15 December 2011

Homeownership, rental and other matters: a distributist defence

The following was submitted by yours truly as an answer to one of the final exam long-answer questions in his neighbourhood planning and community development course. Hopefully it will manage to be thought-provoking!

The question of whether homeownership should continue to be encouraged over rental in the United States is both a contested and needful one at this point in our history as a nation, particularly in light of a financial crisis centred around the securitisation of risk in a speculative housing market. Quite understandably, a number of authors and commentators in the fields of planning, development and policy studies have weighed in on the topic. John Landis and Kirk McClure pose the problem most directly, and link the systemic problems in the current housing market to an ideologically-driven desire on the part of federal policymakers under Clinton and Bush 43 to expand homeownership as broadly as possible – they advocate instead a return ‘to what works’: a mix of rental housing vouchers, tax credits and federal housing initiatives (including HOPE VI) which have met with success under different administrations and economic conditions (Landis and McClure 2010, 340). Susan Saegert, Desiree Fields and Kimberly Libman answer this question – that homeownership has certainly been ‘oversold’ – and go on to pose a deeper one: to what extent is homeownership construed as a social duty in an ideological environment which privileges autonomy and consumption as central to the ‘American Dream’, and to what extent does it serve interests other than those of homeowners and prospective homeowners?

Though both papers are in some respects persuasive – the one from a pragmatic and the other from a more radical perspective – they each tantalisingly but only briefly touch on what this author believes to be the central issue. Landis and McClure believe that part of the current problem is that government assistance to homeowners is diverted in various ways away from those who need it most, and that renters find themselves systematically excluded under the current regime. Saegert et al. see the problem in a financial-government system that supports homeowners only to the extent that it serves the interests of lenders and insurers (Saegert et al 2009), and only to the extent that it ensures that risk is passed on to the ‘end consumer’, i.e. the homebuyer. These are both useful insights, but they both point in a direction partially belied by the conclusions of both authors: toward the heterodox economic philosophy of distributism. A third-way political-economic philosophy inspired by Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 social encyclical Rerum Novarum (‘Of New Things’), distributism was developed by the work of several ex-Fabian socialists and radical Catholic thinkers, with Arthur Penty, Gilbert Chesterton, Fr Vincent McNabb, Hilaire Belloc and Fr José María Arizmendiarrieta being the primary authors and theorists associated with the movement. In short, it calls for the broadest possible distribution of productive property; economic protection of small and cooperative businesses; restructuring of the wage and banking systems; and generally a more direct relation between the laws and social norms governing property and the right purposes of that property (Distributist Review 2011).

As planners and developers of communities, we are, first and foremost, interested in creating and developing places balancing public and private affairs, where people can live, work and play. We are – or should be – normatively very closely concerned with the right use of property, and our policy agendas should certainly reflect that. To paraphrase contemporary American distributist John Médaille: the purpose of public policy is ‘to provide the conditions under which all… communities that make up the social fabric can flourish’, beginning with the family unit (Médaille 2010). Issues such as gentrification and sprawl, as well as the fatal cupidity of various agents in the financial sector which eased (perhaps too greatly) but did not support people’s acquisition of homes, arise primarily from lenders and insurers – as well as homeowners, to be sure – considering housing as something other than a place for a family to live.

It is noteworthy that the 30-year mortgage, enabled by the National Housing Act of 1934, was a working assumption of some of the most successful federal housing programmes of the past century: the loans insured by the FHA and VA were targeted primarily at new families in the wake of WWII. Homeownership was successfully expanded under these programmes and default rates were very low; and though these developments were plagued by the inequalities resulting from discriminatory practices such as redlining, the extension of the same opportunities to families of colour was accomplished under the 1968 Fair Housing Act (Landis and McClure 2010). During the 1970’s, however, houses became instead investments and objects of resale. There was a paradigmatic shift from the real estate as a place for a family to settle down and for a community to thereby develop to real estate as an instrument for making money. Not only homebuyers were affected by this shift, either – because speculation in land creates only rising prices in the long-run (until the bubble bursts), renters are also adversely affected by an intolerable rising pressure on rent (Médaille 2010).

In addition, the concomitant relaxation of the mortgage regulations targeting single-person, divorcee and other non-family households for the federal subsidy programme had a double consequence: the market for homes could steadily increase (and private lenders and insurers thereby benefit immensely) and federal money was made accessible to people whose primary interest in houses was, in fact, speculation. Further relaxation of housing-mortgage regulations followed on ideological grounds, beginning under the aegis of the Reagan Administration (Carlson 2009; Sternlieb and Hughes 1980; Saegert 2009). Though it is shamefully common for lending institutions and the ideological partisans of the neoliberal innovations of the past 30 years (e.g. CNBC’s Rick Santelli’s 2009 on-air rant) to lay the blame at the feet of undereducated consumers (Saegert 2009), it should be quite obvious to the astute observer that there is a path dependency at work involving far more systematic elements.

On the surface, therefore, it does appear from a policy perspective as though ‘homeownership’ as such is a problem, and privileging it over rental more so. But it is important to note that the reason for this is not that ‘homeownership’ qua homeownership is something overrated – rather the regulatory structure governing mortgage practices encouraging homeownership has been stripped not only of its powers but also of its normative content. At the same time, the interests both of eligible, working-class first-time homeowners and of underserved populations for whom rental may be a more viable option are paid lip-service but not truly served. To give just one example, research has been done at the University of Pittsburgh’s economics department suggesting that loosening local-level regulation against subprime lending and usurious lending practices, ostensibly in the name of ‘spur[ring] financial innovations that broadly benefit low-income households’, not only do not widen the total amount of credit available to homebuyers, they also have the undesirable effect of increasing default and foreclosure rates (Xu 2011).

The impact on communities as well as their working-class residents generally likewise continues to be severe. Urban sprawl had already become a problem in the post-war society, due in part to the ascendant ubiquity of the private automobile and the demise of the family farm under subsidised agribusiness, and definitely due in part to white flight, but it was certainly intensified and accelerated by a housing market increasingly characterised by speculative practices and short-term leasing rather than long-term mortgaging – by the early 1990s, ‘unprecedented’ amounts of what was previously farmland were still being developed for new housing tracts in the United States (Pendall et al. 2005). Among the responses aimed at conservation of the traditional community (particularly in an urban setting) have been the ‘smart growth’ and the ‘new urbanist’ movements, which call for mixed housing as well as zoning practices which encourage more active community life. Obviously, the issue of the neoliberalisation of housing policy has very far-reaching implications and not just for individual homebuyers.

Thus, the response to the question of how government agencies are best to provide assistance to homeowners and renters is best addressed not necessarily by one or two isolated policies, however subtle and pragmatic such policies may be. Instead, it appears that a broader policy platform – a distributist platform – is needed, one which reforms lending practices and specifies a proper use for real estate. Smarter regulation of the financial sector along the lines outlined above – and tougher enforcement of existing regulations – would appear to be a start.

Going further, however, encouraging more local, place-based, cooperative alternatives to traditional credit sources (such as credit unions) would ensure that property is disposed in ways which are actually beneficial to the community, as well as ensuring that the well-being of the person(s) or family purchasing the property is respected. Creating a subsidy system that privileges small farmers over-against large agribusinesses will also help to naturally constrain the onslaught of sprawl and discourage speculative housing markets in greenfield construction areas (though this must be accompanied by a legal reform which discourages abuse of eminent domain laws, at the expense of farmers in the interests of housing-and-transportation developers). Supporting mixed-use zoning initiatives will likewise encourage greater and more responsible homeownership by creating more opportunities for small, specialised home businesses – so much the better, if they are organised in the cooperative-syndicalist model of the mediaeval guild! Devolving more financial and economic regulatory powers to the local level (and preventing state-mandated deregulation such as happened in Cleveland) could also be of massive help in encouraging and protecting local development. Dismantling the highway system would be a bad idea at this point in our economic history, though we could certainly do with creating a system of weight-based tolls on public highways to eliminate the non-competitive advantage enjoyed by ‘big box’ stores and strip malls (Médaille 2010). In addition to rethinking public-sector subsidies for homeownership and rental, creating alternative housing schemes which discourage speculation, such as resale restrictions, cooperative land trusts, mutual housing associations or even something as simple as an option for outright purchase of rental property by instalment remain tantalising alternatives to the status quo (Carlson 2009; Stone 2008).

The question of homeownership vis-à-vis rental in public policy terms, then, is still an important one. However, though Saegert et al. identify a number of salient problems with the current system and though Landis and McClure set out what appears to be a good direction with regard to a fair and egalitarian policy agenda, that policy agenda could be greatly enriched by again placing a normative emphasis on the ends of homeownership – to benefit families and to allow the communities which make up the fabric of our society to flourish – and adjusting policy to meet those ends. It could also be further enriched by being made a part of a broader policy platform whose ultimate aim is the widest possible redistribution of the means of production.

  • Carlson, Allan. 2009. ‘Servile World: How “The Big Business Government”, “The Loathsome Thing Called Social Service” and Other Distributist Nightmares All Came True’. Front Porch Republic. http://www.frontporchrepublic.com/?p=4903#_edn7 (accessed 12 December 2011).

  • Distributist Review. 2011. ‘Classic Reading List’. The Distributist Review. http://distributistreview.com/mag/test-2/recommended-reading/ (accessed 12 December 2011).

  • Landis, John and Kirk McClure. 2010. ‘Rethinking Federal Housing Policy’. Journal of the American Planning Association 76(3): 320-1, 335, 340-1.

  • Leo XIII. 1891. ‘Rerum Novarum: Encyclical of Pope Leo XIII on Capital and Labour’. English translation online at Libreria Editrice Vaticana. http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/leo_xiii/encyclicals/documents/hf_l-xiii_enc_15051891_rerum-novarum_en.html (accessed 12 December 2011).

  • Médaille, John. 2010. Toward a Truly Free Market: A Distributist Perspective on the Role of Government, Taxes, Health Care, Deficits and More, pp. 110-1, 155, 188-9. Wilmington, DE: Intercollegiate Studies Institute.

  • Pendall, Rolf, Arthur Nelson, Casey Dawkins and Gerrit Knaap. 2005. ‘Connecting Smart Growth, Housing Affordability and Racial Equity’, in The Geography of Opportunity: Race and Housing Choice in Metropolitan America by Xavier de Souza Briggs. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press.

  • Saegert, Susan, Desiree Fields and Kimberly Libman. 2009. ‘Deflating the Dream: Radical Risk and the Neoliberalisation of Home Ownership’. Journal of Urban Affairs 31(3): 299, 300, 309-10, 312.

  • Stone, Michael. 2008. ‘Social Housing’, in The Community Development Reader by James DeFilippis and Susan Saegert, pp. 67-78. New York, NY: Routledge Press.

  • Xu Yilan. 2011. ‘Does Mortgage Deregulation Increase Foreclosures? Evidence from Cleveland’. University of Pittsburgh Department of Economics: Job Market Paper, presented 18 November 2011 at the University of Pittsburgh Centre for Social and Urban Research.

14 December 2011

A brief comment on the Wukan protests + pointless video post: ‘OCP’ by Gama Bomb

A village in China’s Guangdong Province, Wukan 廣東烏坎, is now in open revolt against the local government; see ChinaGeeks and The Telegraph for the full story as it develops. The Party has been laying on the censorship rather thick for this one, methinks; one may count on them to do precisely the wrong thing (censoring any news about Wukan and doing nothing to help the villagers) in a situation such as this. For some of the political background, may I humbly offer this assessment from a couple of weeks back:

In the meanwhile, in China, Bo Xilai and Wang Yang have been using local models in China in an attempt to shore up support for the more interventionist, public-good provisionist, actively anti-corruption Chongqing model and the more developmentalist, neoliberal, laissez-faire Guangdong model, respectively. Although both appear to be equally divergent from China’s current authoritarian-capitalist status quo (Mr Bo in the direction of greater economic democracy and a social safety net, Mr Wang in the direction of more authoritarian-capitalist ‘reforms’), in actuality Mr Bo is the more open to the guidance of democratic principles (willingly taking the advice of social democrats such as Dr Cui Zhiyuan, for example) and true exposure of the inner workings of the Chinese government to the public eye, whilst Mr Wang appears to be merely another rehash of Jiang Zemin: gleefully adopting the advice of market ‘reformers’ and technocrats and gutting public goods provision, and shielding those very same technocrats from any real sort of public scrutiny.

And, naturally, the same principle applies to public protests. The Chinese government under Jiang Zemin sounded a hasty retreat from Tian’anmen only for the 1989 protests to disappear quickly and quietly down the Memory Hole; the same sort of dynamic appears to be holding true for the Wukan protests under Wang Yang. (How long before that Google search is blocked?)

Apparently I am not alone in the opinion that this development does not look particularly good for Mr Wang, though naturally I tend to take a far more… some might say ‘cynical’, but I prefer the term ‘realistic’, view of Chinese liberalism. As long as its primary theorists continue to follow the sorry, intellectually-bankrupt roads trodden by the likes of the Austrian school (Liu Junning) and the neoconservatives (Liu Xiaobo) rather than the more humane liberalism of, say, EF Schumacher, authoritarianism will continue to be a mark of Chinese politics (especially among those who make the biggest show of being against it) for a long time to come.

And speaking of ‘realistic’ views on liberalism, particularly in its more extremist forms, a great comment by John from Economics is for Donkeys on my last post (I really appreciated this one, gave me an excuse to post another thrash metal video):

I am glad the interview with the libertarian quotes Hans Herman-Hoppe. Hoppe is often praised by Christian monarchists because he has argued that monarchy is the ultimate private government. Apparently, Hoppe's concept of monarchy would be OCP from the RoboCop movies, but with a crown.

Dick Jones! Dick Jones!

Ah, Gama Bomb. We respect you, too! Best of luck to the villagers of Wukan. Stand strong, and thrash on, my gentle readers! \m/

13 December 2011

Two very worthwhile articles

Very fine article up at The National Interest by Dr Amitai Etzioni.

‘[T]he nations of the euro zone must prepare the ground for fiscal federalism via a major community building drive, aiming to bestow on the zone the kind of loyalties so far only commanded by national communities—or they will have to scale back their conjoined activities, especially the common currency. A sociologist notes with much regret that there have been no successful drives to build communities composed of nations and that such a development—if it can be accomplished—would be slow and very demanding. It is too early to write a eulogy for the euro zone, but it is time to prepare the family for the sad state of the patient—and what is prescribed for him.’

And, on Naked Capitalism and The Distributist Review, the first part of a promised six-part series by Harvard postdoc Dr Andrew Dittmer, a warning worthy of George Orwell against the excesses of ideological libertarianism. Though extraordinarily witty, it cannot rightly be considered parody since a great deal of it consists of actual quotes from the work of an ‘economist’ of the Austrian school; definitely worth a read!

My apologies to my gentle readers; finals season being what it is, I should be as brief here as possible. Hopefully once I resurface I will be able to post something more substantive!

10 December 2011

A few words regarding the public role of faith

Lincoln Chafee, Governor of RI

It all started when the good governor of my home state of Rhode Island, Gov Lincoln Chafee, put up a holiday tree in the state Capitol building, causing something of a furore from the American religious right. I did not join in this conversation because – and I believe that my fellow Rhode Islander Fr Bill Locke put this quite nicely – I do not believe that Our Lord or his disciples or the Church Fathers would have cared overly much about what we call a tree, so much as they would have cared about the weightier matters of social and economic injustice which haunt our society these days. If there is one thing I have learned about the culture wars, it is that being a conscientious objector pays off… most of the time. On other, weightier issues than these, however, the battle must certainly be joined.

That said, it rather baffles me how thin-skinned American Christians, particularly on the religious right, can be. As secular and (in religion as in everything else) as privatised as the society may have become, we are not a society which actively persecutes Christians. And for this we should be thankful, for there certainly are such societies in the world which do persecute Christians: Egypt (particularly after the Arab Spring) and the (northern) Sudan being the most high-profile examples. In the Middle East, safe havens for Christians, particularly of the venerable indigenous communities, have historically existed – such as Syria and Iran – but they are undermined by the foreign policy of the US-led West with disheartening regularity; these Christians deserve, at the very least, our efforts at creating a more dovish and more humane foreign policy. In the Balkans up until very recently it was very dangerous to be a Christian (particularly Orthodox) in certain parts of what once was Yugoslavia – as in, one’s very life (let alone one’s livelihood) being at stake. As such, it strikes me as somewhat petty that certain segments of far-right Protestantism in this country will gripe about a Christmas tree being called a ‘holiday tree’. What awaits them is hardly the fate of St Stephen.

Indeed, the political climate is such in the United States that far-right Christianity is so far removed from oppression that it is, has been, and probably will be for the foreseeable future, used as a political tool by the opportunistic. Rev’d Eugene Cho has posted an incredibly thoughtful response to the political advertisement by Rick Perry by two young women who sought to create a more constructive public voice for religion. They – and he – get my thanks for seeking to articulate a radical stance that seeks to avoid both the extremes of the ever more pervasive privatisation of religion on the one hand, and ressentiment-filled religious identity politics on the other.

Good cheer to my gentle readers, and my thanks for your forbearance upon reading my latest rant!

09 December 2011

Pointless video post - ‘Breakdown’ 『崩潰』 by Suffocated 窒息

Well I’ll be... a Chinese retro thrash band that actually sounds like thrash! I kowtow gladly before these dudes and their deathrashy awesomeness. Admittedly, here they sound a bit green. Their style is incredibly straightforward, well-executed, but also a bit... unpolished, shall we say. Not a bad thing at all: ‘Breakdown’ is pure thrash front to back, and the guitar solo is definitely horns-worthy. On their 2010 album, 《紛擾世界》 World of Confusion, though, they manage to have hammered out a style which brings massive doses of pure slayage. And by hammered out, I mean hammered out: they shift easily and effortlessly between melodic thrash in the vein of Overload, to a more traditional deathrash with very heavy influences from early Sepultura and Testament, to straight-up death metal and more grueling, grinding crossover numbers (like the epic 『使命召喚』 ‘Call of Duty’) that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Toxic Holocaust album. Throughout it all, they maintain a progressive mentality (if not an actual progression) which allows these variations to mesh together more-or-less seamlessly, though in actuality the progressive influence is a common trend I have noticed among a number of new Chinese metal bands. Great, great stuff.

Enjoy, my gentle readers!

08 December 2011

Full of grace

A happy Feast of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin to one and all!

I’m still feeling slightly frazzled from final projects (one concerning a game-theoretic analysis of Greece and the EU, one concerning Brown University’s Asian student body, one concerning school impact on Homewood civic engagement and the last concerning the developments of Chinatowns on the East and West Coasts), and need to begin preparing soon for exams, as well as getting a visa for another China visit. To me have been now imparted several skills, including how to make maps with ArcGIS 10 and how to design a research proposal; as well as several old skills being further honed, such as how to scramble and slam out multiple papers during the last couple of weeks of term. And I am rereading Utopia. Such is graduate school; wouldn’t really have it any other way.

06 December 2011

Please, sir, I want some More

I have covered in this blog a number of historical English thinkers, authors and public intellectuals whose work I believe reflects a subtle, traditionalist and Platonic strain of socialist political-economic thought in the Anglosphere: Laud, Astell, Johnson, Swift, Oastler, Porteus, Ruskin, Morris, Chesterton, Grant, Lewis. Not long ago I did a brief not-quite-hagiography of Fürst Metternich. Yet, I have neglected – to my everlasting shame – one of the very giants upon whose shoulders all of these proto-, Christian and Tory socialists have stood. As the Chinese would have it, ‘I have eyes, yet I did not recognise Mount Tai’. This giant, of course, was the Tudor-era classicist, lawyer, parliamentarian, polemicist, philosopher, poet, Lord Chancellor, martyr and saint, the matchless Sir Thomas More.

Probably best known for his opposition to the annulment of the marriage of Henry VIII to Catherine of Aragon which cost him his life and gained him the Beatific Vision, and perhaps only slightly less well-known for his fantastical treatise Utopia, which set out his communistic political ideals (borrowed quite heavily from Plato) as well as skewering various European practices and institutions (including the injustices of the creeping enclosures movement, the burden and bane of many an English peasant) upon a rapier wit, there was yet a good deal (if you will pardon me) more to Sir Thomas than first meets the eye. A precocious teen, he very early caught the eye and ear of Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Morton, and was made his page as well as being recommended to Oxford University at the age of fourteen. He became proficient in Greek and Latin and versed himself in the early Church Fathers, and went on to become a lawyer and a parliamentarian for Norfolk – where he promptly drew the ire of Henry VII for his outspoken opposition to new levies for personal royal use. This same outspokenness and frankness of temperament would serve him well in his later career, though it would prove often to be to his own detriment, and ultimately his death. As a lawyer, though, he was very scrupulous in the types of cases he took, and he never demanded fees from the poor or widows or orphans for his legal services.

He married twice – the first time to his younger pupil Jane Colt in 1505 and the second time after her death in 1511 to an older widow, Alice Middleton. Both marriages (toward which his attitudes were blessedly insular) were by all accounts happy. Sir Thomas proved a faithful and devoted husband, as well as a doting father both to his own daughters by Jane and to Alice’s by her first marriage. His advocacy for women’s education (later shared by his contemporary humanists Erasmus and Elyot) would later prove an inspiration for Mary Astell’s own.

From all appearances, the young Henry VIII took as quick a liking to More as his father took a dislike to him. He rose quickly in the ranks of Henry’s service, was knighted and appointed a member of the Privy Council. He eagerly joined Cardinal Wolsey’s sadly-abortive legal crusade against enclosures (up until Wolsey fell out of favour with the King) and very quickly took up his pen in jousts of letters with Protestant thinkers both on the continent and in England, including Martin Luther, William Tyndale and Simon Fish. He was able and more than willing to respond to the particularly acerbic prose of Luther in kind. Given that many of these Protestant missives were aimed as much at the King as at the Church, More proved his loyalty to Henry as well. In his later career it is arguable to what degree power changed him, and led him to alter his humanistic principles, but the fatal epilogue of his story shows clearly where his loyalties lay… even if, as long as he could, he attempted to reconcile his friendship with the King with the radical departure the same King was making from communion with the Church in Rome.

Sir Thomas More is yet another case study in how one should not easily dismiss saints, for they have a tendency to be unruly, troublous, inconvenient and generally obnoxious to those seated on the highest thrones of worldly power. The saint is a friend neither to tyranny nor to capital. And one can quite readily see how his influence – or at least his idealism – long outlasted him. He is remembered as a saint both in the Catholic Church and in the Anglican Communion. William Morris modelled much of his own political economic thought on Sir Thomas More’s work. Fr Jonathan Swift hailed him as ‘the person of the greatest virtue this kingdom ever produced’ (and Dr Johnson concurred!). GK Chesterton likewise declaimed that he ‘may come to be counted the greatest Englishman’… though perhaps the most surreal testament to his memory is the stele in Moscow which lists him among eighteen other thinkers who ‘promoted the liberation of humanity from oppression, arbitrary rule and exploitation’.

Count me with Swift and Johnson and Chesterton, though. I likewise see Sir Thomas as a great (and a good) Englishman, both profound and humane. Would there were more like him.

03 December 2011

Jonathan Freedland: ‘It is democracy itself that the markets seem to despise’

Well, two final projects down for the term, and two more to go. Guess I have a little bit of time to work on a blog post now.

There was a very interesting piece in The Guardian by Jonathan Freedland a couple of weeks back. Though he does (along with the rest of the Guardian’s commentariat, not to mention that of the New York Times, the Washington Post and other American print) tend to draw distinctions in ways which are (I believe) a little bit too hard-and-fast between authoritarian and democratic (is Singapore as ‘authoritarian’ as the mainland? is Russia – where women very much have the rights to drive, vote and show their faces in public – anywhere near as ‘authoritarian’ as Saudi Arabia?), I believe the point he makes is a very sound one. Though the neoconservatives and the libertarians have long pretended otherwise, for the sensible and the attentive it has long since been the case that globalist, neoliberal capitalism and democracy make for very fidgety bedfellows indeed.

But in the light of the economic crisis, the strain in that relationship is starting to show more than ever. A referendum in Greece over the austerity measures being imposed on it from without was cancelled; pan-European technocrats have taken the reins of the Greek macroeconomy and are hell-bent on riding it roughshod over the working class, pensioners, civil servants and any other plebes who have the temerity (nay, the effrontery!) to take a train or a public bus to work, or to fall ill and take up precious hospital space.

In the meanwhile, in China, Bo Xilai and Wang Yang have been using local models in China in an attempt to shore up support for the more interventionist, public-good provisionist, actively anti-corruption Chongqing model and the more developmentalist, neoliberal, laissez-faire Guangdong model, respectively. Although both appear to be equally divergent from China’s current authoritarian-capitalist status quo (Mr Bo in the direction of greater economic democracy and a social safety net, Mr Wang in the direction of more authoritarian-capitalist ‘reforms’), in actuality Mr Bo is the more open to the guidance of democratic principles (willingly taking the advice of social democrats such as Dr Cui Zhiyuan, for example) and true exposure of the inner workings of the Chinese government to the public eye, whilst Mr Wang appears to be merely another rehash of Jiang Zemin: gleefully adopting the advice of market ‘reformers’ and technocrats and gutting public goods provision, and shielding those very same technocrats from any real sort of public scrutiny.

And, naturally, the same principle applies to public protests. The Chinese government under Jiang Zemin sounded a hasty retreat from Tian’anmen only for the 1989 protests to disappear quickly and quietly down the Memory Hole; the same sort of dynamic appears to be holding true for the Wukan protests under Wang Yang. (How long before that Google search is blocked?) By all means one may examine his motives, but even though Mr Bo Xilai appears prima facie to be more heavy-handed, we should keep in mind that thus far he has consistently moved in favour of truth-to-power, rather than in favour of erasing truth by momentarily constraining power.

And then we have, as Mr Freedland deftly points out, the peculiar breed of neoliberal / liberal-interventionist commentator in the United States which yearns for this country to ‘be China for a day’; and by China Mr Friedman evidently means Guangdong rather than Chongqing. Even though he is very quick to hedge his wish about with all the right liberal-democratic verbiage, this should tell one all one needs to know about where the sympathies of the neoliberals lie where issues of democracy, economic self-determination and the rule of law are concerned.

Be ye not fooled: the champions of the invisible hand are themselves apparently quite eager to equip it with a very visible steel gauntlet. Let us hope that our nations have the resilience to – to paraphrase Mr Freedland – assert that people, rather than markets, are sovereign.

EDIT: Here is an article describing Mr Bo’s drive to open official CCP archives to the public and focus more attention on the actions of government and Party members. One may argue that it is little more than Mr Bo blowing his own horn, but it does highlight one of the ways in which he represents a massive change for the People’s Republic, in a far less authoritarian direction.