced a great number of policy failures. Libertarian and small-government policies usually do prove particularly unpopular, because people like it when taxpayer money is handed out to them. But democracies have proven the best and most stable governments in modern history, and that's not likely to change. Agreeing that a theoretical and impossible Platonic philosopher-king would produce the best policies doesn't make an authoritarian.

So, why do liberals apologize for autocracy? For the same reasons libertarians and conservatives do: sometimes they like the policies that come out of them. Don't make the same mistake that Lind does of conflating ill-advised admiration for wholehearted endorsement.

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