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27 August 2021updated 05 Oct 2021 5:46pm

Can authoritarianism ever be justified?

China may have performed better than many democratic countries on Covid-19, but good government can’t be sustained without public scrutiny.

By Fabienne Peter

The UK is currently battling a third wave of the Covid-19 outbreak. China, in contrast, has been much more successful in containing the disease. In fact, the country has so far managed to avoid a second wave. And with under 6,000 deaths from Covid-19, China’s performance puts many democratic countries to shame.

Comparing the performance of a country often described as authoritarian to the rather less impressive performance of many established democracies gives rise to a puzzle. One important objection to authoritarian regimes is that they tend not to work for the people, whereas a democracy, so the argument goes, can ensure that a government serves all citizens and not merely partisan interests. As Abraham Lincoln put it in his Gettysburg address, democracy is government by the people and for the people. Authoritarianism, by contrast, is neither government by the people nor for the people. Call this the “service” objection against authoritarianism.

There is no question that a good government works for its people. A good government helps its citizens 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, by contrast, 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 favour bypassing democratic control? That’s a puzzle worth addressing in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, and there are reasons to think that the picture is more complicated than the service objection to authoritarianism suggests.

At the start of the pandemic, governments around the world came under pressure to “follow the science” and to introduce highly coercive measures in order to protect their citizens from the disease. Most implemented the recommendations with some form of lockdown, some (such as New Zealand) more rapidly than others (such as the UK). Governments that were more prepared to defer to scientific advice appear to have done better than those that did not.

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In terms of containing the spread of the disease in the country, China’s response was one of the most successful in the world. Once the outbreak of a novel coronavirus was established, the Chinese authorities drew on their medical and political expertise to devise and implement strategies to restrict the disease. A combination of top-down decision-making mechanisms and the institutional power to ruthlessly enforce those decisions led to a set of policies – including a strict lockdown of the epicentre city Wuhan and separation of families in quarantine centres – that have been described as “brutal but effective”. As a result, China managed to avoid the high numbers of deaths and the long, drawn-out restrictions seen in countries such as 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 isn’t always needed to identify the best way forward. Good government sometimes stems from deference to non-democratic authority – in this case, the authority of scientists with expertise on how to manage a pandemic. What justified lockdown at the beginning of the pandemic was, above all, that it was the right decision at the time, not any democratic pedigree. Any government willing to implement the decisions needed to protect its population – as long as it also has the means to implement them effectively – can succeed.

But we shouldn’t conclude that the service objection against authoritarianism is overstated. The reason why this objection needs to be taken seriously is found in the political culture that authoritarian regimes like China tend to create.

Democracy isn’t just about elections and the occasional referendum. 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 needs to be embedded in a political culture that encourages active citizen participation, tolerates dissent and holds political leaders to account. An authoritarian political culture, by contrast, typically limits political participation and disempowers any emerging opposition.

[See also: China’s income inequality is among the world’s worst]

The political situation at the beginning of the Covid-19 outbreak was exceptional in many ways. One feature of that situation was the overwhelmingly strong evidence for what governments needed to do to contain the pandemic. It was that feature, combined with the grave threat the pandemic posed, and continues to pose, that legitimised introducing highly coercive measures.

Yet political decision-making usually takes place under very different circumstances. The normal case in politics is one where there isn’t sufficiently robust evidence to justify authoritarian control. People might have strong views about what the government should be doing, but there are equally strong opposing views. What’s more, we often don’t have access to an independent standard for adjudicating between opposing views. Each side claims to have access to information or insight that the other lacks, with no shared standard for assessing their respective merits.

A government that works for the people is generally responsive to well-founded opposing views, and supports an inclusive political culture that encourages the free public scrutiny of government actions. John Stuart Mill made this point in On Liberty well before the great expansion of democracies in the 20th century. Mill warned that a government that tries to limit political scrutiny might miss important advice on what needs doing.

In the Covid-19 context, for example, China’s stronghold on information was blamed for a slow response to critical reports from medical scientists about a new coronavirus. Relatedly, China was also accused of blocking international scrutiny of the investigation into the origins of the virus. A more open, internationally cooperative approach might have helped to prevent a pandemic. More generally, if there are opposing viewpoints in relation to a particular political issue, free debate is needed to identify the valid concerns on each side. And as Mill argued, remaining open to opposing opinions helps to prevent the emergence of a dogmatic culture that could become a breeding ground for misinformation and false beliefs.

More recently, Amartya Sen has argued that centralised political regimes tend to be less responsive to well-founded opposing views than more de-centralised 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.

The philosopher Elizabeth Anderson has also emphasised that to dispel false political beliefs and facilitate good political decision-making, engaging with the political ideas of those who disagree with us is important. And as fellow philosopher Olúfémi O Táíwò has made clear, to avoid elite capture in political decision-making, political debate must be actively inclusive and respond to concerns poorly represented in the political mainstream.

The problem, then, with authoritarian governments, or democratic governments with authoritarian tendencies, isn’t the type of control they exercise over political decision-making as such. That sort of control might sometimes be needed to allow the government to make the right decisions. The problem is, rather, that they create a culture that limits the public scrutiny of political decisions, and this undermines their ability to work for the people, generally.

[See also: Do capitalism and democracy go together?]

Years before Donald Trump came to power, commentators on US politics had pointed out that the Republican Party was on a trajectory of shutting out political opposition. As the conservative think tankers Thomas E Mann and Norman J Ornstein wrote in an important piece in the Washington Post in 2012, it “has become an insurgent outlier in American politics. It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.”

In the UK, the Tory party has similarly been accused of avoiding meaningful scrutiny, when, for example, it tried to limit political debate over the Brexit bill in parliament. In other European countries, but also in India, core 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 that we are witnessing today is concerning because good government can’t be sustained without public scrutiny of political proposals and the 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 the Agora series, a collaboration between the New Statesman and Aaron James Wendland, senior research fellow in Philosophy at Massey College, Toronto. He tweets @aj_wendland.

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