Tyrants of Asia

My friend Tom Plate, teacher and journalist, has just published two slender, fascinating books in a series he’s calling “Giants of Asia.” His first two “giants” are Lee Kuan Yew and Mahathir Mohamad. They have in common outsized personalities, rather astounding records of political stability and economic success under not-obviously-favorable circumstances … and complete, utter, total, ineradicable, and unconcealed contempt for anything resembling political freedom or personal liberty other than the freedom of the market.

The most striking feature of the books is the author’s frank admiration for his subjects, an admiration that extends to their tyranny, which he does not deny but rather celebrates, as a form of government possibly superior to republicanism.

Because Plate is practicing journalism and biography – in a rather Hunter Thompsonish style, putting himself and the circumstances of his conversations with his subjects at the center – rather than history or social science, he makes no inquiry into the characteristics either of the policies pursued by Lee and Mahathir, or the circumstances of Singapore and Malaysia, that made them successful.

Their success is undeniable: the average Singaporean or Malaysian is infinitely better off than would have been the case under other leadership. But the implicit generalization seems to me, at best, unsupported.

The American public seems fairly strongly committed to democratic principles, though perhaps a trifle vague as to the actual democratic credentials of some of our allies. But there’s always been a strain of elite authoritarian thought: Stalin, Mao, Tito, and Castro had their admirers on the left, while Chiang Kai-Shek, Franco, the Greek Colonels, the Shah, the Argentinian junta, and Pinochet all had substantial followings on the right. (That’s as distinguished from those the right understood as thugs but supported because they were “pro-American,” such as Batista, Salazar, and Papa Doc.)

Plate is interesting because he seems to have little interest in the left-right divide; his support is for tyranny per se. While Plate doesn’t formalize his thought, he seems to be working more or less along the lines of James Burnham: democracy is clumsy, liberty gets in the way, we’d all be better off taking orders from smart people than trying to rule ourselves.

It’s not a viewpoint often seen in print; I wonder how widespread it is?

Footnote Plate’s subjects are also a pair of stone racists: Lee has contempt for blacks (actually, for all non-Chinese) while Mahatir is a raving anti-Semite. Plate doesn’t go so far as celebrating their racism; Lee’s is reported mostly without comment, while the author does back-flips trying to explain that some of Mahathir’s best friends are Jews, so he can’t really be an anti-Semite. Alas, Mahathir relentlessly refuses every proffered opportunity to take back any of what he said.

Comments

  1. dominic says

    So this admirer of tyranny and apologist for racism is your “friend”, Tom Plate?

  2. ZZ says

    It is true that enlightened tyranny is the best form of government. The problem, however, is finding enlightened tyrants, and then keeping them from designating relatives as their successors. No country has found a solution to the problem.

  3. Barry says

    Yes, for every guy like these, there are probably 100 who have all of the bad parts with no redeeming qualities.

  4. says

    To be fair, neither of these dictators really believes in the freedom of the market either. Both have intervened in serious ways, both in setting market preconditions (e.g. education) and in eliminating rivals whose power had economic as well as political dimensions. (And then there’s the honest graft.) Best to think of them as authoritarian corporatists rather than free-marketers (in any sense of that oft-perverted term).

  5. Thomas says

    I’m pretty sure that Lee Kuan Yew isn’t a racist. Unless you have a wide/loose definition of racism? And whats your definition of tyranny? My point is that you seem to make sweeping generalizations with very little basis.

  6. Mark Kleiman says

    @ Dominic: Yes, I have a policy of allowing friends to hold opinions that differ from mine. I gather your policy is different?

    @Thomas: Lee says that he regards Malays and Africans as genetically inferior. I call that racism. Anyone who challenges the ruling party in Singapore is sued for libel in tame courts and ruined economically. I call that tyranny. What are your definitions?

  7. says

    This doesn’t surprise me. I used to read Plate’s column in the LA Times and he was always apologizing for dictators, especially the brutal regime in Beijing.

    It’s usually too glib to say this, but this guy really should go live in a dictatorship if he believes this crap. And then learn what happens to scholars in such countries when they fall into disfavor with the regime.

  8. Ebenezer Scrooge says

    Paul is right. Singapore regulates markets very closely. Whenever it thinks the housing market is a bit too frothy, for instance, it raises the minimum legal down payment. It does not have a minimum wage, but has an aggressive (by US standards) set of vouchers for low-income people. It pays senior bureaucrats very very well, by just about any standard except that of high corporate officials.

    I wouldn’t call it “corporatist”: a term that connotes either rent-seeking for major economic interests, or a fuzzy belief in governance by guild. As far as the economics goes, Singapore is run the way an American centrist economist would likely run the US if s/he could: maximization of GDP through encouragement of competitive markets (not the same as “free market”) and human capital growth, constrained by moderate redistribution downward.

    Socially, things are a bit more confused. My read is that it is an amalgam of Confucian reverence for social order with some liberal respect for peoples’ freedom to live private (nonpolitical) lives.

  9. Mark Kleiman says

    Dilan, I’m hardly a fan of the brutal regime in Beijing. But it has just pulled off one of the most astounding feats in human history, lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. I hope – and more than half expect – that India, with something approaching republican government and the rule of law, will eventually out-perform China. Still, it can’t be denied that the Chinese tyranny (post-Mao) has delivered the goods. The contrast with the Russian tyranny and the sub-Saharan kleptocracies couldn’t be sharper.

  10. Robert Waldmann says

    On Chiang Kai-Sheck I note that under his dictatorship Taiwan achieved not only rapid growth but also an extraordinarily equal income distribution given its stage of development. Also Yugoslavia under Tito achieved rapid growth. Oh and South Korean had both rapid growth and (relative to us) equality under the loathsome Park Chung Hee. I think it matters a lot if the dictator is an idiot. OF course corruption and incompetence matter, but the Kuomintang was famously corrupt and incompetent.

    One thing that extremely successful countries have in common (both democracies and dictatorships) is totally bizarrely high investment in education. Oh that’s another thing that countries with surprisingly equal income distributions have in common too. Hmmm almost looks like that’s a good policy.

  11. says

    Democracy’s clearest advantage over other systems is in succession management. Our Commie friends seem okay at succession too, but they don’t have quite the track record. The way modern autocratic systems have best managed succession is by transitioning to democracy.

    The point being, even cherry-picking the most efficient autocrats for comparison is incomplete without looking at what happens after them.

    I suspect democracy is also best at local-level decisionmaking, where it’s very difficult for even a brilliant autocrat to penetrate down through five or more layers of officialdom to appoint competent people, but that’s just a suspicion on my part.

  12. Seth says

    “… democracy is clumsy, liberty gets in the way, we’d all be better off taking orders from smart people than trying to rule ourselves.

    It’s not a viewpoint often seen in print; I wonder how widespread it is?”

    I think it is sharply on the rise among U.S. elites. It’s a side-effect of globalization: China absorbs U.S. economics, and the U.S. business people managing the off-shoring process gradually absorb Chinese political culture. They’re initially annoyed by how China does business, but over time they start to see the advantages that accrue from top-down control.

    One straw in the wind: John Fullerton’s discussion of political action in an INET interview:
    http://ineteconomics.org/john-fullerton (scroll down for the section on ‘mobilizing the top 1%’)

  13. says

    Dilan, I’m hardly a fan of the brutal regime in Beijing. But it has just pulled off one of the most astounding feats in human history, lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. I hope – and more than half expect – that India, with something approaching republican government and the rule of law, will eventually out-perform China. Still, it can’t be denied that the Chinese tyranny (post-Mao) has delivered the goods. The contrast with the Russian tyranny and the sub-Saharan kleptocracies couldn’t be sharper.

    First of all, this is only true if you look in the aggregate. For most Chinese peasants, life hasn’t improved at all– they are prohibited from migrating to cities by the dictatorship. And there are plenty of persecuted minorities who have gotten the short end of this stick as well– Tibetans, for instance, and the Hui.

    And second, freedom is a part of prosperity. It’s actually an odd metric that says that people who have better paying jobs but who are forbidden from having more than one child, forbidden from practicing their religion, and forbidden from accessing much of the internet are well off.

    Third, there’s a huge correlation-causation problem here. You are comparing China to Russia, which is also semi-dictatorial. Why not compare it to Eastern Europe instead? Or, even better, how about South Korea or Taiwan or Japan? There are plenty of examples of regimes who were able to achieve the same economic development miracle that China has had, while at the same time reducing repression and increasing human freedom.

    Indeed, I wonder what Plate thinks of a country like Taiwan. Here’s a nation which has achieved even bigger and longer-lasting economic booms than China has, and it did it while also shifting from an authoritarian state to a democratic one. And it further did it while the rest of the world decided to crap all over it by stripping its status as a recognized nation-state in order to mollify the butchers of Beijing. I suspect Plate would like to see Taiwan go the way of Tibet….

  14. Wonks Anonymous says

    A contemporary blogger advocating the Burnham/Plate view, and specifically citing Singapore and sometimes Deng’s China, is Mencius Moldbug at Unqualified Reservations.

    I think the ultimate way to judge regimes is how people “vote with their feet”.

  15. Ebenezer Scrooge says

    @Robert Waldmann:
    I agree that extremely successful countries invest heavily in education. And countries that don’t have a decent primary education system are almost invariably shambolic. (Primary education might be the key. The Chinese takeoff began after they had decent primary education but while very few people had access to tertiary education. It has only been recently that they’ve begun plugging the tertiary gap. It could also be noted that Japanese tertiary education is not very good, but it hasn’t seemed to have hurt the Japanese much.)

    But I should add that most Communist countries took education quite seriously, and did pretty well at it at all levels: even the Soviet Union. And few of them were economically successful.

  16. Andrew says

    I too have friends who have views different from mine, but pro-tyranny and racist apologetics may go a bit too far.

  17. SamChevre says

    “We’d all be better off taking orders from smart people than trying to rule ourselves.”

    It’s not a viewpoint often seen in print; I wonder how widespread it is?

    It may not often be seen in print in that form, but isn’t that view common in American politics on both sides?

    The progressive movement has spent the last 50 years (successfully) reducing the power of elected bodies relative to the courts and the civil service regulatory agencies, mostly on the grounds that they will get decisions right that the voting public got wrong.

    The conservative movement has a substantial number of people (I’m one) who think that a more limited franchise would be better, as people who know and care almost nothing about the issues under consideration are unlikely to make good choices of decision-makers.

  18. James Wimberley says

    Mark in comments: “The contrast with the Russian tyranny and the sub-Saharan kleptocracies couldn’t be sharper.”
    Which Russian tyranny? Witte and Stolypin managed very high rates of growth before 1914. (Nicholas II may have been a dim bulb himself, but he picked or carried on with some capable ministers). Not sure how this translated into standards of living.
    Nobody’s mentioned Amartya Sen’s finding that democracies, unlike colonial rulers and autocracies, manage to prevent famines. A non-trivial bonus point for democracy.

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