Fragile Stability

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By George Weigel

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The political risks of Singapore-style authoritarianism are also serious; left unaddressed, they could well jeopardize the East Asian miracle. As Jones observes, authoritarians “almost by definition” cannot provide a satisfactory answer to the ancient Roman question Quis custodiet ipsos custodes—who will monitor and discipline the monitors and disciplinarians? How will the East Asian tigers deal with the unavoidable question of political accountability, which concerns not simply “when?” (thirty years from now? a hundred years from now?) but “how?” Suppose, for the sake of argument, that Lee Kuan Yew is right, and that a time will come when the “authoritarian task” (as Jones nicely puts it) is completed. How will the transformation beyond authoritarianism be effected? And between now and then, what is to prevent serious excesses, even corruption? As Jones notes, an authoritarian regime would no longer be authoritarian if it acknowledged any constraints on its behavior. But absent such constraints (constitutional, legal, or moral-cultural), what, beyond a fideistic belief in the wisdom of a succession of philosopher-kings, keeps the rulers in line?

Moreover, the assumption of a persistent series of wise authoritarian rulers is historically naive. As Jones puts it, “How may a society ensure that one philosopher-king will be succeeded by another?” Singapore has been very fortunate: Lee Kuan Yew is, in many respects, a remarkable figure, and the transition “beyond” Mr. Lee has gone relatively smoothly. But Singapore is a very small place. Even in medium-sized authoritarian regimes, and much more in a colossus like China, such a peaceful succession seems doubtful. The blunt historical fact, which the Singapore School seems to ignore, is that “orderly succession is nowhere as satisfactorily guaranteed as in Western parliamentary democracies.” Many Latin Americans seemed to have learned this in the 1980s; will the East Asians follow suit in the 1990s and into the next century?

Finally, the Singapore School, for all its close attention to the dynamics of modern development, seems to have missed one of the most salient characteristics of that development: that the formation of a middle class releases social pressures toward democratization, and sooner rather than later. That has been the case in South Korea and Taiwan (and would most certainly have been the case in Hong Kong, absent the pusillanimity of the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office); there is little reason to doubt that things will be any different in Singapore—or, later, in Malaysia and Indonesia, if indeed their economies continue to grow and the effects of that growth include the enlargement of the middle class.

Peter Berger once remarked that when the peasants become bourgeois, they get uppity and start demanding a say in how things are run. Eric Jones describes the phenomenon in more formal terms:

 

 

The creation of a middle class transforms society. Some elements of that class, maybe only a fringe at first, start to demand those effete and non-material things which are associated (though mainly for reasons of history) with western lifestyles and philosophies. The items include political participation, multi-party politics, an end to corruption, a freer press, environmental clean-up. All these things can be seen emerging on the East Asian scene.

The transition may be gradual. Recession may slow it down. Many people will be content to acquire more things. Current politicians will try to frustrate some of the proliferation of demands; it is not their world, though it may prove to be the world they engender through their economic management. Yet once it is under way the evolution of the political culture need not be at all slow: it may come in a rush.

 

And when it does, if it does, it will have, Jones suggests, a distinctively “Asian face.” But for all its distinctiveness, the political evolution of East Asian societies will, he believes, “represent a version of modernity which sits more comfortably with individual choice than with the dictates of authorities.” The present authorities may try to stop this evolution. But to do so without damaging economic growth is impossible, Jones believes. Political entrepreneurship will thus emerge to fill the demand for “having a say”; and while those entrepreneurs may, as Jones whimsically observes, “pretend that they have invented the new, non-material commodities which they will put on offer,” those goods and services will look rather more like the institutions of liberal democracy than the Singapore School imagines.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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