Contra my reserved praise earlier this week for China's gradual liberalization of its economy, Mary Anastasia O'Grady argues that slow-going freedom can be self-defeating and bases her assessment on the 2006 Index oc Economic Freedom.
As they do every year, the index authors observe the average per capita income of countries in each category. Not surprisingly, over the years, they have found a strong relationship between economic freedom and prosperity. Yet there is something more that can be observed in this pattern: Countries that liberalize quickly and thoroughly achieve resounding successes, politically and economically. Conversely, gradualism risks stagnation and even reversals, because the benefits are not evident enough to impress the electorate and generate a momentum in their favor.
However, the situation might be different in undemocratic countries like China.
This matters the most in democracies, where leadership needs to produce results if liberalization is to stick. Clearly, it's not the absolute income level that generates support for reforms but the growth in living standards that seems to hold the key. Halfhearted measures generate immense resentment from the "losers" of the old system but often don't yield large enough gains to create a constituency to support the changes.
In China, the biggest "losers" are the Communist party bosses, but if they have the willpower to push the liberalization through (and the smarts to profit off it themselves) then political freedom can still follow.