Tom Friedman's Totalitarian Temptation

Thomas L. Friedman's recent New York Times column, reporting from the World Economic Summit in Tianjin, China, is another iteration of his theme that democracy is poorly equipped to address a "catastrophe" like global warming. "Aren't we clever?" argues without much cleverness that "while America's Republicans turned 'climate change' into a four-letter word -- J-O-K-E -- China's Communists also turned it into a four-letter word -- J-O-B-S."

Last May on "Meet the Press," Friedman fantasized about a government that could implement the "right solutions" without all that bothersome democracy:

What if we could just be China for a day? I mean, just, just, just one day. You know, I mean, where we could actually, you know, authorize the right solutions, and I do think there is a sense of that, on, on everything from the economy to environment.

Friedman appeared to resist the totalitarian temptation in his next line: "I don't want to be China for a second, OK, I want my democracy to work with the same authority, focus and stick-to-itiveness."

It's nice to pay lip service to democracy, but a government with the power to implement the "right solutions" (the ones that Friedman approves of) sounds more authoritarian than democratic.

Sunday's column offers further evidence of Friedman's totalitarian leanings. He quotes Peggy Liu, "chairwoman of the Joint U.S.-China Collaboration on Clean Energy, a nonprofit group working to accelerate the greening of China":

There is really no debate about climate change in China ... China's leaders are mostly engineers and scientists, so they don't waste time questioning scientific data. ...  There is no need to emphasize future consequences when people already see, eat and breathe pollution every day.

As an aside, China indeed has a pollution problem. The last time I was in Beijing, the air was so thick the streetlights came on at noon. The problem with Liu and Friedman's justifications is that they don't differentiate between industrial pollution and carbon dioxide; CO2 is not a pollutant that people see, eat, and breathe. Classifying carbon dioxide as pollution has done great harm; an unjustified fear of CO2 has corrupted our energy decisions, incentivizing investment in inferior non-carbon energy sources like wind and solar. Furthermore, when we spend public money to eliminate a harmless gas, we have less money to spend reducing real pollution.

The shocking thing about the above quote is that Friedman is not warning us of a potential threat to freedom. Instead, he admires China for its lack of debate and is enthusiastic that the Chinese government doesn't "waste time" with dissenters. 

Even if we all agreed that global warming is man-made and potentially catastrophic -- which many respected scientists do not -- are we to spend trillions of dollars addressing this (invented) crisis without any debate? How do we find the "right solutions" out of the innumerable possibilities?

Friedman describes the Chinese approach (quoting Ms. Liu again):

"[China] has the unique ability to pit low-cost capital with large-scale experiments to find models that work."  China has designated and invested in pilot cities for electric vehicles, smart grids, LED lighting, rural biomass and low-carbon communities. "They're able to quickly throw spaghetti on the wall to see what clean-tech models stick, and then have the political will to scale them quickly across the country."

The "political will"? Of course, dictatorships always have sufficient political will to do as they please. Dissenters who step in front of the greening of China are crushed -- although not literally under tank treads, one hopes.

The United States, Friedman grumbles, lacks China's political will to "scale" green tech -- a trendy new usage meaning to expand to a large scale that permits efficiencies and lower costs; in his words, "the totally bogus 'discrediting' of climate science ... helped scuttle Senate passage of the energy-climate bill needed to scale U.S.-made clean technologies."

One might interpret the failure of cap and trade bills like Waxman-Markey and Kerry-Boxer as proof of a healthy democratic process. Both sides argued their case, and the bill's sponsors couldn't come up with enough votes to remake the American economy. Blaming "American Republicans" is disingenuous, given the existing lopsided Democrat majorities.

Friedman believes however that viable technologies cannot succeed without government intervention. The Senate bill is "needed." End of discussion. His distrust of free-market capitalism to find efficient solutions is analogous to his distrust of political democracy; in both spheres, he believes that the ruling class must be given unlimited power to impose chosen solutions.

The current Chinese leadership is driven by profit, rather than Mao Zedong's unhinged and debauched utopian dreams.  It is plausible that China's current green policies will create jobs and make huge profits providing wind and solar technology that power utilities in the West are being forced to purchase by government fiat.

Nevertheless, it should make anyone uneasy to read about "large-scale experiments" and "quickly throw[ing] spaghetti on the wall." Mao likewise was convinced that no debate was needed when he conducted disastrous experiments with the Chinese economy. When he decreed in his Second Five Year Plan (1958-63) that China would make a Great Leap Forward from an agricultural to an industrial economy, twenty million people starved to death.

Imagine the effects of giving a central government such awesome power to reorganize entire cities on the whim of an environmentalist. In an American context, what if you owned a Ford dealership in the electric vehicle pilot city? What if you owned an energy-intensive aluminum factory in a pilot "low-carbon community"? What if your family's cattle ranch found itself located in a rural biomass production zone? In addition to the abrogation of property rights, the Chinese approach acknowledges that some of their large-scale experiments will work better than others; thus, it is inevitable that the lives of some individuals will be disrupted for failed ideas.

A small price to pay to benefit the general will, Friedman might argue, to save the planet from catastrophe.  A small price to realize the hopes and dreams of a green economy.  The common good supersedes the private good.  History's greatest atrocities however are often committed in the name of the common good.  As Eric Hoffer writes in his classic, The True Believer:

When hopes and dreams are loose in the streets, it is well for the timid to lock doors, shutter windows, and lie low until the wrath has passed. For there is often a monstrous incongruity between the hopes, however noble and tender, and the action which follows them.