The second principle is that, while a big government can certainly give a great boost to a good idea, it can also put enormous force behind a bad idea — and when it does, the effects can be catastrophic.
No nation in my lifetime has more effectively and repeatedly demonstrated these principles than the People’s Republic of China. Though China has had the world’s largest supply of human capital, the ruling Communist Party has kept a jealous grip on decision-making. It’s possible that, like the proverbial blind hog rooting for acorns, the Chinese government has enforced some good decisions made by this little clique. But if so, these are no match for the very bad ideas that repeatedly emerge from the party’s inner sanctum to be applied by fiat with disastrous results.
Sixty years ago, China was in the grip of the deadliest famine in world history — the result not of weather or disease, but of bad policy enforced by an all-powerful one-party state. Mao Zedong’s so-called Great Leap Forward attempted to collectivize and industrialize Chinese agriculture; by the time the program was finally abandoned, in 1962, some 45 million people were dead by starvation and murder, according to a definitive history by Frank Dikötter.
Mao and the Central Committee drew precisely the wrong lesson from this disaster. Rather than liberalize society to generate better decisions, they moved to further tighten the government’s grip. This led to the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, a 10-year spasm of violence and oppression that may have generated an additional 8 million deaths before Mao’s own, in 1976, finally brought the period to an end.
More than 50 million total deaths: That’s approaching the worldwide toll of World War II — entirely self-inflicted. A free market of ideas would never have settled on such terrible policies, and a limited government could not have enforced them.
Then the Central Committee decided to go into family planning.
Demography moves more slowly than famine or revolution. But recent census data from China make plain the implications of the heavy-handed one-child edict of 1980. This draconian, ill-considered measure has brought China to the brink of population decline at a time when the rising nation is still too poor, on a per capita basis, to support swelling ranks of elderly pensioners on the backs of a dwindling number of young workers.
Experts began forecasting years ago the smothering effect the one-child policy would have on China’s long-term development. Nevertheless, the government persisted. By the time the policy was finally lifted, in 2016 — the all-powerful government permitted couples to have two children — it was too late. Birthrates have continued to drop, moving the Central Committee to raise the cap last month to three children, in a desperate bid to mitigate the consequences of another failed policy.
Last year, despite the changes, China produced fewer newborns than in any year since the depths of the Great Famine. Today’s adult women bear the emotional scars of childhoods dictated by bureaucratic tyranny, and they are deaf to the government’s new blandishments to breed.
Virtually all of them are, perforce, only children. Many felt unwanted in a culture where abortion and even infanticide of girl children were common among families that preferred boys. And many now fear being pulled back into poverty. Children are expensive, and for all of China’s recent economic growth, per capita income is still less than half that of neighboring South Korea.
Falling birthrates are not unique to China, of course. Everywhere, rising standards of living tend to produce smaller families. Figuring out how to avoid economic stagnation as populations fall will be one of the most important challenges of the 21st century.
Meeting that challenge will require creativity, innovation and openness — precisely the qualities that China’s top-down, one-party dictatorship tends to squelch. Countries that welcome diversity can use immigration to keep their workforces young. But China is a xenophobic country, as its program of Muslim repression demonstrates.
One might imagine that China would see the value of limited government and free people. After all, economic liberalization has produced impressive advances, while central planning has produced one epic failure after another. But no: President Xi Jinping has moved to consolidate his authority, crack down on dissent and create the world’s most advanced surveillance state. More than 1 million Muslims have been locked up in re-education camps in western China.
Some people never learn.