Which technological advances have improved the working of autocracy?
That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt:
“What have been the really major advances of the past 20 years?” is one of the most common debated questions in my circles. The smartphone is probably nominated most often, while Google, Facebook and fracking have their advocates too. Yet we hardly ever talk about one of the most important developments, perhaps because it raises uncomfortable political issues: the governance technologies and strategies of authoritarian regimes have become much more efficient…
The big innovation in authoritarian governance has been this: subsequent autocratic leaders, most of all in China, have found ways of both liberalizing and staying in power. The good news is that people living under authoritarian governments have much, much better lives than before. The corresponding bad news is that autocracy works better than it used to and thus it is more popular and probably also more enduring. The notion that autocratic government would fade away, either in practice or as an ideological competitor to Western liberalism, simply isn’t tenable any more…
A second development was when authoritarian leaders realized that absolute prohibitions on free speech were counterproductive, and they learned how to manage an intermediate solution. Allowing partial speech rights is useful as a safety valve, it allows major dissidents to be identified and monitored, and absolute speech prohibitions tended to wreck the economy and discourage foreign investment, leading to unpopularity of the government. At the same time, an autocratic government could come down hard on the truly threatening ideas when needed.
Scientific public opinion polling has been another advance in authoritarian states. In 1987, the Economic System Reform Institute of China conducted the first Chinese public opinion survey, a breakthrough event. Under Chairman Mao in contrast, the incentive was to report only the good news. In the 1990s, however, Chinese public opinion surveys boomed and also became much more scientific.
There is much more at the link, one of my more interesting columns as of late.