A debate has long raged in universities and think tanks, through public diplomacy and state media:
the democracy or an authoritarian system work better in times of crisis?
There is no doubt as to the advantage of democracy in matters such as individual rights or the rule of law.
Seoul’s affluent Gangnam district in May. Photo .Anthony Wallace/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Still, discussions about which system is most effective in addressing major national challenges draw a lot of attention, especially given the global rise in China and the growing frustration in the West over the internal political struggles.
Now, two simultaneous crises, climate change and the pandemic, are putting governments to the test.
His performances are being analyzed in a series of studies, with this result:
Although democracies perform lslightly better on average in addressing these problems, neither democracy nor an authoritarian system has shown a clear and consistent advantage.
Radical theories about the supposed advantages of one system or another have been of little help in predicting how these crises would unfold.
Workers sorting coal near a mine in Datong, China, in November 2021. Photo Noel Celis/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
It was once widely held, for example, that authoritarian nations like China, because of their centralized authority and generational timeframes for plans, they would be uniquely equipped to tackle challenges like climate change.
But Beijing’s promises to cut greenhouse gases have been stymied by political infighting and short-term imperatives the kind that Chinese propagandists say are characteristic of democracies.
At the same time, while some democracies have excelled at dealing with climate-related issues, others have struggled, notably the United States, which this month saw crash another climate plan amid a deadlock in Congress.
And then there’s the pandemic.
Predictions that democracies’ transparency and sensitivity to public opinion would make them better equipped to handle the virus have backfired.
So have statements that authoritarian systems would stand out for their ability to move with decision and proactivity;
many did not.
Multiple studies have found that, on average, both systems have performed more or less the same in managing the pandemic, based on metrics such as the excess deaths.
Democracies have done a little better.
But experts stress that this small gap may not reflect that democracies are better equipped, but rather that countries with, say, stronger health systemsthey can be more democratic.
Either system can work effectively, as the pandemic has shown, with individual democracies and authoritarian governments alike among the best in the world at slowing the spread of the virus.
And either system can fail, as when China imposes pandemic restrictions to the point of wrecking its own economy, or US climate plans collapse under opposition from a senator who represents half of 1% of the population.
This undermines theories that either system exerts an innate advantage in certain crises, but it suggests another lesson:
the prevailing threats to democracy and authoritarianism may not come from each other, but from internal weaknesses.
“This is an incredibly complicated question, in part because there are so many different ways to assess performance,” Justin Esarey, a political scientist at Wake Forest University, said of the “huge” number of studies that the political system governs better.
That question gained prominence in the 1990s when several authoritarian countries in Asia, with their booming economies, presented what was taken as a new opponent of the democratic model.
Since then, the economic performance it has been seen as the benchmark for which the system works best.
Two schools of thought emerged.
One said that authoritarian governments like China, free from short-term thinking imposed by elections or small inefficiencies of the democratic process, they could impose better policies.
The other said that the transparency and accountability of democracies produce better managed and more responsive governance.
Advocates pointed out that the economy of South Korea was booming under democracy just as that of North Korea collapsed.
Both theories have circulated ever since.
But none consistently stand up to scrutiny.
A study of authoritarian economies around the world, for example, found that, on average, they neither outperformed nor lagged behind democracies.
Those that grew did so for the same reason that some democracies did:
smart decisions of leaders, better managed institutions and other factors.
The two systems work differently, but the differences are often are canceled each.
Another study found that democracies are somewhat better at curbing recessions and authoritarian party-based systems are somewhat better at increasing growth, but ultimately the economic performance of the systems proved to be comparable.
This is not true for all benchmarks.
Citizen happiness, health measures such as infant mortality, and the quality of public services are better under democracy, not to mention the freedoms whose protection is, after all, part of the goal of democracy.
And pure performance issues have remained relevant as global crises like the weather and the pandemic have taken on growing importance.
The pandemic would seem to provide the perfect opportunity to test which system can govern more effectively because it has affected every country in the world and its cost is quantifiable.
But research by Rachel Kleinfeld of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace came to the same conclusion as those economic studies.
Democracies and authoritarian systems have more or less the same probability to do well or poorly, without one consistently outperforming the other.
While some commentators pointed to, shall we say, the early failures of Iran as proof that the secrecy and corruption of authoritarian governments would doom them, others pointed to how many other governments, such as Vietnamstood out.
And for every democracy that had problems, like the United States, another, like New Zealand or Taiwanperformed well, undermining theories that democracy, in general, was too messy or slow to respond.
What mattered, Kleinfeld discovered, were factors such as social trust or institutional competence.
And neither system is necessarily consistently better for growing them.
Another study, which acknowledges that authoritarian rulers are more likely excited on the number of victims of the pandemic, examined a hard-to-falsify metric called excess mortality.
They found that, on average, democracies did better at curbing pandemic deaths than authoritarian governments, but, again, the gap was slight and possibly explained by factors other than the political system.
Esarey, the political scientist, also found a slight advantage for democracies when it comes to vaccination ratesbut since many democracies underperformed authoritarian governments and vice versa.
The climate challenge
Could climate, a long-term and possibly bigger crisis, shed a different light?
To many in the United States, authoritarianism might seem to have the upper hand as leaders in Beijing have announced one dramatic climate policy after another.
But some democracies have proven to be equally aggressive on the climate, suggesting that the US’s struggles are due less to democracy itself than to the specific peculiarities of the American system.
And authoritarian governments can be as messy as any democracy.
Take China’s vaunted five-year plans, for example, which claim to establish long-term policy without the fuss of legislative haggling or infighting.
In reality, the documents can be read less as legislation than as a wish listand sometimes vague, sent by central planners to provincial and agency leaders who decide for themselves how to carry out those decrees, if at all.
The president of China, Xi Jinpingyou can announce greenhouse gas reductions until you’re sad, but you may not be able to count on your own government’s compliance, which it apparently hasn’t.
China’s provincial leaders and their state-owned enterprises built more new coal plants than the rest of the world’s countries combined.
Some of this may be policy confusion. Beijing has demanded economic growth as well as carbon reductions, leaving it to local officials to figure out what to emphasize.
But some can also be challenging.
Beijing has long struggled to force local officials to serve the national good.
For many years, Xi announced China’s intention to reduce its steel production, only for production to rise the next year as individual provinces ramped up production, saturating the market and hurting the industry nationwide.
In one infamous example, Beijing ordered provincial leaders to stop water pollution which then endangered the health of the nation.
Instead of cutting back on polluting factories, officials moved them to their borders so that pollution, which has increased across the country, flows to the next province.
Early in the pandemic, local leaders hid information about the outbreak to central planners.
And now that officials are facing pressure to keep the number of infections near zero, they are suppressing local economies with a devastating effect throughout the country.
These ups and downs are certainly related to China’s authoritarian model.
But countries with similar systems have often struggled where China succeeded, or succeeded where it struggled.
Similarly, the successes and setbacks of the United States have hardly paralleled the performance of other democracies, for better or worse.
“It is natural that people who live under a system envy each other’s advantages,” said Esarey, particularly as both democracies and authoritarian systems face growing internal challenges around the world.
The data, he added, instead supports a conclusion sometimes attributed, perhaps apocryphally, to Winston Churchill, the former British leader:
“Democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.”
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