But my real question is whether, as we have become more and more willing to countenance all of these encroachments upon our supposed principles, we have ourselves changed. Is it likely, in other words, that authoritarian capitalism on the Chinese model will ever gain a foothold in the United States? For several reasons, I believe the answer is yes.
One is that there is no necessary relationship between capitalism and freedom. It is perfectly possible to have a regime that silences dissent, tortures, and even kills its own citizens while allowing entrepreneurs to do the sorts of things Milton Friedman wrote a number of boring books about. Another is the fact that very few of us are likely to care very much about this apparent incongruity or think it results from misrule. The Chinese Communist Party is perhaps the most widely trusted political authority in the world. A people sated by widespread access to desirable consumer goods and cheap entertainment are not bothered by the disappearance of their ability to criticize a series of social arrangements from which they derive enormous pleasure, much less by the awful fates that befall millions of their fellow citizens with whom they have limited or no contact. Beijing’s social credit system is what happens when our own analytics-driven techo-consumerism and the “signaling” religion of our economists and social scientists are carried to their logical conclusions.
It is more than possible to imagine an authoritarian capitalist version of the United States, in which the public value of various companies continues to increase at a pace deemed acceptable by economists, in which cheap goods continue to be distributed and purchased and an ever-expanding array of services to be procured at a marginally higher rate than in the previous year, in which billions of hours are spent by the population collectively enjoying various forms of digital entertainment, in which certain low-level political controversies are the subject of widespread gossip but anyone who questions the first-order principles of the regime — numbers going up on a screen somewhere, seemingly for their own sake — is at best dismissed as a crank.