Kevin Williamson at National Review, Autocracy’s Fatal Flaws:


The old truths remain unchanged: The free world isn’t free because it is rich — it is rich because it is free. Freedom is not only a moral good but also a practical one: Because we have a system that enables us to fail quickly and fail cheaply, we can try many different approaches to social and material problems, throwing everything we have at them and seeing what works. Authoritarian societies, in contrast, have trouble adapting to fluid conditions, often discomfited by problems that cannot be solved with bayonets. One by one, Americans and Germans and Englishmen aren’t any more intelligent than Russians or Chinese or Saudis, but the institutions of free societies — from the free press to competitive elections — enable free people to rally and deploy their collective intelligence in a way that is difficult or impossible in unfree societies.

Authoritarian societies do not even really confer the one advantage you would think they would: stability. If Vladimir Putin were to be hit by lightning tomorrow, the entire character of Russian public life would change immediately, and the country would be thrown into crisis; if Joe Biden were to throw in the towel on Monday, the United States would keep on keepin’ on. We may treat every presidential election like it is an existential dilemma, but, as you may have noticed, American life does not change radically from administration to administration. (On the other hand, if you erase three nonpoliticians from American history — Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, and Roger Ailes — the political culture looks very different, indeed.) That’s why Putin is scrambling around arresting his advisers and looking for saboteurs under his bed, while Dwight Eisenhower left Americans with the impression that he had spent the remarkably eventful years of his presidency playing golf: Real stability is dead boring.

A few people in the free world — mostly but not exclusively idiots — are easily ensorcelled by autocrats such as Putin and Xi for the same reason an earlier generation of Americans were impressed by Mussolini and Lenin: While the public life of a free society feels like an endless series of committee meetings, autocrats give the illusion of action. Peace, prosperity, genuine diversity — different people going about their own lives seeking their own ends in their own ways — can at times seem monotonous and boring, especially to young men, who so often define themselves not only as citizens but as men through conflict. And it probably is a great deal more exciting to be Vladimir Putin than it is to be Olaf Scholz, the chancellor of Germany and vice principal of Europe. Things got pretty exciting for Nicolae Ceaușescu there at the end. Saddam Hussein, too. Surely such examples come to Putin’s mind from time to time, even if his Western admirers do not think of them.

They may offer excitement, but, in the end, figures such as Putin leave their nations weaker, poorer, less stable, and more vulnerable than they have to be. We saw this play out in the 1940s, we saw it in the 1990s, and we will see it again in our time. Autocracy wears a snazzy uniform, but it can’t take a punch — which is why Ukrainians are stacking up dead Russians like cordwood.  Autocracy is good at knocking things down, but it isn’t very good at building things up — which is why the GDP per capita in China and Russia is lower than it is in Panama or Romania, and half of what it is in Lithuania.

The fatal conceit of men such as Vladimir Putin is the belief that their countries can rise in the world the same way they rose in their countries — with a little bit of cleverness and a great deal of ruthlessness. Except in the very short term, that never really works, because it is very, very hard to build a strong and powerful country without the things that liberalism is good at: property rights, entrepreneurship, long-term investment, social experimentation, cooperation, trust. These are the sources of wealth, innovation, stability, and confidence. Putin, for all his experience with the dark side of human affairs, apparently still hasn’t figured that out.


Kevin Williamson is by far my favorite writer of political and economic affairs.  His writing brings an original perspective, combining depth and wit and is always a joy to read.  This article may be paywalled, but I encourage you to read the whole piece.  Williamson alone is reason to subscribe to National Review.

Fukuyama’s The End of History considered the human inclination to be bored with peace and stability.  Capitalism provided an outlet for the thymos drive for glory and may explain why autocrats rise in weak economies or during weak economic periods.  Capitalism may promote peace by channeling man’s aggressive nature off the battlefield and into the markets.

In The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness: A Vindication of Democracy and a Critique of Its Traditional Defense  by Reinhold Niebuhr, the author observes that liberal democracies tend to fail to accurately assess the global realities required to properly defend their status.  This is how the Putins of history get so far.