A Vehement Critique of Authoritarianism

Peter Hessler, in his article “How China Controlled The Coronavirus,” provides an engaging personal narrative that describes his experiences in China with the thrilling subtext of the COVID-19 pandemic. Through this narrative he provides an accurate exegesis on the various methods that the Chinese government utilized to curtail the spread of the virus, and through deep personal, anecdotal evidence, he identifies the strengths and the successes of this method. He extrapolates on methods used such as strict lockdowns, health-trackers, and other severe, authoritarian measures, but Hessler goes further. He uses these strict measures and their success as a critique of liberal democracy, explaining that “those strategies could never be adopted in America.” The entire article seems to have the undertone of the ethical benefits of paternalism and beneficence, even when it curtails personal autonomy or individual freedoms. While I concede the undeniable truth that the United States and other liberal democracies could have bettered education efforts and been more stringent on public appearance and public health policy to combat the virus, I fundamentally disagree with the evident subtext of the article, which seems to be a critique of liberal democracy at large. While it may have failed us in this specific instance, liberal democracy has protected us from a plethora of evils that authoritarian regimes such as China actively use to subjugate their peoples. This virus should be considered the exception, and not the rule, to the efficacy and moral righteousness of liberal democracy.

The fundamental ethical dynamic of power largely influences my belief in this refutal. It boils down to a rather simple context: power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely. Of course I am cognizant of the fact that for national security reasons, people in liberal democracies often forgo power for the greater good, but there should always be systems in place to remove and reclaim it. I also acknowledge the argument that with regards to the virus, the federal government in America should have taken a more active role in pursuing nationwide. Concurrently, I understand the notion that the author does not support all the policies put forth by China and does scrutinize them to such extent. My main issue is not with the strategies of China that the author praises but that it elevates China as a model as to pursuing those policies. If the virus is used as a model to forgo more power to the federal government, in a system like China, there is no system in place to remove that power. The only way to pursue the kinds of reforms that Hessler praises with the expediency he describes is to move closer to such a system, and I believe that to be incredibly dangerous. Processes under democracies take time and require patience by nature, but that is not a weakness, but rather a cogent strength. I am aware of our Federal Government’s failure to pursue stringent nationwide reforms for the virus, but I believe a more conducive and productive means of such reform is incentivization. For many other public health crises, we have used economic disincentivization to sway the public to the side of health. A prime example is the economic sanction imposed on cigarettes. The government could have incentivized states to push for stringent health policies through funding, but the localization of power is incredibly important. Education and leadership efforts could have been much better, but these largely revolve around rhetoric. Legislatively usurping power from peoples is the practice of aristocracies. 

Various ethical dilemmas can be used as cogent lenses to view the philosophical questions within Hessler’s argument. His main strain of ethical principle seems to be derivative of utilitarianism, because he argues that more lives can be saved through this authoritarian pursuit. That is fundamentally true. I do concede that authoritarianism breeds “results,” but in doing so, it runs the risk of viewing peoples and entities as means to an end. Quality of life, mental health, autonomy: these things matter. I know it seems like I am rashly against the intention and the truth of the article, but this is not the case. I see much merit in what Hessler puts forth. Even though I disagreed with some of the premises of the article and in my adolescent immaturity vehemently derided even the slightest praise of authoritarianism, the article did indeed provoke me to be a bit more introspective about the flaws of the American system. I began to wonder how more stringent policies and a stronger federal government initiative could have benefitted communities of color. I think it is important to find a balance between the two extremes, but I still believe that balance should be approached and achieved democratically. Slow and steady wins the race, and good things come to those who wait. 

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