The greatest threat to liberal values isn’t any longer the Russian nuclear arsenal. It’s the dynamic Chinese economy.
It was buried in Pres. Joe Biden’s speech to Congress and the nation last week, but it may be the most consequential observation he made. About halfway through his speech, Biden mentioned that when he was vice president he had spent substantial time with Chinese President Xi Jinping. “When President Xi called to congratulate me (on winning the American presidency), we had a two-hour discussion,” Biden said. “He’s deadly earnest on becoming the most significant, consequential nation in the world. He and others, autocrats, think that democracy can’t compete in the 21st century with autocracies, because it takes too long to get consensus.”
Biden placed his massive investment plans — the already enacted COVID relief package and his proposed American Jobs Plan and American Families Plan — solidly in the context of a competition with China. His view, shared by others, is that if America can’t deliver the economic security and progress for its citizens that China can, autocracy will start to look pretty good.
Our government was designed to be inefficient. The founders set it up to prevent just the sort of autocracy that governs China. And, until now, the autocrats didn’t provide much competition. The Soviet Union slaughtered and oppressed its own people and failed to deliver the material comforts that were common in the West. China was on the same path until Mao did his country the great service of dying in 1976.
Since then China has combined central planning, authoritarian suppression and a market economy — with an assist from the blatant stealing of intellectual property — to great effect. According to the World Bank: “Since China began to open up and reform its economy in 1978, GDP growth has averaged almost 10 percent a year, and more than 800 million people have been lifted out of poverty. There have also been significant improvements in access to health, education, and other services over the same period.”
By contrast, the American middle class is struggling. Every generation since the Baby Boomers has seen its middle income group shrink. In 1969, 61% of Americans were middle income; today that’s down to 51%. And that’s had a dampening effect on confidence. In 1999, 55% of Americans thought the next generation would do better than they did. Twenty years later that was down to 42%.
It would be nice to think that liberal values of personal freedom, free speech, the rule of law and the like would be their own selling points. But the truth is that any system that can’t deliver security — a good job, promise of an even better future for the next generation, low crime — is going to be in trouble when some other system offers something better.
Biden is getting a lot of things right, but his recognition of the big picture — the challenge to liberalism that China presents — is maybe the most important.