The Bear’s Lair: Does democracy work best in Asia?

Britain and the United States are together the progenitors of modern democracy and it has since spread worldwide, albeit suffering a retreat in the last decade. Nevertheless, the current governments under which we are groaning suggest that the U.S., Britain and Western Europe are not very good at operating a democratic system. Can it be that some of democracy’s later adopters in South and East Asia can show us old hands a thing or two?

The original Greek democracy was not especially successful. Apart from excluding women, it excluded slaves, who were about half the population, so the polis represented only the top half of the pyramid. It was applied only in Athens and other small city-states, and was direct rather than representative, so that many decisions were taken by public meetings in which all could participate. In those meetings, the less articulate or those with unpopular views were subjected to ridicule by the entire population. Overall, Greek democracy lasted with several interruptions for barely a century, until the Macedonian conquest of 338 BC.

The British eighteenth-century polity in many ways perfected the distant and imperfect ideal of ancient Athens. The franchise was quite close to the Athenian model. It varied from constituency to constituency, but in most constituencies included all freeholders whose properties had a rental value of 40 shillings per annum, a figure that had been reduced to a low level by 500 years of inflation since it was first set in 1295. This resulted in a highly representative electorate, yet one that veered towards traditionalism when urban radicals attempted to impose unattractive aspects of modernity. For example, the electorate remained staunchly opposed to the intellectually fashionable policy of Catholic Emancipation before it was eventually forced through in 1829, because it believed that emancipating the Catholics would undermine the Established Church and lead to secularization – a belief that was all too justified by the next two centuries’ events.

The move to full egalitarian democracy in Britain and the establishment of an analogous democracy in the United States appear to have removed the healthy regard for tradition that was apparent in the pre-1832 British electorate, or at least to have swamped it by other factors. Voters who do not own their own homes, even with a mortgage, have no stake in society and hence no respect for its foundations. Students, especially the perpetual students that now infest the universities, are both intellectually trained and personally oriented towards overturning traditions, not sustaining them. Property rights mean little to those who have no property. Immigrants who have not yet acquired citizenship, yet by some means appear in the voting booths, naturally have no respect for the beliefs and habits of a country to which they are still foreign. The result is an electorate that fails to respect property rights, is drawn hither and thither by popular intellectual movements (some of which have no basis in science or reason) and is all too prone to elect inept demagogues who spout the latest fashionable nostrums.

Eastern Europe has in recent years generally shown a somewhat greater respect for heritage and property rights than Western Europe, probably because its memory of a despotism without property rights is still quite recent. Thus, the European Union bureaucracy, contemptuous of property rights and full of iconoclastic wokies, finds Eastern European societies very difficult to deal with and prone to rebel against the unpleasant fashionable vices of modernity. Alas, Western Europe is currently dominant by population and economic strength within the EU, so it is likely that its vices will subvert Eastern European strengths, rather than vice versa.

The problems of modern democracy appear less prevalent in Asia, possibly because of the different character of the people. Singapore, to take the most obvious example, is a city-state that was established by an exceptionably able and far-sighted statesmen, Lee Kuan Yew (1923-2015) and is now run by his son Lee Hsien-Loong, who is the only Senior Wrangler of Cambridge University (1973) — essentially, the finest mathematician in the world of his year — to have achieved top political office in any country. Despite being a highly multi-ethnic society, which at Singapore’s independence was thought likely to cause problems, Singapore has maintained both a high level of social discipline and decent relations between its different ethnic groups. That, together with superb economic management, has raised the country from a fairly impoverished state to a GDP per capita 50% above that of the United States (which admittedly is currently badly underachieving its potential).

Japan is another example. Before World War II, Japan was an authoritarian society with only modest elements of democracy. Its introduction to modern democracy by General Douglas MacArthur in 1946-50 was enormously helpful; it took the democratic model and adapted it to Japanese circumstances, producing a center-right coalition party, the Liberal Democratic Party, that has ruled Japan with great success ever since. Even the economic crisis following 1990 did not disturb Japan’s democratic order, though in many countries it would have – a “reform” faction of the LDP under Junichiro Koizumi took office for several years and ensured that the country kept its respect for property rights and its free market system. After a modest period of rule by the opposition in 2009-12, useful in cutting back the corruption inevitable in lengthy one-party rule, the LDP resumed office in 2012 and has continued since then.

Japan’s democratic success extends to its cities, which being properly policed are remarkably well-ordered, entirely different to the chaotic and filthy rat mazes that many Western cities have become. It has the advantage of an almost homogenous population (the northern Hokkaido island has a modestly sized minority group, the Ainu) and very little immigration. This has enabled it to weather its generation-long economic malaise without significant strife or a lapse into communism or some other witless nostrum. However, it is the civilizational qualities of its people that make it so successful; like other Asian societies, its respect for property rights and tradition are far greater than in Western democracies. Long may it flourish, which it is sure to do provided immigration remains restricted.

There are other examples. Malaysia is a quietly successful country that, like Japan, has enjoyed one-party dominance with only occasional interludes since its independence. Indonesia was a highly chaotic Marxist state for 20 years after its independence, then a dictatorship, but since 1998 has settled into one of the most successful democracies in Asia, despite its impoverished population of 250 million; it will probably emerge into a highly significant global power in coming decades.

India is a very interesting emergent case. The last half-century of British colonialism left the subcontinent with a thoroughly unpleasant form of holier-than-thou socialism in the Congress Party. (Had India been given independence earlier, so that its most recent memory was of Lord Curzon rather than Lord Mountbatten, this might have been avoided). Over the next half century, the country suffered from poor property rights (the despoiling of the maharajahs in 1971 being an especially egregious example) low economic growth and the usual tyrannies of socialist rule.

Then in 1998 the opposition party led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee gained power and embarked on genuine economic and political reform, resulting in a moment of “India Shining” in 2003-04. Alas, Congress took back power and Vajpayee retired and then died, and the opportunity appeared to have been lost. The advent of Narendra Modi in 2014 did not a first seem to promise much – he was considerably less reformist than Vajpayee — but over the last decade India has gradually transformed itself, acquiring the self-discipline, respect for tradition and veneration of property rights that are essential to a successful polity. As a result, India has at last begun to pull its weight, politically and economically, and now appears a highly beneficial political and economic counterweight to the thuggish Chinese dictatorship, where neither property rights nor tradition are safe. In other words, India has shaken off the ill-effects of its Western European colonialism and is emerging as a fully-fledged successful “East Asian”-like democracy. Given its size and linguistic and ethnic diversity, that is a remarkable achievement – long may it continue.

The conclusion is clear, Asian societal values, especially in East Asia, can in favorable circumstances produce democracies that provide good governments, with proper respect for tradition, property rights and the free market system. These governments have allowed their countries to achieve spectacular rates of economic growth, catching up and even surpassing Western societies that had a century’s lead but have frittered it away in socialism and societal destruction. We can all learn from them.


(The Bear’s Lair is a weekly column that is intended to appear each Monday, an appropriately gloomy day of the week. Its rationale is that the proportion of “sell” recommendations put out by Wall Street houses remains far below that of “buy” recommendations. Accordingly, investors have an excess of positive information and very little negative information. The column thus takes the ursine view of life and the market, in the hope that it may be usefully different from what investors see elsewhere.)