Benevolent despotism in Singapore

Honest, competent dictatorship is better than the other kind. And Singapore’s party oligarchy has delivered the goods. But is the development of a form of tyranny compatible with economic success really something to be happy about?

I share Mike O’Hare’s impression that the clever, honest, public-spirited, dedicated oligarchy that runs Singapore is very likely to continue to improvise successfully in the face of challenges, and to keep improving the lives of Singaporeans. But &#8212 with full acknowledgement of the fact that Singapore is a pretty damned good place to live, and a lot better than anyone had any right to expect when Lee Kuan Yew led its secession from Maylasia &#8212 I’m not as cheerful about that situation as Mike is.

As Mike says, Singaporean oppression is pretty hard to spot, being carried out with lawsuits, a tame press, and threats to starve constituencies of public services to punish voters for electing opposition candidates, rather than with machine-guns and torture chambers. And if you’re interested in making money and raising your kids rather than in politics it probably doesn’t seem very oppressive.

But the fact remains that Singapore is a party dictatorship, not a republic, and that it has no plans to move toward greater political freedom. The People’s Action Party is a collective &#8212 and therefore more stable and reliable &#8212 version of the Benevolent Despot dreamed of by some Enlightenment thinkers.

Singapore is thus a working model of what the Chinese oligarchs hope to create: a society that is prosperous, information-intensive, and politically unfree. It’s a clear counterexample to the proposition that, in the Information Age, tyranny is incompatible with economic success.

Now, if you think that democracy is valuable only as a way of making decisions in the public interest and protecting individuals from arbitrary mistreatment by officials, there’s nothing to complain about in Singapore, and it would be just fine if the Chinese Communist Party brought off the same trick by adding some benevolence (and honesty, and competence) to its despotism and substituting nonviolent for violent means of discouraging political opposition.

But if you think there’s something degrading in living as a subject &#8212 even a competently and honestly ruled subject with a good measure of personal freedom in the private sphere &#8212 rather than as a citizen who participates as an equal in the process of “ruling, and being ruled, in turn,” then the Singaporean miracle, and the possibility of its being imitated elsewhre, leaves you just a little bit queasy. And that queasiness is not relieved by the observation that most people don’t much like the work of citizenship and are perfectly happy to live under despotism as long as the trains run on time.

If Lee Kuan Yew and his followers have perfected the art of oligarchic rule under the forms of democratic elections and parliamentary government, is that really something to celebrate? Hamilton might have thought so. But Paine, Madison, and Lincoln would have disagreed.

Update A reader complains about my dissing Hamilton. I didn’t intend to. He was a splendid fellow in many ways, contributed greatly to the founding, and created a tradition of excellence at the Treasury Department that it maintains to this day. But he deeply distrusted popular rule, and thought that the British constitution would have been unworkably democratic except for the ability of the ministry to buy Parliamentary votes with sinecures. I think he would have been comfortable with a Singaporean-style government.

Another reader corrects a historical error on my part:

Singapore did not secede from Malaysia. It was kicked out against its will.

Lee, then a prominent Malaysian legislator; lead the opposition to getting rid of Singapore. The Malays were afraid that the offshore Chinese would eventually become a majority and get political control.

Hilzoy on the functions of moral judgment

Moral judgment, including adverse moral judgment, is a form of social and political action.

Hilzoy, a formidable moral reasoner herself, says that moral reasoning, and those who engage in it, would have a better reputation if people used it to consider what they themselves ought to do, rather playing the “I’m OK, you’re not OK” game. Making yourself feel good about your moral superiority to those whose actions you judge adversely is, says Hilzoy, a very guilty pleasure.

That’s true. But I don’t think it’s complete.

Yes, one good reason to think hard about whether I ought to judge someone else’s action to have been right or wrong is to know what I ought to do if ever I face the same choice. That, I take it, is Hilzoy’s “right view.” But there are other good reasons, and some of them are closer to what Hilzoy calls the “wrong view.”

Let me take the least problematic one first. If A is right to do X, then it follows that A ought to be imitated in doing X by those who face the same circumstances and choices. Conversely, if A is wrong to do X, then A should not be imitated.

That’s true about the person J doing the judging &#8212 which is Hilzoy’s notion of the “right way” to make and use moral judgment &#8212 but it’s also true about third parties, and in particular about third parties who hear J endorse or criticize A’s actions. If those third parties come to share J’s judgment about A’s doing X, they will be more (or less) likely to imitate A in doing X. If J is right, that is a good result. Making and announcing moral judgments about the actions of others is thus one kind of action, which may itself (depending on the circumstances) be praiseworthy or even obligatory.

(I take it, for example, that parents are obliged to use good and bad examples, among other devices, to teach their children the difference between right and wrong action. A parent who sees an instance of cruelty in the child’s presence and does not criticize it would be neglecting a parental duty.)

Moreover, if A is right to do X, that’s an argument (not necessarily a conclusive argument) that A ought to be helped to do X. If A is wrong to do X, that’s a reason not to help A do X, or perhaps even to try to prevent A from doing X. So my reflection on whether A is right or wrong informs not only my judgment about what I should do in similar circumstances, but how I ought to act toward A in his attempt to do X. Again, that’s a reason for me to attend to getting straight my moral judgments about the actions of others.

And, as in the case of imitation, it’s true in the case of helping that my announced judgment about the rightness or wrongness of A’s doing X might have the capacity to persuade others and therefore to influence their actions. Much political activity takes this form.

Moreover, since all sane human beings care about how they appear to others, my action of praising or blaming A for doing X can influence A’s own future behavior, especially when my expressed judgment persuades others to share my opinion and express it to A. (Putting aside my own moral opinions for the moment, I’d be very reluctant to appear in public in a fur coat, in a way that would not have been true twenty years ago. The &#8212 often obnoxiously expressed, “wrong-way” &#8212 moral judgments of the animal-rights folks have had a real effect.) This function of judgment mirrors the role once attributed to history and historians: to create incentives for historical actors to do good rather than evil by praising benefactors and blaming malefactors.

Further, the judgment that A was right to do X constitutes an argument (again, rebuttable rather than conclusive) that A ought to be rewarded for doing X, either formally or informally, while the judgment that A was wrong to do X constitutes an argument for punishing A, or for creating public policies or private practices that would punish people situated as A was situated for doing X in the future.

All of these, I submit, are legitimate functions of moral judgment and its expression. And the negative ones are very much in the “I’m OK, you’re not OK” mode. Hilzoy is surely right that a decent humility and charity would moderate that to some extent, and I would add that moralists might well do more good and less harm if they spent more time and energy expressing praise rather than blame. But moral judgments about others, and their social consequences (assistance and obstruction, praise and blame, reward and punishment) are necessary elements in any social system, and an account of moral judgment that excludes those functions is, to that extent, defective.

Footnote Note that I’m philosophizing without a license, while Hilzoy is an accredited expert. The reader should therefore add salt to taste.

Google, Yahoo, and corporate social responsibility

I think Google didn’t do the wrong thing by submitting to Chinese censorship, while Yahoo did do the wrong thing by narking out a reporter to the Chinese secret police. I could be wrong about that. What I’m sure of is that those are real moral questions, which can’t be dismissed by saying that corporate managers should always do whatever will make the most money for shareholders.

It seems to me that Google is getting a bad rap. Making a censored Chinese-language search-engine available doesn’t deprive anyone of access to the English-language version, and there’s no reason to think that the Chinese government would have agreed to an uncensored version. Google’s service seems to be less censored than Microsoft’s, for example.

I can’t see any rational basis for comparing Google’s concession to reality to Yahoo’s betrayal of a reporter to the Chinese thought police. (Though Fiore’s animated cartoon is beautifully done, I don’t think he’s right to associate Google with Yahoo.) I wouldn’t even compare Google’s move to News Corp.’s willingness to censor its satellite newscasts; Google will notify the user every time a search brings back censored results, while News Corp. has simply agreed to do for China’s oligarchs what its Fox News division does for American oligarchs..

Yes, Google’s “Don’t be Evil” motto invites us to hold it to a higher standard than its competitors, but there’s a difference between holding an institution to a high standard and demanding that it act as if the real world had no constraints.

One position I haven’t seen anyone take — and can’t really imagine anyone taking seriously — is that Yahoo’s managers did the right thing by helping tyrants put an innocent person in a horrible prison for many years, if and only if they thought that doing so would maximize value for Google shareholders. What do you think, Professor Bainbridge?

Update A reader thinks my reading of the Google-in-China situation is overoptimistic:

It was my experience while in internet cafes in both Paris, Berlin or Prague

that you can’t “get to” the English language version of Google. If you type

in “” you get respectively. Searches for English language items done from these sites still yield English results,

but the Google interface is most definitely in the native language. My guess

is that the Google servers look for the country domain from which a query

comes and automatically switches one to the ‘language appropriate’ page.

But no matter how many times I typed “” into my French web browser, I never got ‘there’.

So I figure since Google has struck an agreement with the Chinese

government, there must be some sort of filtering / redirection built into

the system when the Google servers ‘see’ a request coming from a Chinese

computer. My experience leads me to doubt that one will in fact not readily

be able to access information the Chinese government wants restricted.*

Can anyone confirm or deny? Is there a way to get to the US version of Google from abroad?

Second update

Not a problem in Japan, according to one reader:

I live in Tokyo and on a daily basis use for English-language searches and for Japanese-language searches.

At least in the Safari browser in Mac OS X 10.3.x, typing into the domain field, assigning as the default search engine for the

queries field and selecting from my bookmarks do not redirect me to or any other address.

But another reader agrees with the first:

Yes, it’s quite impossible to get the English language version of Google when abroad. I do quite a bit of business travel to Germany, Norway, Sweden and a few other countries and I can’t get an English language version of Google when I connect through the networks of the particular country. VPN’ing through to the US, of course, I can get to the English language version.

And yet a fourth report:

Reading your blog in Madrid. I type in and get the Spanish site, with the interface in Spanish. However, at the bottom of the page, just above the copyright where it offers links for advertising, business solutions and about google, I see a link ” in English” click it and I have the site. I also note that google seems to remember which page I prefer if I close the window and try again. I seem to recall doing this in Bangkok a year ago as well.

Finally, what seems to be a generalized fix:

It is possible to get a generic version of Google from any location by typing in the following URL:

Or, from my country, Japan, for example, I can access the Dutch version by


I don’t know whether these tricks work from China.

Moral reform movements led by ministers: RIP.

The Reverend Martin Luther King led a society-wide moral movement for equality. That wouldn’t be possible today.

Happy Martin Luther King Day, a few hours early.

It’s common today to talk about race relations generally, but my own work gives me more insight into a narrower question: King’s politics, and the social context that made them work. He was a huge, complex figure, etc., etc., but, put simply: King used his moral authority as a minister to shame many mainstream Americans into changing their fundamental beliefs and practices. Put even more simply, nobody could do that now: ministers no longer have moral authority, and lack a mainstream political role.

Now that you’ve spewed out your coffee: I don’t mean that religion had more power in politics in the 50s and 60s than now (though the argument could be made: the reason there was no religious Right was that all its positions now were laws then), nor of course that major politicians talked more about Jesus then. I mean that there used to be something respectable about being a religious leader. Back when we had an Establishment, priests, ministers and rabbis were its designated spokesmen [sic, let’s face it] on moral matters. Few dared to say openly that a respected man [sic] of the cloth, speaking seriously on a moral issue, was simply blowing smoke.

King played on that like a virtuoso. He rarely claimed that God gave him authority to make public policy on racial matters. He preached to his congregations, but mostly he used his social authority as a minister to make secular arguments on racial matters. If it’s hard to imagine what this could have looked like, consider how we treat former generals talking about Iraq. A general’s claim can certainly be wrong, and of course generals disagree, but a general has both presumptive authority on military matters and presumptive moral status as someone who has a certain character. Well, ministers used to be looked at the same way: Americans took both their moral opinions and their character seriously, though both were subject to rebuttal. King’s preacherly mien increased rather than decreased his general authority on moral matters.

We don’t respect clergy like that anymore. As “mainline” denominations have weakened, and polarized politically, and free-lance evangelicals gained strength, a public statement by a preacher has come to convince those of the same religion and politics — but not the rest of society. (Polls on whether people want clergy to “speak up on political and social questions” often obscure this: if every voter wants her own religious authority to speak up on her own side, and would consider changing religious affiliations for political reasons, this means that clergy lack social power.)

The Civil Rights Act would probably have happened with or without religion, but real changes in the acceptability of personal racial prejudice required — as King stressed constantly — a change in conscience, not just in law. While muttered, submerged racism and structural racial inequality are still with us, those who think nothing fundamental has changed simply don’t know much about the Jim Crow era and the racial attitudes — let alone the structures — that respectable white people and their leaders, North and South, defended openly back then.

The role of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and its guilt-induced allies in changing those attitudes cannot be overstated. Does anyone think that white racism would have become taboo so quickly if the leaders of the Civil Rights movement had been Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael (the Thurgood Marshalls wringing their hands from the side, with little personal or charismatic following)?

It’s a common vice of liberals to think that all good things go together. But in most of life, and in this case, big improvements come with some costs. On the whole, the clergy’s loss of influence has been a stupendous gain. Without this decline, the story of sexual freedom, gay rights, and legal abortion (for now, anyway) would have been very different. But so would the story of Civil Rights. Those who want a new Civil Rights movement will have to grapple with the lack of leaders immediately respected by both Blacks and Whites. Once, the role of minister provided an unexpected bridge. No longer.

The problem is more general. A society with no uncontroversial moral authorities will find it easier to justify personal liberty than to tell anyone why he should (slightly) limit his liberty to promote the moral value of equality.

Daily Lesson

Jonathan Zasloff writes:

Early yesterday morning, the House Republicans passed a budget resolution severely cutting Medicaid, food stamps, and child care. Meanwhile, their allies in the Senate passed a resolution extending tax cuts for some of the wealthiest investors.

Class, the Daily Lesson comes from Amos, 8:1-8:

Thus the LORD showed me: Behold, a basket of summer fruit.

And He said, “Amos, what do you see?” So I said, “A basket of summer fruit.”

Then the LORD said to me:

“The end has come upon My people Israel;

I will not pass by them anymore.

And the songs of the temple shall be wailing in that day,”

Says the LORD God–

“Many dead bodies are everywhere;

they shall be thrown into silence”

Hear this, you who swallow up the needy,

and make the poor of the land fail,


“When will the New Moom be past that we may sell grain?

And the Sabbath, that we may trade wheat?

Making the ephah small and the shekel large,

Falsifying the scales by deceit.

That we may buy the poor for silver,

and the needy for a pair of shoes–

Even sell the bad wheat?”

The LORD has sworn by the pride of Jacob:

“Surely I will never forget any of their works.

Shall the land not tremble for this,

And everyone mourn who dwells in it?

All of it shall swell like the River,

heave and subside

like the River of Egypt.”

We might also read from Isaiah 10: 1-2

Woe to the legislators of infamous laws,

who refuse justice to the unfortunate

and cheat the poor among my people of their rights,

who make widows their prey, and rob the orphan.

Class, who would like to comment? Rev. Dobson? Rev. Robertson?


Should corporations serve only their shareholders?

On shareholders’ rights an organizational sociopathy.

Mike O’Hare and I agree on what I take to be two central points.

1. Corporate actions call for moral judgments on the part of corporate managers, who can’t legitimately hide behind Friedman’s claim that their duty to maximize shareholder wealth are the only duties relevant to their jobs.

2. Managers ought to restrain then natural temptation to do good at others’ expense, just as they ought to restrain their natural temptation to line their own pockets.

O’Hare points out that the implicit assumption that shareholders care exclusively about financial returns may well be wrong. But I’d go further than that.

Even if the shareholders unanimously want their company to engage in lawful but morally outrageous behavior, I doubt that the managers are morally justified in complying with their wishes. If I think that pimping is wrong independent of its illegality, why should I hold a pimp morally blameless because he carries out his trade as a salaried manager of a company in the Thai sex-tourism trade rather than a solo entrepreneur? If slave-trading was wrong, how could corporate slave-trading have been less wrong than sole-proprietor slave-trading? If only a scoundrel would sell arms to the Nazis or the Khmer Rouge, does he become less a scoundrel by incorporating?

The conventional view is that the shareholders are the company, and that the company’s managers owe complete loyalty to them. That’s the legal fiction, but I doubt it’s the best empirical description of the contemporary corporation or the right basis on which to frame a theory of managerial moral responsibility.

The alternative view is that the shareholders are transaction partners of the company, just like lenders, employees, suppliers, franchisees, and customers. Stockholders are suppliers of one of the resources that the suppliers of one of the company’s needs — equity capital — as banks and bondholders supply debt capital, employees provide labor, customers provide revenue, and so on.

Shareholders, on this (in my opinion, more accurate) account, are the holders of an option on the company’s assets and the residual claimants, once all creditors are satisfied, should it be broken up. They also have the power to elect directors. If they are mistreated by managers, they have the options of exit, either individually by selling their shares or collectively in the face of a hostile tender offer, and (with some difficulty) voice through the proxy-challenge process.

The responsibility of the management, on this account, is for the health of the enterprise, including its relationships will all of its transaction partners. “What would our shareholders want us to to do?” is, I would argue, a good question to ask in any situation, but not the only question. “What would our employees want us to do?” also counts. And so does the question “What is the right thing to do, all things considered?” The answer to that last question will include all of the stakeholder-desire questions, but won’t be exhausted by them.

Footnote Some email and blogospheric comments on my original post argue that my reductio fails since all companies depend to some extent on good public relations, and therefore truly spectacular wrongdoing won’t generally be in a company’s long-term interests. But this can’t be right, either practically or morally. A company might maximize its shareholder value by pulling off some very profitable but very disreputable deal and then dissolving itself, leaving the money in its shareholders’ pockets and no successor-in-business to reap the whirlwind of public disapproval.

Still, it’s true that public opinion will provide some check on corporate wrongdoing, and that a company will therefore be obliged to consider how its actions will appear. On the Friedman theory, this should be the only ethical guidance it takes seriously as a reason not to engage in wrongdoing.

Psychiatrists have a name for people who have no actual conscience, but merely conform to social norms insofar as not doing so has costs to them in excess of its benefits: to people, that is, whose behavior is limited by shame but not by guilt. They’re called “sociopaths.”

A corporation whose managers are shareholder-wealth maximizers, but within the limits imposed by public opinion, would, then, be an organizational sociopath. That’s not a bad description of some companies I could name, or of some government agencies, for that matter. Organizational sociopathy is much more common than the individual variety, and an organization doesn’t have to be composed of sociopaths to act in that way.

But is corporate sociopathy an ideal? I doubt it.

Shareholder value
    is not the same as shareholder wealth

A reflection on Mark’s post on the Friedman proposition:

I am not comfortable with corporations getting in the doing-good business on the whole, by which I mean charitable contributions. political activity outside their narrow business interests, and similar activities. This is partly because of the slippery-slope problem of excess, and partly because I fear that most corporate executives have some ideas of good that aren’t mine. (Of course, the second of these isn’t a moral case and shouldn’t count for much.) Still, much as I appreciate (for example) corporate support of the fine arts, I’d prefer we find another way to fund orchestras and museums.

What the Friedman argument is missing, it seems to me, is a realistic idea of what shareholders want with regard to how their companies do their own business, and all sorts of good behavioral evidence shows that to be a lot more complicated than maximal money returns. Friedman is right that corporate leadership is obligated to advance the interests of shareholders, but it is also obligated to discern these interests and discover–I expect–that shareholders want to trade some possible returns for a clear conscience about environmental responsibility, decent treatment of workers, honesty in trade, and the like.

It’s complicated to discern these things, they are much messier than just looking at dividends, and errors are a certainty, but just because doing the right thing is hard doesn’t mean it isn’t right. That’s the sort of thing we pay them the big bucks for, making tough calls about important questions with imperfect information.