Political imagination in the US remains stunted by the assumptions of the Cold War. We imagine that the world of political outcomes can be confined to a spectrum with “freedom” on one end and totalitarian central control on the other. All along there were alternatives beyond this false dichotomy, struggling to survive beneath the giants.
Anglo-American political systems, the ones we commonly refer to as “the Free World,” are premised on private property, with rights mediated and protected by the legal system. The most powerful institutions in the English-speaking world are courts and businesses. Mass political power is blunted through the use of muddled, permanently indecisive electoral processes, run by political parties heavily coopted by major property owners. In our political system, democracy is means to fragment and nullify public will, leaving the private sector as the primary source of social cohesion.
Throughout the 20th century, the most notable alternative was the heavy-handed and brutal centralized Communist model adopted by the Russians. All power was vested in the state. Rights were eliminated. Rationality and human rights were subsumed beneath cult allegiance. It didn’t go well.
Without fail, every developing country who embraced either of these rival models devolved into a trainwreck. America’s Asian colonial clone, the Philippines, is a kleptocratic catastrophe. A sprawling, tropical Alabama, Filipinos have even elected their own murderous mini-Trump. Cambodia, Nicaragua, Angola, followed the Russian model into poverty, slaughter and oblivion.
There is a little-noticed model for economic growth, human rights and environmental sanity beyond the Washington-Moscow axis. Northeast Asia produced a collection of stable and prosperous nations who ignored Cold War dogma to embrace policies that worked for their people. Superficially, these nations were Communist, capitalist, democratic, authoritarian, or even military dictatorships at different points in their progress. Their posture toward democracy, private property, human rights and even rule of law bore little relationship to their peoples’ prosperity or lifestyle. As we consider what comes next after the implosion of our own democratic experiment, the Asian Alternative should at least leave us questioning our unconsidered assumptions about the limits of political organization.
For post-World War II developing countries, the most successful model for progress followed three steps, land redistribution, export-oriented manufacturing, and subservience of the financial system to national objectives. Enabling this system meant placing the bulk of public decision-making in the hands of a competent, independent bureaucracy, fed by an aggressively meritocratic, results-oriented incentives. Where the Anglo model privileged property rights, rule of law, and elections, the Asian model placed its confidence in technocratic expertise. Property rights and individual liberties enjoyed a degree of respect, but were never elevated above outcomes.
The degree to which these countries invested in private property, political freedom, or democratic institutions varied, but in every case these were low priorities. Instead of elections, discipline was imposed by competition. The relative smallness of these countries meant that in many cases they could feel the feedback loop of failure strongly enough to push back against any overly entrenched bureaucratic interests before bad decisions hardened into dogma.
Countries like Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan imposed draconian land seizures to address severe inequality with barely a whiff of dissent. Corporate competition was encouraged, but incentives toward national interest were imposed through a nationalized banking system and tight financial and exchange controls. No successful developing countries allowed broad deregulation of their financial industries (Hong Kong and Singapore were a special case, but one largely proving the rule). Under this model, banking and stock exchanges were treated the way we would treat nuclear power plants, as necessary but lethal.
A powerful, meritocratic central bureaucracy built markets using a toolbox that included broad control over borrowing conditions and the coercive power of a few state-controlled industries. Within those markets, the government could sit back and let outcomes reward initiative and efficiency. Popular opinion played little role in decisions. Taiwan and South Korea were dictatorships for much of the post-war period, and are only now just beginning to develop democratic institutions. Japan has operated under a unique, consensus-driven single-party state democracy, in which the conduct of elections has shallow impact on the bureaucracy.
Infrastructure development is the greatest strength of this bureaucratic model. With property rights relegated to secondary status and your batty Tea Party aunt powerless to influence public policy, it is possible for the state to do something as simple as build an airport or a train station at a reasonable cost. New infrastructure development in the US is virtually impossible because no authority possesses the power to cut through established property interests, and a persistently corrupt political class elevates the cost of both budgeting and finance beyond reasonable tolerances. In the time it takes to pay off Mayor Emanuel’s sponsors, prove in court that the new rail network won’t kill any birds, and litigate detailed compensation for every private rose garden displaced by a new train station, the Chinese have built another 1000 miles of high speed rail and six new automated cargo ports.
Meanwhile, in the developing states that failed to redistribute land after World War II and failed to construct an efficient, independent bureaucracy, stability and broad prosperity remain elusive. Vietnam’s American experiment devolved quickly into a localized apocalypse from which they are still battling to reemerge. Indonesia, Malaysia and Brazil sit poised at the edge of true first-world prosperity, yet struggle with the legacy of a dysfunctional electoral system and crippling income inequality.
A post-Cold War world is now divided between nation-states run by private finance and nation-states run by professional bureaucracies. Neither is demonstrating any secure advantage in terms of personal freedom or individual liberty. What Americans call freedom seldom amounts to more than benign neglect from the state. As a prosperous generation rises in Asia, their demands for human rights are being met with skepticism and hostility by entrenched interests in a much more tightly controlled public sector. These models each enjoyed their success and challenges in their time. Now both are straining under changing conditions.
Economically, the Asian Alternative was a powerhouse development tool, but countries like South Korea and Taiwan are demonstrating the limits of this model. Export-led development works until you’re rich. An educated, prosperous population needs new economic outlets stymied by an entrenched bureaucratic state. A culture of interdependency between big corporations and bureaucrats stifles unplanned innovation, feeding a brain drain. Tools and practices that built Hyundai won’t build Tesla.
Together with our successful European and Pacific partners, we must now contemplate the next, uncharted step. Having mastered the worlds of agriculture, commodities, and then industry, what political and economic models will bring human success in world driven by data?
Whatever succeeds, history tells us it will not be merely a continuation of what came before. What we gain in the US by reference to the Asian Alternative is a broader sense of possibilities, a larger palate of colors and options. Corporations are not merely rapacious engines of exploitative extraction. Business can be steered toward common interest. Healthy societies have smart, independent, expert bureaucracies. Electoral politics is not necessarily the best way to arrive at policy decisions. Property rights, like all rights, are encumbered by civic duties. Ideology is for children.
The next American Revolution has already started. We need to catch up and decide where we want it to go.
This post is part of a series exploring what’s next after liberal democracy and what we should do to prepare. Much of this material was covered in The Politics of Crazy, though from the perspective of a more optimistic era. The work fits better as a whole, but reading through a 6000+ word piece on a computer seems impractical. When these are complete I’ll gather them into a series of links on a single page.