The dwindling number of readers of The New York Times were treated Wednesday to a column by Thomas Friedman extolling China's "one-party autocracy," which, he told us, "is led by a reasonably enlightened group of people."
China's leaders, he reported, are "boosting gasoline prices" and "overtaking us in electric cars, solar power, energy efficiency, batteries, nuclear power and wind power." All, of course, in the cause of reducing carbon emissions, which so many luminaries assure us are bound to produce global warming and environmental catastrophe.
As Jonah Goldberg, author of the scholarly bestseller "Liberal Fascism," notes, "This is exactly the argument that was made by American fans of Mussolini in the 1920s." Mussolini, we were told then, made the trains run on time. He drained the Pontine marshes. He got things done while Americans, with their chaotic democratic politics, dithered.
Most of the Mussolini fans of the 1920s didn't really want a dictatorship in America, and any fair reader of Thomas Friedman's oeuvre knows that he doesn't want an authoritarian government here, either. The word limit of his column apparently left him no space to regret the Chinese one-party autocracy's Internet censorship, forced sterilizations, imprisonment of political dissenters and the like.
Even so, Friedman declares that "our one-party democracy is worse" than the Chinese model. He is upset that the minority party, the Republicans, won't go along with Democrats' plans to raise the price of carbon emissions and pass a government health care plan -- though, perhaps wisely, he refrains from praising the Chinese health delivery system. But he does get an essential bit wrong: It's our two-party system he's complaining about, and the fact that the current minority party won't act like it's just one wing of the majority.
China's one-party autocracy has acted decisively two issues, which can be summed up in the phrases the population explosion and global warming. The media, university and corporate elites of not just America but most of the world have been of one mind about these two issues, and in my opinion are being proven wrong on both. Each of them is used by the elites as an excuse to prevent ordinary people from behaving as they would like to.
Back in the 1970s, when the elites were convinced that overpopulation would destroy the Earth, the Chinese acted as only a one-party autocracy or totalitarian state could: It limited women to one child. The result was that millions of female fetuses were aborted so that China now has about 120 males to every 100 females -- a potentially destabilizing imbalance -- and a slow-growing population that means China will get old before most of its people grow rich.
Meanwhile, the population bomb has turned out to be a dud worldwide, as birth rates declined, and the real demographic problem, as Ben Wattenberg and Phillip Longman have pointed out, is population decline. Warren Buffett, who planned to leave his fortune to population controllers, wisely decided to leave it to Bill and Melinda Gates to spend as they think best.
The verdict isn't in on global warming yet, but some alarmist predictions have proved false. The world has been getting a little colder in the last decade, and climate models have been failing to predict the recent past. Moreover, as global warming believer Bjorn Lomborg points out, it's economically much more sensible to spend money on pending problems (like lack of safe drinking water) and on mitigating possible future effects of climate change than it is to reduce carbon emissions, which choke off the near-term economic growth needed to address environmental needs.
China's one-party autocracy can ignore such arguments. Our two-party democracy can't. Thomas Friedman may lament what Barack Obama on Wednesday night called "bickering." But in a democracy, citizens don't always take the advice of their betters, even that of Friedman and the three experts he quotes -- a climateprogress.org blogger, a former Clinton budget official and a "global trade consultant who teaches at Baruch College."
The lesson I take from the overpopulation scare is to be wary when media, university and corporate elites warn that we must change our ways or face disaster 50 years hence, and when they insist, as Al Gore does and as Tom Friedman seems to, that the time for argument is over.
In our two-party democracy, it never is. And shouldn't be.