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.