At the Manhattan Contrarian family dinner table the other day, the subject of conversation turned to this question: Should we be optimistic about the future of the United States? Good and valid points were made on both sides of the issue. But the most important point weighed for the side of optimism. That point was that, of all the countries in the world, the United States is the place where the people — rather than the government — really run the country. Here, more than anyplace else, people can pursue their own initiatives and dreams without the government having the ability to obstruct and stymie private efforts, and force resources into pathways chosen by elite government functionaries.
Why does this matter? It’s not complicated. From the perspective of aggregate economic performance, the simple answer is that a trial-and-error process with hundreds of millions of participants will come up with much better and more numerous solutions to human problems than the small number of the very smartest people with government authority can ever come up with. From the perspective of the individual, the answer is that the only worthwhile life to lead is the life of freedom, where you make your own choices and take responsibility for your own success or failure.
As Exhibit A of how personal freedom and autonomy from the government leads to better economic performance, consider the fracking revolution. At the time of Barack Obama’s election to the presidency in 2008, U.S. crude oil production had been dropping for decades, and had reached the level of barely 5 million barrels per day. President Obama had drunk the climate Kool Aid, and he and his administration made it a priority to keep oil production as low as possible in order, they thought, to “save the planet.”. They blocked drilling on federal lands, ceased granting offshore oil leases, refused permits for pipelines, issued negative environmental reviews, and otherwise did everything in their power to obstruct and stymie any and all new oil production and/or transmission. Yet by the time Obama left office in January 2017, U.S. crude oil production had soared to around 9 million barrels per day. The fact is that a presidential administration, under existing law, simply did not have the power to stop private actors from carrying the fracking revolution forward. (U.S. crude oil production has since further increased under the more energy-friendly Trump administration to 12.2 million barrels per day as of June 2019.)
In the U.S., private businesses are definitely subject to government regulation, principally over issues of health and safety. But on the fundamental questions of what goods and services to produce, and in what quantities, and what innovations to pursue, the private sector does not answer to the government. That is by far the main reason that the United States has been by far the world’s most successful country for the last century and more, and why there is every reason we should be optimistic that that will continue.
Now contrast the situation in the United States to that in China. After China introduced partial levels of economic freedom under Deng Xiaoping beginning in 1981, its economy took off. But the seeds of repression have never gone away, and since the ascension of Xi Jinping in 2013 those seeds have taken root and flourished. China is now the leader in using the tools of modern technology to implement a society of strict conformism, where no one can step even slightly out of line without being noticed and punished.
Likely you have at least some familiarity with some aspects of the growing surveillance state in China, from the pervasive security cameras to the “social credit” system that rewards those who constantly express their loyalty and subservience to the regime, and punishes those who don’t. The social credit system is scheduled for full implementation in 2020. Among things set to be allocated based on “social credit” ranking (i.e., conformism) are ability to travel, access to the best internet speeds, access to the best schools, access to the best jobs, and so forth.
In a piece titled “1984: China Edition” at National Interest on July 21, Doug Bandow gives many more examples of the rapidly increasing repression going on in China. Excerpts:
NGOs have been closed and websites have been deactivated. Internet censorship has been tightened. Those voicing unacceptable thoughts on social media are admonished by a call or visit from security officials. Publications have been transformed or closed and the media has abandoned any attempt at independence. Oversight of book publishing has gone from the government to the CCP’s propaganda department. Religious persecution has risen as Beijing seeks to forcibly “Sinicize” different faiths. Party cells are being established in businesses and political education is being reinstated in schools. A million or more Uighurs and members of other groups have been forced into harsh reeducation camps. Beijing is slowly squeezing the civil and political freedoms long accorded residents of Hong Kong. . . .
People know everything they communicate on WeChat, the Chinese messaging service, is monitored. Foreign visitors take “burner” laptops and phones to protect against hacking. Visitors in some cities have been warned to exercise care in what they say in their hotel rooms. To build up their social credit people participate in exercises praising the CCP. . . .
In other words, Xi’s China is just the kind of place that the innovators and the movers and shakers who make a country successful would find it intolerable to live. Who wants to exist under the constant watch of Xi and his gang, let alone under their thumb? The U.S. “trade deficit” with China for 2018 is reported as $419 billion. President Trump seems to think that that sum represents the amount by which China is “winning” the trade wars. I look at the same number, and what I see is that everyone in China who has the ability to do so is getting as much money as they can into dollars and out of the country as fast as humanly possible, all while they plot their personal exit strategy. Wouldn’t you do the same? And, is anybody in the U.S. comparably plotting an exit strategy to China? Don’t be ridiculous.
In our dinner table conversation, the best point made in favor of a pessimistic outlook for the United States was that the radical faction of the Democratic Party could get itself elected to the presidency and enough of Congress to move the U.S. significantly in the direction where the government controls everything. Then the U.S. could easily start a significant downward slide. True enough. But then Barack Obama had eight years of the presidency, two of them with control of both houses of Congress; and he made remarkably little progress at implementing the progressive government-controls-everything agenda. And much of what he did accomplish in that regard has subsequently been undone. Overall, I vote with the optimists.