Authoritarianism and Its Discontents

Published August 1, 1994

Stripped to its essentials, the claim of the Singapore School is that authoritarianism works (economically and socially), and that it works because it better coheres with human nature than does Western democratic theory and practice. In that respect, the East Asian critique is a fascinating Confucian variant on Dostoevsky’s “Legend of the Grand Inquisitor,” with Lee Kuan Yew in the role of the cardinal who argues that “man has no more tormenting care than to find someone to whom he can hand over as quickly as possible that gift of freedom with which the miserable creature is born.”

Putting aside for a moment the deeper moral-philosophical questions involved, though, does authoritarianism really “work” under the conditions of modernity (and especially given economic prosperity)? Eric Jones, an Australian professor of economic history, thinks not. In an essay in the Spring 1994 issue of The National Interest, he offers a careful critique of the Singapore School’s claims for its own superior efficiency.

The first problem Jones identifies might be called the problem of the “statute of limitations.” Lee Kuan Yew has argued that it may be a century before the peoples of East Asia can be “trusted” with the personal freedoms celebrated in the West (although the more advanced among them, such as South Korea, Taiwan, and, of course, Singapore, could ease their way into a more “balanced” social system in perhaps another thirty years or so). But does Lee seriously propose that a self-perpetuating ruling elite, whose claims to authority are grounded in a certain reading of the human propensity for chaos, will voluntarily yield power when the time finally comes? As Jones notes, this sounds suspiciously like St. Augustine’s famous prayer asking that he be given chastity—but not quite yet. Moreover, Lee Kuan Yew’s forecast seems to involve a contradiction. His present defense of authoritarianism rests on a questioning of the universal validity of those human rights that he expects his people (and indeed the rest of East Asia) will nevertheless enjoy when they “mature.” This suggests that these alleged artifacts of Western cultural imperialism might not be so culture-specific after all.

The second point of Jones’s critique is economic. The Singapore School, he says, can offer “no guarantee … that the growth which it claims to engender will go on being delivered.” For there can be no certainty that the ruling elite, no matter how much it has achieved over the past decades, will continue to make the right calls, time after time. Industrial policy is a very risky business, as the Japanese learned to their chagrin when they foolishly bet on mainframes while U.S. computer manufacturers pushed ahead with p.c.’s. The fact that authoritarianism has worked economically in the recent past does not mean it will continue to work in the future.

Thirdly, Jones believes that the history of East Asia tells against the claims of the Singapore School: “Authoritarian governments have delivered economic growth in much of post-war island and peninsular Asia, but almost never did so throughout the economic history of the Confucian world.” Lee and Mahbubani would reply, Jones assumes, that this was “old-style Confucianism of the wrong sort.” But Lee Kuan Yew’s declared fondness for guanxi—”connections”—as a substitute for the rule of law raises questions about just how great a break has been made with the past. Moreover, Jones argues, it seems unlikely that the levels of investment necessary to take the East Asian tigers to the next stage of economic development can be sustained if, understandably, Western capital shies away from countries “where personal and political contacts replace black-letter law.”

Then there is the problem of sustaining creativity in a modern and prosperous country. Kishore Mahbubani’s “calm and well-ordered society” may seem rather attractive when one considers the condition of American cities today. But Jones rightly asks whether the prosperity of countries like Singapore has not been based, to date, on a certain parasitic relationship to the more chaotic but also far more creative West:



At the moment, the instrumentalist approach which diverts so much Asian talent into engineering, computer science and the like is paying off. Overseas Chinese families need no encouragement to oblige their children to enter these fields; they know life is hard and livings have to be made. Harsh experience makes them risk averse. Authoritarianism, with its pragmatic orientation, reinforces this trait, which however is a rigidifying one.


The East Asians, in other words, can live off Western creativity and inventiveness for a while. But East Asia will not, Jones argues, take its rightful place in the world “if it remains so defensive.” Nor, one might suggest, will risk-averse cultures do well over the long haul in a dynamic world market.

Then there is the question of motivation: how will authoritarian governments deal with the fact that prosperity tends to weaken motivations to hard work, thrift, and discipline? What resources for inner motivation will these societies be able to develop when external pressures (from the “Psychological Defense Unit” and elsewhere) prove ineffective, as they inevitably must over time?

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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