Because not only does China finance our deficit, it sets an Example of Governance and Shows Our Decadent Democracy the Enlightened Autocratic Way. In Friedman's hands, China is, dare one say it, nearly a City on a Hill. This is quite an op-ed, even for Thomas Friedman and even by the historical apologetics of the New York Times:
One-party autocracy certainly has its drawbacks. But when it is led by a reasonably enlightened group of people, as China is today, it can also have great advantages. That one party can just impose the politically difficult but critically important policies needed to move a society forward in the 21st century.
Friedman does not mean this merely (merely?) in the sense that there are better and worse autocrats and dictators. That point was forcefully and correctly made by Jeane Kirkpatrick back in Dictators and Double-Standards in the 1980s. No, lest anyone misunderstand him, Friedman is at pains to emphasize that he is not doing a Double-Standards Dictators, Least Worst Alternative analysis here. That would be important, as assessing tradeoffs usually is. On the contrary, he is deliberately comparing autocracy and democracy, and specifically China and the United States, and finding the latter wanting by the admirably robust standards of the former.
There is the dismaying whiff here of the 1930s and the loss of faith in those years by political elites and the chattering classes in the future of parliamentary democracy as measured against the robust and healthy decision-making processes of those, uh, non-parliamentary systems; a loss of faith in the ideal of parliamentary democracy when what, in fact, was warranted was a loss of faith in a particular cadre of corrupt and cynical political elites themselves. There is decadence here, but it is not the decadence of democracy. (Update: To be clear, before chattering classes get all chattery ... it is just a whiff, of decadence, and no, not the F-word.) The impasse of the American political class over reaching Friedman's elite-preferences on everything from health care to climate change, and his dismissal of the processes of democracy in favor of China's autocratic rule, lead him to this remarkable thought:
There is only one thing worse than one-party autocracy, and that is one-party democracy, which is what we have in America today ... Our one-party democracy is worse.
It is characteristic of Thomas Friedman's thought to move from particular issues of policy to sweeping conclusions about the Nature of Man and God and the Universe, typically based around some attractively packaged metaphor - flat earth, hot earth, etc. Rarely, however, has he been quite so clear about the directness of the connections he sees between his preferred set of substantive outcomes; his contempt for American democratic processes that have, despite all, managed to hang in there for, I don't know, a few times the length of time between the Cultural Revolution and today; and his schoolgirl crush on autocratic elites because they are able to impose from above.
Let me just say for the record that this is a monstrous column. When faced with American public defection from elite-preferred outcomes on certain policy issues that involve many difficult tradeoffs of the kind that democracies, with much jostling and argument, are supposed to work out among many different groups, Friedman extols the example of ... China's political system, because it's both enlightened and autocratic? Who among us knew?
(Update: Thanks, Instapundit, for the link; likewise Jonah Goldberg. I'm gradually cleaning up some grammar and poor wording.)
I happen to think, persuaded by Sandy Levinson's arguments, that the US democratic system has deep structural flaws. Most of them have to do with the nature of Congress and its geographical representation; I don't buy Sandy's radical solutions in the form of constitutional conventions, etc., but I agree with the fundamental diagnosis. Congress is the broken institution of American governance. Its failures are what put such great pressures on the other branches of government. Far too great an emphasis is put on the office of president, and its electoral process, precisely because Congress has lost its responsiveness. Same for the judiciary, the Supreme Court most of all. My own view is that an inherently imperfect constitutional structure went from difficult to disastrous with the acceptance of Congressional gerrymandering that created a legislature of essentially safe seats and a concomittant lack of turnover and competitive races.
But note: that diagnosis is a diagnosis about the political class and what is wrong with it, not an indictment of large groups in the public who, for good reasons or bad, take the diminishing mechanisms by which citizens can make their Elite Public Managers hear, if not respond, to their concerns. Friedman is saying something very different, something about the nature of elites and their prerogatives to manage, rather than lead. It is a message that, I sorrow to say, is increasingly associated with the Obama administration and its elites - drawn from the ranks of intellectuals, professors, think-tankers, etc., which is to say, people like me, few of whom have much experience running things save their mouths. And few of whom have much interest in democracy except when public sentiment runs their way - whose message is, get out of the way so that we can govern in peace. There are sound reasons why people like, well, me should not be in charge of too much government.
Friedman brings to mind, too, Bertolt Brecht's famous, ironic remark, re Stalin:
The people have lost the confidence of the government; the government has decided to dissolve the people and appoint a new one.
Not quite "here the people rule," is it? And if you are going to go about praising the Chinese autocrats over American democracy, no, frankly I don't think a comparison to praising Stalin is out of line.
There is something deeply wrong and (far too much indulged by the American political class), actually dangerous about finding every conceivable way to tell China, its leadership and its people, that they are both on the cusp of history and, as a matter of the kind of Whig History to which Friedman is attached, on the correct and just side of it. And that the United States is in decline and in any case receiving its much deserved historical comeuppance. To the extent that American decline is true, one might put some amount of the blame - not all, by any means, but like it or not, it's now Obama's once-and-future deficits - on budgetary policies that require the collective savings of a still not-rich China.
The single most striking trope of Obama administration foreign policy to date (upate: okay, that's an exaggeration, especially by comparison to targeted killing and Predators), after all, is the seemingly complete non-issue of human rights issues involving China (Hillary Clinton's snappish speech early on about not bugging China about human rights; she might as well have said, we're their debtor, get used to it). Or even China's commercial interests abroad (Sudan? Burma?)
But it is way more than policy. I teach many law students from China - they are lovely, intelligent, studious, and I like them very much ... and so far as I can tell, very little in their education in the United States, remarkably, does anything other than reinforce their already strong sense of general cultural, political, and social superiority over past-sell-by nation-states like the United States. These are the children of the nomenklatura, and they do not rock boats; at the same time, talking with them, they are choosy about the ideas they take and don't take in. But they have, very politely expressed, a general sense that they are the future and the United States is the past; we bend over backwards, from an excess of political self-abnegation and desire never to give offense, not to raise any critical points of view. Among a significant number of them, there is a polite but unmistakeable chauvinism, a nationalism for which there is absolutely no apology - it is just assumed that they are entitled to it and the same professors who condemn out of hand expressions of American national identity freely confirm these students' nationalism. A certain level of homage is taken to be natural, in its own soft way.
Or to put it another way. A couple of years ago I was in a hotel in Manhattan, owned by a Chinese corporation. It had some corporate policy then of bringing over Chinese nationals to serve as maids and staff. I overheard in an elevator an attempt by a well-meaning, well-to-do out of town couple, in Manhattan on business and see some theatre, to converse with some of the hotel maids. The woman said something like, "It is so wonderful you are here. It is so good for Americans to be exposed to people from China ... you are doing such amazing things in your country. It is too bad that we can't be more like you. Maybe we can learn from you while you are here. We're on our way down and you're on your way up." She was not referring to the elevator.
But the issue within the United States - the rising issue, the one that needs to be addressed on terms both political as well as intellectual, for each political party in slightly different ways - is the relationship of elites to the public. In my own terms of intellectual reference, the question is about the so-called New Class, the not-so-new professional classes, and its relationship to 'management' over 'leadership'. It is the relationship of management of the public to what, back in the 1990s, I referred to as therapeutic authoritarianism, the fusion of the coercive power of law with the 'for your own good' anti-libertarianism of the culture of the therapeutic.
I tentatively raised this back in the Sarah Palin debates, looking to the conservative side of the fence, and got very little indication of interest in taking up that discussion. I have raised in the context of the Obama administration, which is particularly partial to the authoritarian- therapeutic model of New Class management, and again, with little traction. We're wrong to ignore it: it is time to have some serious discussions with respect to each political party and its model of elites and public.
In the meantime, some kind of metaphorical chemical castration of Friedman's bellowing bull-in-rut for China's autocracy would seem to me in good order.
(Update: I've changed bull-in-heat to bull-in-rut on the view - I'm not expert on these terms, so I could be corrected - 'in heat' refers only to female animals; I'm not clear about 'in rut'.)