October 20, 2020 Reading Time: 4 minutes

“We argue that the high point for Western government, at least comparatively, was the 1960s when America was racing to put a man on the moon and millions of Chinese were dying of starvation.” So said John Micklethwait about his new book (co-authored with Adrian Wooldridge) to a plainly enthusiastic Thomas Friedman. It’s just a guess, but Micklethwait’s assertion won’t age well.

Really, does even he believe it? That Friedman does is no surprise. In Friedman’s world, one “country’s” gain occurs at the expense of other countries. The latter explains Friedman’s routine laments over the years about China supposedly moving way ahead of the U.S. on the green energy/environmental front. Missed by the New York Times columnist is that in a world broadly defined by open shipping lanes, that same world happily shrinks daily in a figurative sense. Though most of us don’t live in Cupertino or Seattle, it’s as though Apple and Amazon are next door to us. Notable here is that Apple sells 1/5th of its iPhones in China, which is a reminder that for the Chinese, Cupertino similarly seems local as far as businesses go.

Stating what should be obvious, if you’re producing something of value, you’re producing for the whole world. Innovations in Silicon Valley lift the world’s citizens, including the Chinese. If Chinese entrepreneurs make huge strides in the environmental space, Americans will enjoy them as though the advances were hatched right here. 

It all speaks to how exciting it is that China is increasingly economically free. Since it is, it’s not unreasonable to guess that there are a few Steve Jobs-type visionaries in China, which means Americans will soon enough be benefiting from genius on the other side of the world in the way that Chinese now benefit from American ingenuity.

As for Micklethwait’s assertion about government, who would care? Government is a resource-free consequence of production outside of government. The less of the latter, the more that genius gets to express itself. The more that work is divided up globally, the more that genius gets to express itself. Americans are much better off now materially, and much safer, thanks to the happy fact that millions of Chinese are no longer starving. That “government” was allegedly trusted more and at a higher point in the 1960s is and was immaterial. Government is yet again a consequence.

Not to Friedman. As he sees it, government is our protector, and not just from outsiders with guns. Government also exists to protect us from virus and other alleged threats to our wellbeing. So while Friedman claims to decry authoritarianism, he doth protest too much. It makes him giddy.

Friedman admires “national plans,” particularly China’s allegedly national plan to fight the coronavirus. As Friedman joyfully explained it, Beijing “deployed all the tools of its authoritarian surveillance system – tools designed to track and trace political dissidents to control the population – to track and trace those infected with the coronavirus and control its spread.”

Except that it’s not really as Friedman described it. There wasn’t a national plan. For probably two months at least. According to a report in the newspaper that employs Friedman, the first documented coronavirus case happened sometime in November? Smartphones equipped with internet spread news that otherwise wouldn’t be spread. If China’s authoritarians had employed a draconian “national plan” to fight the virus right away, we would have known about it well before 2019 based on smartphone density in China. 

Except that we didn’t. We didn’t because there wasn’t a plan. As the great George Gilder put it, “the Chinese dithered and demurred and allowed six weeks of rampant propagation to create herd immunity before they began locking everyone up.” Arguably China’s best “plan” was a lack of one that enabled the virus to spread among people largely moving about the country freely. Some, including Oxford professor Sunetra Gupta, have even speculated that China’s lack of a plan facilitated some form of global immunity before nail-biting politicians panicked.

Funny about Friedman’s worship of national force is that China’s modern prosperity is an obvious creation of exponentially less of the command and control that starved millions, and quite a bit more of the lack of planning that is economic freedom. Translated, the Chinese copied the U.S. on the way to shimmering prosperity. Friedman wants the U.S. to copy what failed so miserably decades ago.

Better than Friedman’s authoritarianism is choice. Really, who needs to be told to be careful if a virus is spreading that might make us sick, or if we’re very old (according to the New York Times) might in very rare circumstances kill us? If something threatens, the logical answer is yet again freedom. Sadly the U.S. failed there, but even then the failure had a local quality to it.

Florida locked down late, and didn’t do so stringently on the way to low death rates. On the other hand New York locked down rather ferociously and early on the way to very high rates of death. Correlation? Who knows? The only thing reasonable people know is that one-size-fits-all solutions suffocate choice, and by extension information about what works. That there were fifty autonomous U.S. states was a feature of the response(s) in the U.S., not a bug.

Which brings us to President Trump. The partisan in Friedman blames Trump for the U.S. response, which reveals astounding ignorance about the Constitution on the part of the columnist. Trump at least learned through the decisions made by Governors De Santis and Cuomo, along with Georgia’s Kemp, that states’ rights supersede those of presidents. In short, Trump quickly realized that there would be no national plan even if he wanted one. It seems Thomas Friedman still hasn’t figured this out.

Reprinted from RealClearMarkets

John Tamny


John Tamny, research fellow of AIER, is editor of RealClearMarkets.

His book on current ideological trends is: They Are Both Wrong (AIER, 2019)

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