Artillery Row

Is this the end of Western liberal democracy?

We need to appreciate the inherent messiness that permeates Western societies, rather than seeking to repudiate it

As of late, it has not been easy to remain optimistic about the future of Western liberal democracies. From dysfunctional, hyperpolarized, and gridlocked politics to botched responses to the pandemic on both sides of the Atlantic, there is no shortage of examples suggesting that the best days of our form of government and economic organization are behind us.

Openness, freedom to experiment, and economic churn are what have made the West a global success story

As we head into Thanksgiving, it is time to revise our expectations upward. Although Western societies have not been successful in ensuring wide compliance with social distancing measures or testing and tracing regimes, which would have kept the coronavirus at bay – unlike a number of Asian countries – they have been extraordinarily successful in harnessing their innovative powers and developing vaccines that will put an end to the pandemic, for good.

My AEI colleague Hal Brands compared the vaccine development to the Cold War-era space race between the United States and the Soviet Union, and urged the incoming Biden administration to invest heavily into making the vaccine available across low-income countries, thus leveraging US innovation to simultaneously save lives and restore America’s stature worldwide.

That is an important point. At the same time, there is a difference between the present moment and the space race of the 1960s. This time around, the contest is not even remotely close. Within six months, three separate, safe effective vaccines have been created in the West, two of them using methods that are completely new to the field.

True, Russia and China have created conventional vaccines too, which they are already rushing to distribute – in spite of them not being thoroughly tested. Yet, by relying on the mRNA technology which leapfrogs traditional hurdles surrounding vaccine development, the Pfizer and Moderna products provide blueprints through which future vaccines can be developed and produced at scale in even less time.

The news of the mRNA vaccine against Covid-19, coincides with other, albeit tentative, pieces of good technological news. Scalable, commercially viable geothermal energy seems within reach. There also appears to be a path to nuclear fusion. Either would represent a revolutionary piece of innovation in addressing both humankind’s energy needs and climate change.

Is it possible that the sense of political and societal malaise and the potentially transformative technological innovations currently in the pipeline are connected? The latter part of the 18th century was a period of moral panic and of a widespread sense of decadence in England – just as the Industrial Revolution was getting started, laying the foundation for the country’s impending global dominance.

Economists are familiar with the risk-return trade-off in finance. Similarly, what makes many Western societies apt at innovating and pushing the technological frontier outward may come at the cost of reduced social stability, uprootedness, and disorder – all which have fuelled the populist backlash of the past decade, as well as the inept responses to the virus. It is likely that a high degree of deference to authorities and a willingness to conform kept the virus at bay in many Asian societies. Yet, the same societal features carry the risk of economic and institutional ossification.

Declining powers tend to make reckless geopolitical decisions

“Creative destruction” is particularly hard in situations when conformism and “order” are brutally enforced by an intrusive state apparatus, as in China. Well publicized pockets of innovation aside, the country’s economy is still dominated by state-owned enterprises and state-connected and politicized banks, which are rarely allowed to fail. Behind the façade of China’s impressive, though falling, growth rates there is a fragility not dissimilar to that of the Soviet Union, whose economic performance was also drastically overestimated by Western economists.

None of this is a reason to discount the challenge that competitors to Western liberal democracies, particularly China, pose. After all, it is precisely declining powers that tend to make reckless geopolitical decisions. Neither is it a reason not to be concerned about the political turbulence observed across the Western world in the past decade. It is a reason, however, to put things into perspective. As the economist Tyler Cowen put it, “when it comes to the ideas and the people that matter, America and the West are not losing the lead.”

More importantly, it is reason to think carefully about policies that will enable the West to keep its competitive edge over the world’s autocrats. It is not a coincidence, for example, that the Pfizer vaccine was developed by two children of Turkish immigrants into Germany – and neither is it an accident that more than half of all Silicon Valley billion-dollar start-ups have immigrant founders.

Forget the nostalgia peddled by politicians who dominated the past decade in the West and the talk of “American carnage” or “taking back control”. Openness, freedom to experiment (and fail), and economic churn are the very things that have made the West a global success story. They will enable the West to outcompete China’s totalitarian regime. Can we do better? Of course. Better social safety nets, less capture of the economy by special interests, and more R&D spending would help.

Yet, this Thanksgiving is a good time to embrace, celebrate, and be thankful for the inherent messiness that permeates Western societies – instead of seeking to repudiate it.

Dalibor Rohac is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington DC.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover