Can fascists take over America?

Tyler Cowen thinks they can’t:

American fascism cannot happen anymore because the American government is so large and unwieldy. It is simply too hard for the fascists, or for that matter other radical groups, to seize control of. No matter who is elected, the fascists cannot control the bureaucracy, they cannot control all the branches of American government, they cannot control the judiciary, they cannot control semi-independent institutions such as the Federal Reserve, and they cannot control what is sometimes called “the deep state.” The net result is they simply can’t control enough of the modern state to steer it in a fascist direction.

This yields a new defense of Big Government, which is harder to take over, and harder to “turn bad,” than many a smaller government. Surely it ought to give us pause that the major instances of Western fascism came right after a time when government was relatively small, and not too long after the heyday of classical liberalism in Europe, namely the late 19th century. No, I am not blaming classical liberalism for Nazism, but it is simply a fact that it is easier to take over a smaller and simpler state than it is to commandeer one of today’s sprawling bureaucracies.

This argument is only moderately convincing. The bureaucratic argument is pretty weak historically. In fact, there is work that suggests that high levels of social capital and the presence of a rationalized bureaucracy made it easy for the Nazis to take over. The argument would have been stronger if Cowen focused on the ways in which the federal system and the decentralization of hard power in America provides real barriers to countrywide fascistic rule (but he is an economist, so “size of government” is a readily available metric).

The other weakness in the argument is that Cowen sounds like he has in mind “Rule of Law Fascists” (at least at the beginning). But by definition, these chaps would probably engage in a lot of extra-constitutional means of gaining and maintaining power. And at that point, the only stumbling bloc would be the hard power dispersed in the states.

American has a fairly decentralized system of internal projection of coercive capacity (police units are run by states, counties, and cities). These security units could be commandeered by would-be dissenters to challenge a fascist in Washington (states would presumably also race to control all the American military’s weaponry within their borders). America is also too culturally heterogenous to enable a quick takeover by fascists. The fascists would first have to kill a significant number of not only non-European-Americans (going by the demographics of current American fascists) but also a lot of European-Americans before they could install their rule. In the process of doing so, they would begin to undermine the very ethnic and cultural basis of their fascistic rule.

A high level of ethnic (and ideological) heterogeneity would therefore mitigate against a rapid rise and consolidation of fascist rule.

Finally, while the risk of an outright fascist takeover is remote, the likelihood of ever-spreading pockets of fascism in the American state is very real. Here, too, decentralization plays a role. Because of America’s highly decentralized coercive capacities, pockets of unchecked predatory authoritarianism (fascism-lite, if you will) continue to exist throughout the country — see here, here and here. These pockets persist, in part, because the federal government is considered to be fairly faithful to the ideals of the American constitution. So while fascists may not take over the federal government, they can certainly control local police departments, or even pockets of the federal bureaucracy.

Xi’s power grab in China is a big deal

Regularized and predictable change of leadership is perhaps the most important indicator of political development. It doesn’t matter if such changes occur through popular elections (as in electoral democracies), boardroom meetings (in party dictatorships), or through inheritance (as in monarchies). Predictability provides stability and allows for the cultivation of elite consensus over a system of rule. It also provides the background conditions necessary for the rule of law to emerge. A situation in which rules change with rulers is hostile to constitutionalism.

jinpingThis is precisely why life presidencies are sub-optimal. Long tenures eventually convince even the most democratic of leaders that they are above the law. They freeze specific groups of elites out of power. And remove incentives for those in power to be accountable and to innovate.

For a while China seemed to have turned this corner, having imposed term limits on its state presidents. But President Xi Jinping has thrown that consensus out the window with the announcement that he plans to scrap term limits and presumably stay on as president indefinitely. 

This is a big deal. Xi has revealed to us that he is no different than Yoweri Museveni.

Who would have guessed that in the 21st century we would be back to a situation in which the world’s biggest economy has life presidents, and occasionally goes through unpredictable transfers of power? Certainly, the coup risk in China is likely to go up under a life presidency. And the demonstration effect to other autocracies will be huge. Remember that even Vladimir Putin had to engage in questionable institutional jujitsu by allowing his wingman to be president in order not to flout the Russian constitution.

global_tenuremean.pngXi’s China is a reminder of that political development is not uni-directional. It is also a caution against trust that elites’ material interests are a bulwark against would-be personalist dictators. China’s economy is booming (albeit at a slower rate of growth), and continues to mint dollar billionaires. Yet the country’s political and economic elites appear helpless in the face of a single man who is bent on amassing unchecked power (the same happens in democracies with “strong western institutions”, too).

Globally, the annual average of the number of years in office for heads of governments has been on decline since the mid-1980s (see graph). Perhaps we were due for a correction, like happened in the mid-1920s. May be this time we will be lucky enough to avoid the messes that followed in the subsequent two decades (the fact that China appears to be a revisionist world power is not a great sign).

Finally, it is remarkable that even after being around for thousands of years China hasn’t figured a system of stable, regularized transfer of power that lasts for centuries. May be it is the curse of being a big country. Or may be this is just how politics works. It really does put in perspective the achievements of a number of African countries that appear to have consolidated term limits within a few decades of existence.

Is democracy overrated?

Brennan calls people who don’t bother to learn about politics hobbits, and he thinks it for the best if they stay home on Election Day. A second group of people enjoy political news as a recreation, following it with the partisan devotion of sports fans, and Brennan calls them hooligans. Third in his bestiary are vulcans, who investigate politics with scientific objectivity, respect opposing points of view, and carefully adjust their opinions to the facts, which they seek out diligently. It’s vulcans, presumably, who Brennan hopes will someday rule over us, but he doesn’t present compelling evidence that they really exist. In fact, one study he cites shows that even people with excellent math skills tend not to draw on them if doing so risks undermining a cherished political belief. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. In recent memory, sophisticated experts have been confident about many proposals that turned out to be disastrous—invading Iraq, having a single European currency, grinding subprime mortgages into the sausage known as collateralized debt obligations, and so on.

That is from the New Yorker. The whole piece is worth reading. It has a lot of interesting takes on the inherent contradictions of democracy. I can’t wait for my copy of Brennan’s Against Democracy.

H/T Tyler Cowen.

Looking East: The fetishization of “oriental” despots is an old Western habit

This choice of an alien heroism was the result of a heightened interest, characteristic for Xenophon’s time, in the Orient – Eastern culture, ideology and sociopolitical forms. A light was expected from the East. Cultural interanimation, interaction of ideologies and languages had already begun. Also characteristic was the idealization of the oriental despot, and here one senses Xenophon’s own contemporary reality with its idea (shared widely by his contemporaries) of renovating Greek political forms in a spirit close to oriental autocracy. 

That is Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin, writing in the Dialogic Imagination (p. 54). Next time you read Tom Friedman in the Times and feel a little envy over supposed autocratic efficiency in Beijing remember that the world has seen this before. May be that will help you relax a bit, and put things in perspective. 

How I would not lead the World Bank – Bill Easterly

For those, like me, who still miss Aid Watch, here is Easterly over at FP:

I would not appoint U.S.-educated elites vetted by their autocratic home governments to represent the underrepresented peoples of the world. I would not negotiate the contents of World Bank reports with governments in either the West or the Rest, except possibly for correcting typos.

I would not lead the World Bank by perpetuating the technocratic illusion that development is something “we” do to “them.” I would not ignore the rights of “them.” If the New York Times should happen to report on the front page that a World Bank-financed project torched the homes and crops of Ugandan farmers, I would not stonewall the investigation for the next 165 days, 4 hours, 37 minutes, and 20 seconds up to now.

More on this here.

And for more on leadership selection at IFIs see CGD’s policy brief here.

when dictators’ oracles fail them

One of the biggest problems in dictatorships is the dearth of dependable information. This problem affects both dictators and their oppressed subjects alike. The same applies to presidents in electoral regimes who surround themselves with “yes men,” the latter who are oftentimes more concerned about pleasing their patron than giving him the right information.

This cartoon from the Daily Nation exemplifies the surprise from some quarters that greeted Rupiah Banda’s defeat in the just concluded tripartite elections in Zambia.

Former president Banda might have been a victim of misinformation, above and beyond the fact that the opposition Patriotic Front run a skillfully crafted campaign complete with this mega hit (in Zambia at least).

[youtube.com/watch?v=G16vj5hJKfw]

HT African Arguments

Dictatorship and Disease

Most Bad things go together.

Like Keating at FP, I am unwilling to make any causal claims linking dictatorship to disease or vice versa but suffice it to say that most people who live under dictatorships – in Chad, Zimbabwe, Myanmar, North Korea, etc – do live despite great odds occasioned by their respective governments’ incompetence and runaway lack of accountability.

It is not obvious that democracy necessarily leads to good outcomes. In this regard I agree with Huntington that it is not the type of government that matters but the degree of government. China and Rwanda, for instance, are competent autocracies with high degrees of government. They also register much better outcomes than many nominal democracies out there

(Just for the record, this is not to say that we should not promote democracy. Despite the sobering reality of this world, I believe that everyone should do all in their capacity to help disperse power whenever they see it being concentrated in one individual or institution — paraphrasing my officemate Tomer).

museveni wins another term, Gaddafi using African mercenaries

Long-term Ugandan President, Yoweri Museveni, in on course to a comfortable win in the country’s general election. With over 70% of the votes counted Mr. Museveni leads his closest rival, Besigye, with over 40%. President Museveni, ruler of Uganda since 1986, started off as a different kind of African president, presiding over a decade of sustained growth, drastic reduction in HIV infection rates and general peace and stability. But he stayed for too long. Beginning in the mid-1990s Uganda transitioned – under intense domestic and international pressure – from a “no-party democracy” [whatever that means] to a multiparty electoral system in which Museveni allowed for opposition at the margins.

The new dispensation created pressures for greater levels of patronage in order for Museveni to stay in power. He scrapped constitutionally mandated term limits, created a cabinet of over 70 ministers and went crazy with what Ugandans call “districtization” – the act of creating new local government jurisdictions purely for patronage purposes. Uganda’s new found oil reserves will certainly continue to fund the long-term autocrat’s stranglehold on Ugandan politics. Rumors abound that he intends to install his son and head of the presidential guard as his successor.

In other news, Col. Gaddafi is reported to be using African mercenaries to quell rebellion in the east of Libya. For decades Gaddafi has been a Guevara wanna-be, funding armed rebellions all over the Continent (Including the infamous Charles Taylor of Liberia). He seems to have done all that in the hope that the rebels he funded would come to his aid, like is happening now. But the presidents/rebel leaders who have sent soldiers to kill Libyans demanding for their natural rights should be aware that it is precisely such acts that have landed Jean-Pierre Bemba at the Hague.

after sudan, ethiopia

Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir is here to stay. Ethiopia’s Meles Zenawi is up next on a list of African autocrats who face elections this year. Ethiopia holds parliamentary elections on May 23rd in a vote that will determine who becomes Prime Minsiter. Africa’s second most populous country cremains under tight rule by the increasingly despotic Meles Zenawi. It is a foregone conclusion that Mr. Zenawi’s party will win. The only non-academic part of these elections will be how many seats the opposition is allowed to win. Mr. Zenawi has run the country since 1991 when he led a rebellion that overthrew the tinpot dictatorship of Mengistu Haile Mariam.

More on Mr. Zenawi’s rule here.

The other elections coming up in the next month include Mauritius (May 5th) and the Central African Republic (May 16th). Keep track of these elections here.