It is refreshing to see public intellectuals other than Eric X Li speak openly against the blind faith that most westerners place in their own brand of democratic governance and market capitalism (a faith that they attempt to impose on the rest of the world). However, I wanted to voice my skepticism on two of Moyo’s assumptions that I noticed in this linked video.
Assumption 1: western countries actually followed their own prescriptions for economic development
The first (unspoken) assumption that Moyo seems to make in her TED talk is that the West succeeded as a result of their widely advertised model of ‘democratic governance + free market capitalism’. In reality, during the period (1500s – 1800s) when the West rose to prominence above the rest of the world, few if any western countries were “democratic” – in name or, more importantly, in practice. Even those that guaranteed some form of citizens’ rights, such as the British Empire, simply colonized and oppressed weaker societies overseas, and exploited colonial subjects’ labor and material resources to develop economically. The American rise to power in the 1800s follows a similar path – a combination of foreign aggression (against Native Americans) and domestic oligarchical rule (monopolistic tycoons that resemble those of modernday Russia). Furthermore, most western countries adopted some form of mercantilsim when it came to foreign trade. In fact, prior to leveeing a personal income tax, the primary source of revenue for the US federal government was tariffs on imported goods. It was no doubt ‘capitalist’, but far from the brand of free market/free trade capitalism that the West advocates today. So judging from a historical perspective, the REAL western model of development was neither democratic nor market-driven.
Assumption 2: High per capita income can effectively preserve a democratic system “come hell or high water”
The second (verbally articulated) assumption is that high incomes can maintain the stability and survivability of a democratic system. Moyo mentioned the $8000 per capita benchmark toward the middle of her TED talk, claiming that this is the point at which a democratic government is able to retain longevity. She may be correct in the sense that the $8000 milestone is the point at which violent rebellions and sudden social upheavals cannot overthrow a democratic government, but a high income hardly protects a democracy against internal political decay. The US has a per capita income of more than 5 times that amount, yet we see democratic governance being eroded across the board in the US today.
The electoral system is gradually transforming from a one-man one-vote system back to the one-dollar, one-vote system reminiscent of the late 1800s and early 1900s. Major media outlets are getting bigger and becoming concentrated in fewer hands. Simultaneously, in a society where economic resources increasingly determine political outcomes, the disparity of wealth between the economic elite and middle/lower classes is rapidly widening. Finally, Orwellian laws and practices that monitor every aspect of a citizen’s life are quickly becoming the norm, and the people appear to be unwilling and incapable of stopping this erosion of individual liberty. If such trends continue, the US could very well become an authoritarian state in all but name, or a “illiberal democracy”, as Moyo describes it.
That said, despite some of her questionable assumptions, Moyo makes a persuasive appeal for keeping an open mind and avoiding ideological blinders – a thesis that appeared to be well-received in the audience.