New York Times columnist Tom Friedman took flak last year for a provocative idea wrapped in a typically clever turn of phrase: "There is only one thing worse than one-party autocracy, and that is one-party democracy." Friedman was comparing the U.S. government to China's, which he admitted has its "drawbacks" but also its advantages, as the system allows the party to implement new policies quickly without the messiness of the democratic process.
Back in September, that idea outraged many pundits on the left and right. The L.A. Times' Jonah Goldberg is still incensed, and brings it up in a hard-hitting weekend column that compares Friedman to the widespread view that "the 'experts' have all the answers and the 'system' is holding them back":
I bring all of this up for a couple reasons. The first is that I am mildly obsessed with Tom Friedman. He's easily one of the most influential columnists in America, and he routinely and blithely expresses his envy for a barbaric police state that has killed tens of millions of its own people. I think pointing that out is worth a little repetition...
China's got us beat, suggests Friedman, because its leaders aren't hung up on democracy, checks and balances, or any of the other dusty old impediments found in the American system. Friedman has proclaimed his envy for China's authoritarian system countless times. It's why he titled one of the chapters in his book "China for a Day." The idea - he calls it his "fantasy" - is that if we could just be China for a day, the experts could impose by diktat what they cannot win through democratic debate...
Such arguments are as old as they are dangerous. And they are arrogant beyond description. People like Friedman automatically assume that their preferred policies are so obviously right, so objectively enlightened, that there's no need to debate them or vote on them... The literature on the unintended consequences of policies crafted by experts is at least as old as the field of economics. Frédéric Bastiat, the great 19th-century economist, noted all that separated the good economist from the bad is the ability to appreciate the possibility of the unforeseen. Nobel Prize-winning economist Friedrich Hayek demonstrated that healthy economies couldn't be controlled by experts, because the experts will always have a "knowledge problem." They can never know all of the variables and never fully predict how their theories will play out in reality.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.
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