The third exit

The third exit

Crusty but brilliant Lee Kuan Yew, modern Singapore’s founding leader, is on record as admitting he is anything but a religious believer in one-citizen, one-vote democracy. He thinks the world can do better.
He puts it this way: “I do not believe that one-man, one-vote, in either the U.S. format or the British format or the French format, is the final position. I mean, human society will change over the years.”

Okay – but will it change for the better? Will the world some day look back on what disappoints Lee as, in fact, the best we could do in terms of political organization?

This is no academic question. A lot of people are taking a hard second look at the angelic claims traditionally made for electoral democracy. Consider that Singapore itself soared in a matter of mere decades to become one of the highest per-capita-income countries under the strong-willed leadership of a very dominant political party led by a maximum leader. Whatever you want to call this system, Western-style democracy it was not.

And over the last two decades or so, China raised more people out of poverty than history has ever seen, using a vertical governing system crowned by a monopoly political party and a smothering government. In the West we have called it a kind of “totalitarianism.”

By contrast, democracies from the Philippines to Spain to Italy have floundered, using Western-style democracy. It has been embarrassing. But we do get the disturbing picture.

The provocative new book “Intelligent Governance for the 21st Century” not only gets it but also accepts it as the new global geopolitical reality. As the authors conclude, “In many ways, the faster, wealthier, more connected and more complex our scientific and technological civilization, the less intelligent our governance of it has become.” The remedy proposed is a “middle way between west and east,” as the book’s subtitle has it. It’s hard to say whether West Coast public intellectual Nathan Gardels and his co-author Nicholas Berggruen, a noted nonprofit philanthropist, are more irritated with the sluggishness of Western democracies or the thugishness of Eastern authoritarian systems — maybe even the former!

Western democracy is bogged down in “dysfunction and decay” and “is no more self-correcting than China’s authoritarianism.” To them, having to choose between a “consumer democracy” (that has all the long-term vista of a ripening banana) and a “modern Mandarate” (where Kafka meets Confucius) is a sad and depressing choice indeed.

Under proposal here is a new kind of democracy that would be insulated from its worst excesses without eliminating citizen participation. The middle way envisioned by these two visionaries is a “knowledge democracy” fused with an “accountable meritocracy.” The main point of this new middle way is to create a political system that has only negative incentives for short-term satiation (“consumer democracy”) and built-in structures that drives the polity toward serious problem-solving (climate change, poverty – U.N. Millennial goals, in effect).

To go beyond generalities, the authors lay out a new political archetype that seeks to fuse the elitist but people-oriented spirit of a Plato with the broad systemic approach of a determinedly democratic John Rawls. The blueprint offered is more complex than Dr. Watson’s double helix. But the point is not to convince us to buy into every particular but instead to begin imagining a new structure of governance.

The ones we have are not working as well as they should. We are at a Darwinian political moment, the authors argue, where what will matter is the “survival of the fittest.” “Intelligent Governance,” like Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” or Francis Fukuyama’s “The End of History,” is one of those huge books that comes along every few years at most and seeks to pivot the political debate in a major way.

Tom Plate is a journalist and university professor. This abridged article originally appeared on the Khaleej Times online.