The dictator of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, died recently, to nearly universal praise in the West for the way he built his country into an economic powerhouse. Columnist Richard Cohen thinks that we have “authoritarian envy” because “too much democracy” keeps government from being able to do what it needs to do.
Mr. Cohen, a liberal, decries Lee’s harsh rule and his running roughshod over any kind of human rights, but he seems to share that envy, expressing frustration over our government’s inability to get things done, due to all of these political conflicts and checks and balances.
Conservatives, I would think, would be glad of the limits on government and would especially dislike an authoritarian like Lee, even though he did promote free markets and economic growth. But as the presidential election season gets under way, I worry that all sides may be investing too much hope that what we need is a powerful leader and are expressing frustration with our constitutional system that, by design, checks and balances an activist government. Might America be getting more and more open to authoritarianism?
From Richard Cohen, America suffers from too much democracy – The Washington Post:
Whatever the eulogists of Lee Kuan Yew told you about the Singapore he created or the Asia that seems resurgent, the praise of him says just as much about America. In editorials, essays, television commentaries and just plain conversations, we appear to be suffering from an acute case of authoritarian envy.
Lee was a disciplinarian. He ran Singapore like a severe private school. He brooked no dissent, bad manners, corruption, recreational drugs, sloth, laziness or rambunctious teenagers. He was famous for using the cane to punish vandals and the death penalty for drug dealers. He knew his city-state had only one natural resource and that was the industriousness and discipline of its people. They were his students and he was the headmaster.The suppression of dissent is not praiseworthy. The application of the death penalty is abhorrent. The lack of political opposition and press freedom is not to be admired, and one-man rule — Lee was in major office for about 52 years — is hardly admirable. Lee ran a one-man state and he ran it, on occasion, repressively.
But his administrative brilliance and his economic success are what earned him such adulation. He rose in stature not just on account of what he did but on account of what we could not. Lee, as they once said of Mussolini, made the trains run on time. America’s trains too often don’t run at all.
We suffer from an excess of democracy. We have a Congress that has been gridlocked for as long as anyone can remember. It is at the mercy of any extremist from anywhere in the country who can threaten a primary fight. Our infrastructure is eroding, yet we seem incapable of doing anything about it. Lee Kuan Yew knew what to do about it. If you need a bridge, build it.