Lots of people from Thomas Friedman to Barack Obama wish the US were more like China. I thank God every day it is not. Slashdot has a story and comments about a derailment of the high speed bullet train that led to numerous dead and injured, and coaches falling off a bridge. Only a few months too, after Railways Ministry officials expressed concerns that safety standards had been ignored in building the high speed train network. The claim of course was retracted, but undoubtedly true.
Winning the future, Obama’s “WTF” slogan (no I am not kidding) requires more than building up pirated technology in a slap-dash manner, cheaply. It means innovation. Which in turn requires … property rights widely respected and widely dispersed. China is again regressing to its Eunuchs-on-command-from-the-Emperor mode. Brilliant men either make a few, poorly understood breakthroughs (gunpowder, magnetic compasses) or copy something else, which then goes stagnant. Since there is no one at a deep-wide level to push technology ever further.
The West did not invent: gunpowder, magnetic compasses, paper money, printing, civil exams, and a lot of other things borrowed from China and India. But what the West did do, far better, was push advances constantly. Relentlessly, generation after generation. So that every twenty years there were newer and better navigation devices, charts, understanding of navigation, time-pieces, calculation log-books, and weapons. Made possible not by people under control of the Emperor, or the Central Party Oligarchy, but by many competing, widely distributed, always on the make ordinary folk trying their best to improve their lot every day.
The West beat the best brains on the planet. The West never had Court Eunuchs to match the Chinese Emperor, or the Ottoman’s scholars, or the ones in India. But it did have the Beretta Family, and the Caslon family, and the Caxton family, and the Wright family, and many more. All building on the work of others, to constantly improve technology to their own advantage. China has nothing like it.
There are many talented people in China. But their innovations, their designs, will go nowhere for their own advantage. No one is going to invent anything for the glory of the Emperor, or Central Party Committee, and the advantage of Red Princelings. Instead that lack of ability to better one’s own self except by examination and rising in the Emperor’s (or Central Party Committee) service means a mind-bending bureaucracy stifling anything other than stealing some other culture’s advances.
That’s not winning the future. More like heading for a crash, as the ability to work smarter with resources diminishes. As Jim Chanos famously observed, the USSR grew tremendously from 1946 up through the late 1970’s. Then productivity hit a wall. All the cement had been poured. All the villages electrified. All the people taught to read. All the highways built. All the peasants sent to technical school. And productivity fell, year after year, in accelerating fashion. Because fundamentally, people won’t work hard for anyone but themselves. Slaves may fear the whip, but avoid any serious work for their masters. Meanwhile the genius of Napoleon, a former peasant himself, was to make French peasants small landholders. Give a man a piece of property, no matter how mean, and a chance at a family of his own he can improve, no matter how small, and he’ll fight to the death for it.
If you wonder how Napoleon managed all those victories, against so many, for so long, before luck ran out, that’s how.
The US has many faults, but it is not China. And for that I thank God.