Friday, November 04, 2011

Estonia, Britain and authoritarian capitalism

Today's Guardian has an interview with Toomas Ilves, the President of Estonia. His is a fascinating story - there  is more detail on Wikipedia - and I was struck by this passage the interview:
I would say that the European Union is really a fundamental partner, or should be, for the United States insofar as it's on the same side of the ideological page. 
"The competing model today is authoritarian capitalism, countries that are formerly communist or nominally communist, where they basically say, 'You can make money, but you can't have freedom of speech and you can't have freedom of the press' … Our model is more efficient because we make autocratic decisions, and that works much better than this messy democracy stuff." 
He adds: "In the short term, you probably can make more efficient decisions. That was the argument for Adolf Hitler and fascism. But I don't think in the long term it's sustainable. Democracy is messy, clearly, but it has one key factor, which is an orderly transfer of power. And that's the problem with all these authoritarian countries – they become corrupt, and then the guys at the top want to grab it all. But then the problem is that you have to stay in power until you die because if you give up power, all [your wealth] will be confiscated and you'll be put in jail. Or worse."
This is an interesting argument and one clearly influenced by Karl Popper, who taught us that the idea that dictatorship is more efficient than democracy is mistaken.

But it also struck me that "authoritarian capitalism" is a neat description for large sections of the Conservative Party nowadays. They are pro-business, in fact hostile to the idea of any reform of the business sector, but their real enthusiasm is for punishing offenders and public order.

For just one example, see this contribution by Lord Cormack (the former Tory minister Patrick Cormack) in the Lords yesterday:
Will she impress upon the Government that we are facing a potentially disastrous situation? Next year, extra millions of people will come to this country for the Olympics and the Cultural Olympiad. They will come to admire our great public buildings and open spaces, not to see squalid encampments. It is essential that the Government take effective action to prevent what happened at St Paul's three weeks ago happening in other places, thereby defacing the very image of this country next year.
I have limited enthusiasm for the those camping next to St Paul's, but the idea that what we should do about them should be determined by our image of abroad smacks exactly of authoritarian capitalism. It is the sort of argument you would hear used from Moscow to Singapore.

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