The Value of Democracy

Once in a while, someone in the West speaks contrarianism to power and suggests democracy isn’t a good idea. Usually the alternative peddled is some conservative form of authoritarianism, like the supposed benevolent dictatorship of Singapore or Malaysia.

Of course, in Russia and East Asia it’s not contrarian at all, but mainstream and destructive; but the Western form of opposition to democracy is wholly contrarian.

First, economic development isn’t something dictatorships have a monopoly on. China’s growing at 9% per year, but so is India. And while India has a much larger number of people who are food insecure, it’s never had a famine since independence, while China had the artificial Great Leap Forward, in which 20-30 million people starved. As Amartya Sen has observed, no independent democracy with a free press has ever had a famine.

Second, democracies are just less corrupt than non-democracies. Singapore is supposedly an exception, but the index it performs well on is popular perception of corruption. Indeed, the Singaporean people don’t think their government is corrupt. Why would they? It’s not as if the state-controlled press lets the people know that the government won’t divulge where it invests their pension funds.

And third, usually non-Western dictators and their post-colonialist apologists in the West tend to frame the discussion in terms of values. Lee Kuan Yew says that Asian values dictate that Singapore’s 4 million people are his property. But in reality, as one observer noted,

As formulated by its prime exponent, Senior Minister Lee Kwan Yew of Singapore, Asian values or “Asian governance” ideology holds that Asians, like good Confucians, value order over change, hierarchy over equality, and cooperation and mutual respect over conflict between the elite and the masses. Moreover, Asians have their own forms of governance that do not have the Western emphasis on individual rights, electoral competition, the free press, free assembly, and checks and balances. Let me just say that when I first came across Lee’s list of supposed Asian values, I saw values that were not so much specific to Asian culture but good British, upper-class Tory values dear to threatened elites everywhere. It was not without good reason that one British cabinet minister once referred to Lee, when he was still known as Harry Lee, as the “best bloody Englishman East of Suez.”

One Response to The Value of Democracy

  1. The conservative tendency is to assume that what is good for them is good for everyone. There is no reason to assume that a place like Singapore, with a government screened press, state enforcement of moral strictures, etc., is good for everyone. But the conservatives like the idea of people not being able to buy “filth” (read: porn) or read how their higher ups are behaving in such maligned ways. Therefore it is abstractly awesome.

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