Against political art
By Scott Sumner
Tyler Cowen recently linked to a New Yorker interview of Liu Cixin, author of the acclaimed sci-fi trilogy “The Three Body Problem.” These books are of very high quality, and rely heavily on ideas from the social sciences, particularly game theory. So you’d think that if any artist would be good at politics, it would be Liu Cixin. Just the opposite is true:
I decided to inch the conversation toward politics, a topic he prefers to avoid. His views turned out to be staunch and unequivocal. The infamous one-child policy, he said, had been vital: “Or else how could the country have combatted its exploding population growth?” . . .
Liu took a similarly pragmatic view of a controversial funeral-reform law, which mandates cremation, even though the tradition of “returning to the ground” has been part of Chinese culture for thousands of years. . . .
When I brought up the mass internment of Muslim Uighurs—around a million are now in reëducation camps in the northwestern province of Xinjiang—he trotted out the familiar arguments of government-controlled media: “Would you rather that they be hacking away at bodies at train stations and schools in terrorist attacks? If anything, the government is helping their economy and trying to lift them out of poverty.” . . .
“If China were to transform into a democracy, it would be hell on earth,” he said. “I would evacuate tomorrow, to the United States or Europe or—I don’t know.” The irony that the countries he was proposing were democracies seemed to escape his notice. He went on, “Here’s the truth: if you were to become the President of China tomorrow, you would find that you had no other choice than to do exactly as he has done.”
I was surprised by the weakness of his arguments. The US has suffered far more from Muslim terrorism that China, and we don’t put a million Muslims in “reeducation” camps.
I’m old enough to remember when intellectuals would tell me that democracy could not work in Asia, Africa or Latin America. If I mentioned Japan, they’d wave that away, suggesting it was imposed by the US. When South Korea and Taiwan became successful democracies the argument shifted. Now it was “China’s different, it’s much larger and poorer.” But Korea and Taiwan were just as poor as China is now when they became democratic, probably poorer.
Some argue that a democratic system would effectively turn the Chinese government over to the large masses that live in the countryside, which would vote against the interests of the urban elite. I understand that argument, and indeed I’ve often speculated that China would not become democratic until the urban middle class formed a majority. This also explains why Thailand lost its democracy, as the Bangkok elite resented the fact that they kept losing elections to candidates representing the rural masses.
But here’s what’s so disappointing about Liu’s argument. The Chinese political system should adjust policies in the direction of aiding the rural masses. China currently utilizes a “hukou” system, which restricts the ability of rural residents to move to urban areas where they could be far more productive. This is one of those areas where reforms would be a win-win, boosting both equity and efficiency in China. It’s hard to find an expert on China who would defend this system of apartheid.
It’s also possible the Chinese masses would vote for a high tax regime such as you see in Europe. But other East Asian countries have relatively low taxes.
China is now a reasonably well-educated and technologically sophisticated economy, by global standards (although rural areas still fall well short). If you look around the world, the vast majority of such countries have democratic systems, and they generally produce richer and freer societies than China. It’s possible that democracy in China would be a disaster, but I see almost zero evidence for that hypothesis. And yet Liu is so confident of that prediction that he’d flee the country. Why? FWIW, I suspect the Chinese Communist Party would win the first free election in China. But in order to do so it would adjust policy to be more favorable to rural residents, as it should.
I’m not a fan of political art. Here I’m defining “political” narrowly, as art that addresses specific public policy issues. If you want to define politics in the “everything is political” sense, then there’s obviously lots of great political art. After all, art addresses profound ethical quandaries. Art can show that cruelty is a bad thing, or that others have the same feelings as we do. And that’s useful. It’s when art tries to make specific points on specific public policies issues that it falls short.
A painting like Guernica or a novel like Animal Farm might be excellent works of art, but if so it’s not because they contain interesting political ideas. What lessons might Mao or Pol Pot have derived from reading Animal Farm? Perhaps that Stalin didn’t go far enough in producing true equality, and that the urban elite should be cut down to size, that it should be sent to the countryside to suffer with the peasants? (Maybe they did read it.) And what’s the political message of Guernica? Would the message be different if the painting were entitled Belchite?
Artists are good at illustrating moral dilemmas. Sci-fi artists are especially good at identifying new dilemmas that will be created by technological innovations. But when artists try to make specific political points on public policy issues, the art collapses. Asking an artist to write about politics is like asking a plumber to play a violin concerto.
PS. The US does not have a hukou system. We have zoning. And border controls.