Keeping Up with the Despots

One columnist wondered whether democracy was nimble enough to compete with tyranny.

Dec 20, 2011

Can an open democracy develop and adopt new technologies as well as an authoritarian state can? It’s a question we might ask today, given China’s transformation over the past decade into the leading manufacturer of solar panels and other emerging technologies (see “The Chinese Solar Machine).

The question was just as valid in April 1940, when a TR columnist named Stuart A. Rice wondered—in a piece called “How Efficient Is the State?”—whether dictatorial states such as Germany and the Soviet Union were leapfrogging the United States precisely because they weren’t free. Rice asked: “Is democracy efficient enough as an organizing principle among people who have reached our own level of scientific attainment to compete on equal terms with the organizing principle of dictatorship?”

In analyzing this question, I wish to make the comparison as the scientist or engineer would make it, uninfluenced by the predilections for democracy which I avow … Can democratic institutions hold their own in the present struggle for survival between them and the institutions of authoritarian nations?

Rice felt that authoritarian states held a clear short-term advantage—they could adapt quickly, simply by deciding to. They weren’t weighed down by checks and balances or slowed by debates. Nor did they rely on the willing participation of their citizens.

They are not impeded in their adaptation of means to ends by the accumulation of habits, conventions, prejudices, and superstitions which retard the utilization of new methods by individuals who are left to make their own decisions. Authoritarian states have the ability to shorten what Ogburn has termed the “social lag.”

Sociologist William F. Ogburn, in 1922, had used this term to describe the interval between the introduction of new technologies and a society’s adjustment to them. That time lag could be crucial, Rice felt, because a motivated authoritarian state just might crush a democracy before it had time to react. The trick for a democracy, then, was to emulate a dictatorship in that one regard only—it should learn to be more nimble in the face of technological change.

The key questions for Rice were ones we’re still lobbing back and forth today: should the government sit back and let the free market develop innovations on its own? Or should it act as a guiding hand? To put it in today’s terms, does a hands-off approach make sense when governments in China and elsewhere are spending billions to support and promote new startups, factories, and technologies? The failed $535 million loan to Solyndra, a solar-technology company, has become a massive political liability for green-tech advocates in the United States. Meanwhile, the Chinese government—even if it doesn’t exercise as much state control as Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union did—doesn’t face such obstacles. It simply finances whatever it wants to finance.

It is said that “government interference” with business is a threat to democratic institutions and an evidence of totalitarian tendencies. I suggest, on the contrary … that government concern with the operations of the economy reflects a strain toward the adaptation of social institutions to science; that it is necessary to the attainment of efficiency in a democracy.

The good news, in Rice’s view, was that an open society held all the long-term advantages. Innovation over the long haul, he felt, required incentives, competition, and the freedom to debate new ideas and dream of unlikely things: “Science and intelligence are themselves among the materials rendered inert when placed beneath the yoke.”

I believe that democracy and science are native allies. It is only in a democracy that the basic conditions of continued scientific progress can be provided. Dictatorship is destructive of intellectual integrity, of freedom to pursue scientific interests without interference, and of that essential exposure of the work of the scientist to the free winds of competent criticism.

Timothy Maher is TR’s assistant managing editor.