Pres. Joe Biden’s infrastructure bill is about more than good roads. It’s about demonstrating that democracy is stronger than authoritarianism.
China is delivering prosperity, it’s getting stuff done, it’s starting to influence the world. The Chinese model is a combination of aggressive capitalism, centralized planning and authoritarian rule.
What makes it work is that the current Chinese rulers are not especially corrupt or incompetent. But that’s the weakness of any centralized system. It’s entirely dependent on the abilities of a handful of people. If they’re good at what they do, they can produce some astounding successes. But if they’re bad, they can produce not just economic disaster, but much worse.
The strength of democracy is the diffused nature of power. That makes it harder to make decisions and to move fast, but it also makes it more difficult to totally screw things up. Take Donald Trump. He was a stress test for our system. Trump was incompetent, corrupt and ignorant. He held our system of liberal democracy in contempt — to the extent he grasped any of it at all.
And yet, we came out of it okay. Not unshaken, but okay. You can hope that the Insurrection was the low point of the Trump era. We replaced him with a decent man, who is deeply invested in and respectful of the institutions of democracy. Biden is also a man who understands how to make those institutions deliver.
Which gets us back to his infrastructure plan. As Biden has explained, China is “having our lunch” over these issues. It helps, of course, when the government can take property for a highway or a rail line or a power line without having to consider the rights of the owners or the opinions of the community. It helps when you can build anything without having to worry about unions or worker safety.
Democracy is, to say the least, somewhat less efficient. To give an extreme example, it cost about $2 billion a mile to build a short subway extension in Manhattan. You could have done the same thing in Beijing for a fraction of the cost.
So, the importance of Biden’s plan is to show that, even with all the inefficiencies built into our system, we can still manage to get big things done. We can fix our roads and airports and our power grid, expand our rail system, extend broadband to everyone and get back out in front on basic and applied research.
I’m reasonably confident that soon enough, the inherent weaknesses in authoritarianism and centralized power will show up in China. Xi Jinping will lose power or die some day and there’s no assurance that the next Chinese leader won’t be incompetent, corrupt or both. With no one to check his power, a bad leader can easily take down the whole country with him. Despite his best efforts, Trump couldn’t do that here.
But just as Ronald Reagan shoved the Soviet Union into oblivion with an arms race they couldn’t match, Biden may very well shove Xi’s China back into a distant second place with a bold infrastructure project.
What’s at stake here isn’t just nationalistic pride. This is a test of democracy versus authoritarianism. So Congress needs to pass a strong bill. No pressure, folks.