Bryan Caplan  

Libertarians, Take Your Pick: U.S. or Singapore?

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I just had a fascinating chat with two extremely economically literate Singaporean civil servants. It suggested a challenge for libertarians: If you had to choose the system of government and policies as a package, which would you pick: the U.S. or Singapore? Notice that this bundles two questions:

1. Is Singaporean policy really more libertarian, on balance, than U.S. policy?

2. If the answer to #1 is Yes, is the extra liberty worth the reduction of democracy?

Extra credit:

3. If the answer to #1 is Yes, how confident are you that the difference will persist?

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COMMENTS (24 to date)
8 writes:

You could also use Hong Kong under British rule as a good example. A more questionable one would be Dubai.

1. Depends on how the government treats private behavior. As I understand it there are a few moral laws.

2. Democracy is a means to an end. If another form of government is better at protecting liberty, choose it.

3. Totally confident unless a foreign power intervenes, because it is a city state. If it was a large country I would not be confident at all.

Alex J. writes:

Singaporean police frighten me in a way that American police do not. This is enough of an every day factor that I vote would for US policy on balance.

TGGP writes:

According to the Fraser Institute Singapore has more economic freedom.

I care not a whit for democracy. I repeat my request to know what Bryan thinks of Politicians Don't Pander.

Dave Gottlieb writes:

You could also use Hong Kong under British rule as a good example.

A more provocative version uses Hong Kong right now, under PRC rule.

Jan writes:

1. Yes. According to Heritage Foundation, Singapore is 85 while US is 82.

2. No. Apparently Singapore has a benevolent one-party system. I think in the US we are better off when one party has presidency and the other controls congress. I wouldn't want either party in control of the US government.

3. Too close to call.

Selfreferencing writes:

The big problem for a libertarian in Singapore is the heavy enforcement of a public conception of morality.

But onto your questions:

Most libertarians will prefer Singapore if Singapore's regime of greater economic liberty is as stable as the US's economic policy and is likely to not swing as often and as greatly as the US's economic policy. But it's hard to know whether Singapore's regime measures up on those stability measures.

My own answer:

I don't think democracy is intrinsically good. I think its a means to an end. I think economic liberty is both instrumentally good to prosperity and good in itself. I take liberty and prosperity as distinct, but both intrinsic goods.

If so, I want the regime that maximizes both. If I have to trade-off between the two, I favor liberty over prosperity to a large degree. If liberty keeps me from achieving most of my plans by making me poor, I will sacrifice some of it.

Now we have to ask what the tie is between democracy and economic liberty. And we have to ask what the tie is between economic liberty and economic prosperity. I take it that the second tie is fairly tight and the first tie is very weak and often totally broken. Democracy will keep us swinging around an equilibrium between a fairly decent growth rate and deleterious and society-wide rent-seeking. So it is better than most anti-democratic regimes, but worse than some others, including Singapore. But only if restrictions on democracy have better equilibria or have stable equilibria at all.

Now what's the tie between economic liberty and a Singaporean government? I don't know. It depends largely on internal forces and external forces. Singapore is small, putting great pressure on it to maintain fairly liberal policies. Second, they aren't terribly ideological and ethnically conflicted, so they seem stable. Further, they've grown fast enough for it to be evident to most people who pay attention that there's a connection between economic liberty and prosperity.

Of course, some anti-democratic restrictions are worse than others. Do these restrictions on balance weigh in favor or against a libertarian society developing? If we allow democracy, anti-libertarian democratic interest groups will stop us. If we don't allow democracy, anti-libertarian interest groups embedded in the government by other means will stop us. On balance, which is worse? I'm more afraid of the latter, but perhaps that is irrational.

What do you think, Bryan?

Floccina writes:

New Zealand is ranked high in economic freedom and non-economic freedoms. Why not do like them and eliminate most agricultural subsidies and tariffs while retaining the vote.

Mitch Oliver writes:

I'm afraid the deal breaker for me is that were I to relocate to Singapore I would have to cut my hair. Ain't happening.

Eric Crampton writes:

New Zealand > US > Singapore

When I interviewed in Singapore, I got the distinct impression that research agendas in public choice, as applied to the Singapore government, would not be well received. At all. If I did standard micro kind of stuff, though, my preference ordering might well reverse.

Punditus Maximus writes:

Re: Singapore 85 > US 82:

That's a 4% difference, man. Are you positive that the Heritage Index is so fantastically accurate that a 4% difference is actually meaningful? If so, that's, um, awesome.

Barkley Rosser writes:

Only someone who cares about only economic
libertarianism could remotely take this seriously.
Heck, it you can get caned for spitting on the
street in public, not to mention a whole lot of
other thoroughly inane and petty stuff.

I suspect that the people voting for Singapore
also think that Pinochet's Chile was a veritable
paradise. Who cares how many political opponents
he killed?

Unit writes:

I vote for the US. There are more libertarian theorists over here. It's more fun to gripe. Also the US is just bigger in size.

Eric Crampton writes:

Barkley: my impression while there was that the police enforce those kinds of laws infrequently at best: they're more the subject of joke t-shirts worn by kids than anything actually much worried about. If I had to bet, I'd put higher odds on being subject to police abuse in the US than in Singapore.

Dr. T writes:

Since I rate personal liberty higher than economic liberty, I'll stay in the U.S. Economic liberty means nothing if you can be jailed for behaving in ways deemed immoral by faceless leaders or even faceless bureaucrats.

Eric Crampton writes:

Dr. T: Go read Radley Balko's blog. I think you're underestimating the likelihood of arbitrary arrest and detention in the US.

Chris writes:

Democracy is a large part of the problem. I don't know enough to say whether or not Singapore is better, but the state of democracy doesn't really enter into the equation.

TGGP writes:

Who cares how many political opponents
he killed?

Does that actually happen often in Singapore? What is Singapore's net migration rate? If we assume people give the proper amount of weight to economic vs civil freedom in their own decisions regarding where to live, that should tell us.

Why should a libertarian be enthusiastic about the right to spit on streets? It's not your street, it seems sensible that there are some rules. Granted, because governments have a monopoly such restrictions can be especially burdensome but I don't think spitting ranks high there.

On economic issues, SIngapore is certainly more libertarian, but not on social issues. Of course, libertarianism is a package deal -- it includes economic and social issues. Thus, Singapore is no doubt less libertarian than the U.S., though freer economically.

Personally, I have nothing but contempt for democracy -- it's nothing but mob rule. I'm a republican federalist through and through -- and I think there should be as many layers in the hierarchy as possible. And I think those layers should all be put in constant conflict with each other. The worst thing that ever happened to this country was when the people were allowed to elect Senators rather than having the states choose the Senators -- that kept the Senate and HoR in conflict. (The second worst was the Amendment that allowed for the income tax -- and, subsequently, the property tax.)

John Smith writes:

I am an undergrad student at the National University of Singapore in Mech Eng, a native Singaporean citizen.

Corrections to several prior errors by other posters:

No caning for spitting. A moderately small fine of I believe S$500, which is around US$300. Rarely enforced anyway

Hair length requirement abolished long ago. Now only applicable primarily to military service.

Civil police drawn from normal pool of people. Believe our police would be highly preferable to American police. Well-trained, non-violent, reasonably well-liked by citizens. So far as I am aware, few law-abiding people are afraid of them.
If you are referring to the internal police however, the Internal Security Department, then that is another issue. However, though they may have vast powers, they rarely exercise them, so that may be some comfort.

Opposition leaders aren’t executed here. It may or may not be the case that one may possibly perceive that they may be encouraged to depart our shores for their own well-being by various factors, which cannot be entirely determined, or appear to have a greater likelihood than expected of losing their assets to the courts after a libel suit by the state party. However, this is merely an observation and may well be entirely inaccurate. [Note, this post is posted from Singapore]

On the whole, I highly prefer our country to the American states. Things seem to be rare chaotic over there, lots of rent-seeking by companies and such. Here, things are orderly and reasonably wealth-inducing. I recall a quote by an amercian, something along the lines of how those who would give up freedom for security ends up with neither. I would say that we are a good example of how this is not always so. One factor may be that the military is drawn from all male citizens, with few exceptions. Thus, may be more difficult to become a tyrant. Anyway, I think democracy is over-rated anyway. We are very happy even without it.

Jaap writes:

Singapore has a sodomy statute and various other ways of harassing gays and lesbians.

Andrew writes:

The term libertarian means to me both economic and political freedoms. Singapore's economy is more free and observing from the outside their lives seem to be about as free as ours. A bit below the surface there are restrictions on political freedoms that start to weigh on its citizens. Everything seems designed to attract foreigners and investors rather than to benefit their own citizens. That goal is the reason for all of the economic freedoms, cleanliness, flowers and plants everywhere, strict rules and enforced stability.

I don't think I would like to work there unless I was the boss, they work too much for my taste.

han meng writes:

For now, I'd be willing to live there, but:

How confident are you that the difference will persist?

Long term? Not much. I agree with George Stigler, that everyone who gets into office eventually responds to incentives.

hanmeng writes:

And, Bruce Schneier claims,

...some countries -- the United Kingdom, Singapore, Malaysia -- have passed laws giving police the authority to demand that you divulge your passwords and encryption keys.

D writes:

what's interesting here is how everybody seems to say that Singapore could only be less free than the US because of democracy/human rights/political freedom issues.
the size and economic importance of the public and parastatal sector in Singapore are not an issue at all ?

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