Legitimacy, Democracy and Chinese Government
Today Political Scientists talk about the concept of “government legitimacy”. Defining legitimacy is actually quite difficult, but some of the ideas we tend to associate with it include benevolence, competence and popular support.
In fact, the 20th Century American political sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset offers by far the most compelling definition of legitimacy:
A government is legitimate if and only if it is generally believed that the government performs at least as well or better than that all conceivable alternatives. Performance here means proven increases in the public good, especially economic growth.
Notice that the principles of both competence and consent are integral to this definition.
Lipset also describes this notion of legitimacy as the key source of a government’s stability. As a result, the key to a government’s persistence is either the want of a better alternative, or its ability to generate “performance legitimacy”.
Today Lipset’s theory of legitimacy is not just widely admired, it has achieved essentially axiomatic status.
How does democracy relate to Lipset legitimacy? If it is generally believed that voter choice guarantees optimal policy, then democracy achieves a sort of automatic “democratic legitimacy”. However, generally political scientists, including Lipset, do not believe this to be the case. Instead, the persistence of democracy is still believed to revolve around its ability to generate performance legitimacy.
Until very recently, political scientists generally believed that Western Democracy was economically outperforming all other models of government, demonstrating superior performance legitimacy. If this was ever proven widely incorrect, the decline of Western democracy follows axiomatically. For example: Robert Kagan, foreign-policy analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, has said: “We lived under the illusion that economic success required political liberalisation. All the [democratic] optimism of the 1990s rested on this assumption. Now it appears that the causality is less certain… The old struggle, the one that long predated the Cold War, has returned.”
Readers will probably ask themselves “Is democracy really on such shaky grounds? Is ‘performance legitimacy’ really the only factor? Surely there must be more to it, what about morality?” This is where political science and liberal politics diverge; Lipset’s theory does not make moral assumptions and is very focused on economic growth. Even Francis Fukuyama’s rather populist essay “The End Of History” revolved around the economic out performance of democracy, if you reverse that assumption you reverse the argument. Fukuyama did speculate that mankind’s evolution toward democracy on material grounds has accompanied his evolution toward democracy on philosophical grounds. In other words, democracy is the endpoint of mankind’s search for material progress just as it is the endpoint of mankind’s search for justice and virtue. There is something intuitively appealing about this argument, were democracy not to be the ideal system on material grounds, perhaps we would also find it not to be the ideal system on philosophical grounds.
Now that we have equipped ourselves with the concept of legitimacy, we can analyze the Chinese model of government. In fact the Chinese government essentially targets Lipset legitimacy directly. Instead of democracy, China employs policy experts, today generally scientists and engineers, who optimize policy in order to maximize Lipsettian goals such as economic growth. Although realized increases in living standards are the most important factor in Lipset legitimacy, radical unfamiliar policy changes can jeopardize public confidence in government. In order to maintain Lipset legitimacy, Chinese officials are not allowed to circumvent public support by relying on terror, which is egregious “despotic power”, such as that employed by Joseph Stalin. So Chinese officials must maintain public confidence, they must convince the people that they are delivering and will continue to deliver, that the government is working effectively in the people’s interest. For example: Officials are not allowed to suspend the need for broad public support in the hope that they will regain it at a later date when the wisdom of their radical new policy initiative manifests in greater social utility. One of the ways to overcome this limitation is to experiment with radical policy in a limited geographical area, avoiding endangering broad support, but giving officials a chance to publicly demonstrate the advantages of the policy, allowing them to subsequently extend it without protest.
Improving living standards are the results the Chinese people are looking for, the results by which they primarily judge the legitimacy of their government. Chinese technocrats translate this into a basket of numerical indices which include, for example, a growth index, a green index, a poverty index (further reading: Glasshouse Forum, China Model). The goal of policy makers then becomes the optimization of this basket. Behind the calculation and optimization of policy are vast numbers of academics, economists and statisticians. Chinese technocrats regularly experiment with new policy ideas at the provincial level, and if successful introduce them nationwide. Massive localised infrastructure investments have leveraged the type of economy of scale economics which Paul Krugman won a Nobel Prize describing. Whereas governments in most advanced democracies spend less than eight percent of government revenue on capital investment, this figure is close to fifty percent in China. The creation and incredible expansion of a highly competitive science and engineering focused educational system has also greatly contributed to the economic revolution. Many senior Chinese officials, including President Hu Jintao, have engineering degrees and industry backgrounds. In principle, opinion polls can be used to estimate the utility functions of the populace, allowing scientists to construct the best basket of statistics. Policy making looses all ideological colour, it becomes a purely pragmatic scientific process, a vast economic optimization problem driven by statistics and experimentation.
In summary, at the heart of Chinese Government we have a committee of expert scientists / engineers / economists running policy designed to maximize performance legitimacy constrained by the necessity of maintaining popular support. In the last thirty years these experts have delivered an average annualized GDP growth rate of over 10%, even the Japanese post war economic miracle only managed 8½%. It is an unparalleled achievement, and just as Lipset predicts, Chinese government is consequently hugely popular with the Chinese masses and politically stable.
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