Opinion

The plausible dystopia of a social credit system

Taking seriously the right's nightmare of a society strictly divided into good citizens and bad

Nothing terrifies contemporary conservatives more than the thought that their woke-progressive enemies will bring the regulatory weight of the federal government — in alignment with Big Tech and the economic and cultural powers that dominate civil society — to drive them out of the public square and severely penalize them in their personal lives.

Some have taken to calling this nightmarish vision of official conservative persecution "soft totalitarianism," but that's at once hyperbolic (invoking visions of Nazi Germany and Soviet communism) and oxymoronic (what's next, cozy torture and cuddly concentration camps?). Others prefer the similarly paradoxical moniker "pink police state."

But the simplest and more accurate descriptor is probably the one that's been attached to China's efforts at using the latest advances in digital technology to enforce draconian rule by the Chinese Communist Party: a social credit system. Such a system works by rigorously monitoring speech and behavior, with those who conform to the party line rewarded and dissenters punished. The former are systematically granted, and the latter denied, access to top jobs, prime housing, easy credit, and freedom to travel. A society with such a system would be strictly divided into good citizens and bad. Play along and you thrive; violate official expectations and you get blacklisted, moved to the back of every line, and even excluded altogether from a range of social privileges.

Is this something Americans have reason to fear? Unfortunately, it is.

Yes, the concern is sometimes overstated and motivated by more than a little paranoia. But the core worry is founded in fact. The alignment of pervasive high-tech gatekeeping with an impulse to police ideological and moral conformity is not only possible but already beginning to emerge. The right's warnings about ascendent antiliberalism are therefore welcome — though many of those sounding the alarm are singularly ill-suited to combat it.  

To get a glimpse of what it would be like to live in a country with a social credit system, think about the way many financial institutions currently evaluate your creditworthiness.

You go about your life, running up debt on high-interest credit cards. Sometimes you miss a payment. Then you contact a bank to request a mortgage. In minutes, you are informed that your credit score has been checked and is low enough to make you a bad risk for a loan. Visits to other banks yield the same result. Your option is to forego purchasing the house or to look for a loan from less reputable institutions charging a significantly higher interest rate. If your credit score is sufficiently low, even this might not be possible, locking you out of home ownership entirely and possibly decent rental properties as well.

The use of this system by banks and landlords seems like a perfectly reasonable way for them to assess risk. But what about other kinds of social transaction? Imagine a country facing a deadly pandemic. Certain behaviors, when multiplied across hundreds of millions of people, can result in significantly higher or lower numbers of deaths. Should social media companies that facilitate instantaneous communication be vetted to ensure misinformation is restricted on their platforms?

Then there are more overtly political threats. What if a president lost an election and fomented an insurrection against the national legislature by spreading outright lies? Should he be prevented from using tech platforms to destabilize the political system even further? And what about his ideological allies? They regularly repeat the world-be tyrant's lies and wildly exaggerate the supposed threat posed by his political opponents and the ostensibly fair laws and norms that stymied his past behavior in office. Should those untruths, exaggerations, and incendiary statements be reined in as well?

Seen from a certain angle, each case sounds like a modest and judicious effort merely to impose a modicum of order on informational or ideological chaos that can lead to a range of social and political harms. But of course, each quickly runs into obvious objections. During the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, the medical consensus has shifted multiple times, continually turning outlier positions into the conventional wisdom and back again, making efforts to rule out certain forms of dissent extremely fraught.

As for Donald Trump's unprecedentedly sweeping lies about election fraud, they were indeed profoundly dangerous and, after the events of Jan. 6, more than justified in getting him booting from social media platforms for the remaining days of this presidency. But broader restrictions on his supporters and other forms of right-wing dissent? Those nearly always fall into a gray area far more suited to the domain of ordinary political contestation.

And those are just cases involving social media. What about when the government and powerful institutions in civil society decide that certain political opinions are beyond the pale?

For a recent and especially vivid example from a neighboring democracy, this week's declaration of a national emergency in Canada has empowered banks to freeze and suspend the accounts of "Freedom Convoy" protesters without a court order and while enjoying protection from civil liability. That is precisely the kind of thing one would expect to see become normalized with the imposition of a social credit system. Add in facial recognition software that can identify individuals attending "dangerous" protests and other public events and we're left with a vision of the near-term future that can look pretty dystopian.

It would be a future in which cutting-edge technological advances combine with some of the oldest and most deeply rooted social inclinations of human beings to produce a new form of illiberalism.

Anyone who's been raised in or visited a village or small town knows the appeal of life in such a homogeneous setting. People know and recognize each other. Morals are imposed and regulated collectively through social approval and stigma. The result is a strong feeling of wholeness, belonging, and solidarity among family, friends, neighbors, and residents somewhat further afield. Everyone feels like they're in it together. Communal ties are deep.

Our political imaginations are shaped by happy visions of social life on such an intimate scale — but the oppression and stifling of individual freedom that's common in small towns can also inspire a kind of social claustrophobia and drive certain people to flee such places when they can.

Where do they go? In search of the freedom made possible by the anonymity of cities dominated by commerce and teeming with people from different places and riven by factional disagreements and moral pluralism.

Modern politics is, among other things, a battle over these competing sensibilities — with liberals usually thriving in the cosmopolitan openness of the city and conservatives favoring the closed comforts of the countryside and small town. Liberal democracy itself favors the former, as the name implies, foreswearing any attempt to bring the nation state as a whole into alignment with a single comprehensive and exclusive vision of the good life. Individuals and communities are left free (within limits) to cultivate and enforce that kind of life at the local level, but the nation as a whole is far too diverse to attempt it collectively.

That has always been unacceptable to some antiliberals, who have longed to reproduce the community and solidarity of the small town or village at a national level. Civic nationalism, when wedded to liberal norms and institutions, is a relatively benign expression of such hopes, aiming merely at the encouragement of national cohesion. Totalitarian dictatorship is a far more malign version of the same yearning.

Where would a social credit system fit in on this spectrum? It's too soon to know. But what is clear is that the drive for it comes from a similar place — a kind of nostalgia for the moral unanimity and homogeneity of village life, and the hope to recreate it on a national scale. (In the case of China, that scale extends to 1.4 billion people.)

Conservatives are right to worry and warn about the danger of the progressive left using a combination of political, technological, and cultural power to enforce unanimity on American life. That would be an unacceptable infringement on the liberty of millions.

But so would populist conservatives seizing those same powers to impose a comprehensive moral vision of their own rooted in the "integralist" fantasies of the Catholic right or the autarkic dreams of a blood-and-soil or race-based nationalism.

It would be nice to see critics of a social credit system taking their stands in the name of an honest and consistent liberal pluralism. But alas, ours is a time of equal-and-opposite illiberalisms battling for moral control of our national life.

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