Anti-democrats' misguided smugness over US fiscal crisis

Stephen Vines says gloating over US government shutdown is premature

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 12 October, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 11 October, 2013, 10:57pm

The opponents of democracy in Hong Kong and their dim-witted allies can hardly contain their glee over the legislative rumpus in the US that has produced a government shutdown. "See what happens," they crow, "when you get democracy."

They are equally pleased about the turmoil that has accompanied the end of dictatorships in the Middle East. Instead of attempting an adult discussion about the problems of transition from dictatorship to democracy, they settle for the lazy argument that if a change of regime does not instantly produce better results, it can be written off as a failure.

While eager to criticise the failings of democracy, the opponents of universal suffrage rarely, if ever, extol the virtues of the system they are supposed to be defending, preferring instead to point out the dangers of an alternative.

For all their faults, democratic governments have never presided over mass murder

Their reticence is quite understandable because even they recognise the essential problem of their position, which is that dictatorships ultimately do not work.

For all their massive faults, democratic governments have never presided over mass starvation and mass murder on the scale of dictatorships such as the Nazi regime in Germany, the Stalinist regime in the Soviet Union, or the multiple disasters of Mao Zedong's China.

Even if we set aside the enormity of these crimes against humanity, just look at the sort of things these regimes were said to have achieved, such as stability, economic prosperity and the restoration of national pride. The record shows that, while these goals may have been fleetingly achieved, all these regimes ended in catastrophic failure. There is not even any veracity in the much quoted myth about the fascist Mussolini getting the trains to run on time in Italy.

So the anti-democrats are left gloating over the fact that the US government has been plunged into paralysis, but they won't admit that this nonsense will pass, and it will pass without a civil war breaking out, without blood on the streets and without the need to fundamentally change the system of government.

It is possible to make this confident assertion because the American political system, like others based on democratic principles, ultimately allows the people to bring politicians to account. Legislators responsible for the government shutdowns in the Clinton administration paid a heavy price at the ballot box when voters punished them.

But our home-grown anti-democrats, like their counterparts elsewhere in the world, have a fundamental contempt for the people and do not trust elected governments. They sneer when told that, although voters can behave irrationally and make poor choices, the system ultimately sorts itself out, as the lessons of history demonstrate.

The anti-democrats argue, even more implausibly in the case of Hong Kong, that you cannot trust self-seeking politicians to run governments because the non-elected do a much better job. What examples do they have in mind: Tung Chee-hwa, Donald Tsang Yam-kuen or maybe Leung Chun-ying? And what do they have to say about the parade of local officials and appointees who have been embroiled in corruption scandals or the fine bureaucrats whose answer to the shocking problems of poverty in Hong Kong was to dish out HK$6,000 to everyone, from billionaires to those really in need?

So the anti-democrats should be careful to keep their gloating within bounds.

Indeed, it is quite possible to argue that shocks to a system that is democratic, such as the US government shutdown, end up strengthening it, while the fate of one-party states and non-elected governments is to learn nothing from history until it catches up with them and gives them a very nasty kick up the backside.

Stephen Vines is a Hong Kong-based journalist and entrepreneur