Chrystia Freeland talks to Michael Ignatieff about Russia and China:

If Russia and China really are not marching inevitably toward liberal democracy, as Ignatieff argues, that is a problem not just for their repressed people but also for us [bold mine-DL].

Ignatieff says that our attitude toward Russia and China is a question of such great import because both countries “are attempting to demonstrate a novel proposition: that economic freedoms can be severed from political and civil freedom, and that freedom is divisible.”

He is right that this is the fundamental operating proposition of Russia and China, and he is right that it poses the most serious challenge that the very idea of liberal democracy faces anywhere today.

Let me ask the obvious question: how is that a problem for “us” (by which I assume Freeland means Western democracies)? I am hardly a triumphalist when it comes to the spread and promotion of liberal democracy, but this concern that Freeland expresses suggests a strange lack of confidence in the virtues and resilience of Western political and economic systems. Suppose that Russia and China continue to develop as authoritarian regimes with state capitalist economies. Let’s imagine that over the next several decades the current systems simply become more entrenched and don’t liberalize. Are Western democratic nations likely to dismantle their own systems and start imitating them? It seems unlikely, so how does this proposition pose “the most serious challenge” to the very idea of liberal democracy? Even if economic freedom doesn’t necessarily have to be accompanied by political freedom, it doesn’t follow that most nations are going to prefer a system that severely limits the latter indefinitely. It’s not as if people value representative government and civil liberties because they associate these things with a certain amount of economic growth.

It seems to me that there are two challenges here in the U.S. that are more serious than the proposition that freedom is divisible. The increasing concentration of power and wealth into fewer hands is one, and the decline in social mobility is the other. Stratified societies can sometimes have liberal governments that aren’t broadly democratic, or they can have populist democratic governments that aren’t all that liberal, but they don’t balance the two very well, and sometimes they end up with neither. If America continues to become more socially and economically stratified, our political system will face enormous strains, and our political institutions and norms as we know them could be badly damaged.