It was Spring 2020, and suddenly there seemed to be a cure for humanity's most terrifying threats. The name of the medicine: authoritarianism. We had just learned that pandemics aren't just the stuff of disaster movies, they're a very real threat. And the so-called free world seemed incomprehensibly helpless in the face of this long-discussed scenario.
Institutes warned about practically everything, talk shows talked at once, politicians each recommended the opposite of what had previously been demanded, and everyone seemed caught in the dilemma between fundamental rights and civil protection. Nothing seemed to be going on in the democratic hemisphere of the world.
Meanwhile, China's communist state party was already sealing off entire cities, rigorously pursuing chains of infection and detaining the sick like criminals.
Even the much more comfortable but also authoritarian Singapore managed to stop the spread of the virus with extensive curfews. When it is clear who is in charge, even the most overwhelming threats can be defeated. Clear specifications, short decision-making processes, no gossip and tugging - that's how you deal with problems. A victory for bondage. It seemed so.
Fast forward about two and a half years to the present. China's citizens are less and less satisfied with the authoritarian world rescue. The protest is spreading across the country, probably because corona protection measures have prevented the extinguishing of a house fire.
First of all, he is directed against the government's zero-Covid policy - in other words, against the very strategy that was admired around the world at the beginning of the pandemic. But more and more demonstrations against the system as such. This state has failed as a problem-solving machine, so it should go altogether. Or better: also because of that.
In fact, the Beijing leadership's corona policy is not only morally questionable, it simply doesn't work. While the number of infections in Germany has been falling since last winter, they are currently exploding in the People's Republic.
And while economies have recovered from the Covid dip almost everywhere, China's semi-capitalist state economy is still underperforming. More than five percent growth was planned for this year - it will be just over three.
According to the forecasts of economic experts, the target will not be achieved next year either. Apparently because the corona restrictions repeatedly paralyze businesses and markets. What was once considered a miracle strategy is obviously crippling the world's largest economy more than necessary - and thus also calling into question the usefulness of the political system.
Correct, authoritarian governments can act faster and more radically than democratically elected ones. But that doesn't mean they're doing the right thing. This statement is so obvious that it almost seems banal. In the debates in the West, it slipped out of sight so early on because of a democratic inferiority complex that we should get used to as quickly as possible.
Sometimes we can no longer bear the back and forth of our political decision-making process and it is most difficult for us in times of unexpected crises such as at the beginning of the pandemic. Then we perceive our culture of debate as an obstacle, as a fatal punishment for the moral luxury that we allowed ourselves with freedom of opinion and speech. And then some admire the authoritarian states for their supposedly lean and solution-oriented courses of action. This is only true in the short term. About in the first moment of shock of the Corona outbreak.
In the medium term at the latest, democracies prove to be not only more humane, but also more efficient. Precisely because of the back and forth. The constant exchange, the constant search for solutions through trial and error make societies highly adaptable. Adaptability is not only a basic condition for survival in the evolution of species.
It also enables human societies to cope with new challenges far more easily than the structures of coercive rule, whether communist, monarchical or otherwise autocratic.
The corona policy of most democracies - including that of Germany - was not really consistent, characterized by many contradictions and changes of course. But ultimately it was more appropriate to the changing reality than the leaden consistency of the Chinese. It does not show the strength, but a fundamental weakness of authoritarian regimes.
All authoritarian rule is based, among other things, on a claim to truth by the rulers. Otherwise they could hardly justify their power over everything and everyone. It would therefore always be an existential threat if this power had to admit a significant error.
Every dictatorship is constantly and increasingly concerned with distorting reality in such a way that the negative consequences of its errors are not noticed as much as possible. This also makes each individual carrier of the system dependent on the maintenance of the common big lie. This is also what makes autocracies so brutal, both internally and externally.
Democrats who have been voted out can prepare for re-election on the cushion of their pension claims. Citizens may find that all too easy, and in the long run it may damage the character of those in government. But it also provides incentives to look for better ideas. On the other hand, the general conditions under which autocrats and their helpers act are much more dangerous for the common good.
They must fear for their future or even their lives if their failure becomes too obvious. That's why they can't correct errors once they've been proclaimed, that's why they can hardly break off failed policies. Autocracies are stupid because they cannot afford to be wrong. Democracies are smart because they err and correct themselves all the time. We should stop being ashamed of this privilege.
Our strife, our inner turmoil, our disagreement are not the disadvantages of excessive philanthropy. They are the elements of our problem-solving machine called democracy. And it obviously works better than the competing products.