I personally dislike the conclusion, but recently I feel that democracy and freedom may end shortly, in a few decades. There are three reasons.
1. China emerging as the biggest donor who doesn’t care freedom and democracy
This was also written in Briefing of the Economist of last week, but the countries facing financial difficulties are increasingly becoming quasi-allies of China. The tools are investment and loans (mainly loans). Unlike the Western donors who withdraw funds/supports unless the beneficiary countries respect human rights and democracy, China continues to provide assistance as long as the beneficiaries are friendly to China. For dictators, the withdrawal of the donations from rich countries has been literally a fatal issue (economic stagnation often leads to riots replacing the political leaders), and thus they have followed the Western rules and norms. However, now they can do whatever they want in their own country as long as they keep a good tie with China. I see many such cases in Southeast Asia and South Asia. My friends say the situation is similar in Sub-Sahara African countries.
If the situation continues for another decade, perhaps the number of countries which respect basic freedom and democracy will be minority in the world.
By the way, loans from China are not cheap at all. While you can repay the debts, they look inexpensive. However, once you can not do it, China will take something from you. Due to the debt insolvency, a port in Colombo, Sri Lanka is now owned by China for a century. Things may change if the countries realize the actual cost of the Chinese government debt, but it may be too late when they notice it.
2. Freedom and democracy may be hampering productivity improvement
The country that dominates the fundamental technology in the times leads the world, and that technology for the next decades will be computer algorithm. A good algorithm increases the performance of the machines and grasps the human behavior, making its consumption and production activities more efficient and the economy grow faster.
The most crucial factor in making a better algorithm is big data, i.e. the data whose distribution is not biased and which covers the entire population. However, in a society where individual privacy or trade secret is a sacred right, it is difficult to mobilize all the information of private individuals and private companies to create an algorithm.
However, China can do it. For example, the quality of algorithm-based loan assessments by Chinese companies (e.g., WeChat Bank) is astonishingly high, and this is the result of ignoring personal information protection. When I look at tech companies which boast “AI-based lending”, the quality is like a toy as of today. The performance of production machinery and weapons produced in China may dramatically improve in the next decade.
Looking at history in the long term, a social system which becomes a barrier to the improvement of productivity has been forced to change at some timing. That was Karl Marx’s argument — a social system has changed to maximize the production capacity given the technical environment of that age. In the future, when we retrospect today, we may say Marx was right. However, I don’t know whether the society that comes after the change is the same as what he anticipated.
3. Democracy in question when algorithms manipulate our opinions
It is known that there are some premises for democracy to bring out the best conclusion. The details are in “The Wisdom of Crowds”.
Granted, as long as individuals are not biased, the collection of the individuals’ decisions is superior to the decision of the smartest individual. However, in modern times where the algorithm can influence human decision making, does the wisdom of the crowds really work?
I work in many countries, and I found that many people believe in dubious information flowing on Facebook and making decisions according to the information, including voting behavior. If that trend continues, the decision made by the public may be nothing but the result of a superior algorithm. Some of my Chinese friends claim that “One-party dictatorship will be able to make more accurate and long-term decision”. I feel the remark is increasingly persuasive.
Another thing, this is by the way one of my thought agenda these days, but how many people really wish to protect freedom and democracy at any cost? Even if there is a big brother, if a safe, convenient and comfortable living under him/her is offered, the majority may be willing to give up their privacy and freedom. “Can I accuse them doing so for the sake of bread?”, Ivan Karamazov may ask me.