Friday, July 26, 2013

Singapore and Hong Kong - A Tale of Two Reactionary Cities

Singapore is often held up as a kind of model reactionary state among the nations in existence today. It has incredibly low crime rates, low taxes, general social harmony, and has broadly built itself up from being a swamp to first world country in 60 years. It's also done this while juggling a tricky ethnic mix that's produced social conflict in many other countries. Lee Kuan Yew pulled this impressive feat off in part by restricting democracy and the freedom of the press, thus reducing the means by which ethnic tension can be whipped up. Most westerners dislike both of these aspects, but its hard to argue with results.

Back when I was but a wee Holmes in high school, I was a fervent (small 'd') democrat. I remember in an otherwise worthless social science class discussing with a Singaporean friend of mine about how his country was run. He was a defender of their system, and argued that it was actually popular with the people. I tended to not believe him, and always wanted to know why, if the government thought they were so popular, didn't they put matters to a fair vote? A failure to do so must mean that they suspected they'd lose.

It took me a long time to realise that on this point, I was wrong. The firstfact to understand about Singapore is that even though their 'democracy' is a joke, the government would very likely win an actual fair election. They are popular. The fact that people aren't voting on civic matters cannot be equated with them being unhappy about civic matters. Witness the outpouring of genuine joy and interest in the royal baby if you don't think this kind of thing is possible.

But here's the bigger question - what is the one, big genuine knock on Singapore as a place to live?

It's boring.

And this, alas, is true. There is really nothing interesting going on there. You can shop. That's about it.

It's tempting to dismiss this as a trivial concern, or as being a spurious one-off point, but I'm not sure that's true.

My guess is that the policies used to maintain the very high level of  social order -- restricting freedom of the press and voting, high alcohol taxes, large punishments for all crimes -- are indeed likely to discourage creative types from moving there, and potentially likely to discourage certain aspects of creativity in the local populace. 

In other words, you may not like the hippies of San Francisco, but it's not an accident that the interesting restaurants and art galleries are located nearby. When it comes to eccentric thinking and bon vivant lifestyles, there may be a certain amount of taking the bad with the good that's required.

But this is where (British) Hong Kong provides an interesting counterpoint.

Hong Kong managed to achieve a lot of the same material successes as Singapore. But it never had the same reputation for being boring. Hong Kong cinema was long famous, and the city is filled with interesting restaurants, bars and galleries. Also, notably, Hong Kong does not share Singapore's restrictions on civic life. The newspapers were largely free to publish whatever they wanted. The court system was actually applying genuine British Common Law, rather than twisting concepts like defamation to become de facto censorship tools against criticism of the government. And while the crime rate was not so famously low (the Triads, for instance, have no obvious Singaporean equivalent), it was fairly peaceful.

So what explains the difference? Should we just conclude that Singapore should just chill out a bit on the freedom of the press?

Well, maybe. But there's something else that may explain it.

If you haven't read it yet, Slate Star Codex gave a pretty good summary of reactionary ideas. In particular, consider the claim of Mencius Moldbug - that a truly secure sovereign would have no need to care what its citizens thought. This is true, and also would be a big benefit - you don't have to constantly wage a propaganda war over what people believe.

But Slate Star Codex also pointed out some of the conceptual problems with this idea - in particular, you can't just assume a hypothetical totally secure sovereign. Real sovereignty has to be enforced, and that almost always means caring about the opinions of at least some subset of the public, even if only the guys with guns. Cryptographic weapons are the Moldbug answer, but with 3D printed guns already available, it's not clear how feasible this is.

Still, this mental exercise helps to illuminate part of the difference between Hong Kong and Singapore. In Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew only had the resources of Singapore to secure Singapore. If enough people start agitating for change, and the army isn't willing to shoot them, then he's out on his @$$. Hence the somewhat draconian efforts to control the popular discourse.

But in Hong Kong, the British were able to entirely secure the colony almost without regard to what the subjects thought, should they desire. The reason is that they could just send in the Royal Navy. And because this force operated effectively without any concern for the average Hong Kong resident's opinion, Britain had a role much closer to the hypothetical Moldbug sovereign - they say what they want, I do what I want.

And this allowed for something closer to Moldbug's Fnargl - the sovereign immune to any attack from the locals. At least as predicted, this allowed for a much more relaxed attitudes towards civil society.

But we arrive at a somewhat awkward conclusion - the ideal sovereign is not truly sovereign, but reliant on some larger power to ensure its survival irrespective of local opinion.

And hence you can see why Hong Kong features perhaps less prominently in the reaction circles. Until you can find a way to make us all subjects of enlightened British civil servants, one may need the guarantee of some higher authority to get a sovereign that truly doesn't give a rat's. Or accept that order requires no freedom of the press and not many art galleries.

This is not an ideal conclusion, of course, but nobody said that reality had to conform to our highest hopes.

On the other hand, both Hong Kong's governors and Lee Kuan Yew would have likely done a damn sight better job at managing Detroit than democracy has done. No sense letting the perfect be the enemy of the good.

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