California Elites Envy Singapore Dictatorship

The old newspaper rule was that three examples make a trend. So by that standard, we've got a strange new trend among California elites: Singapore envy.

Specifically, that's envy of Singapore's system of government -- a nominal republic that's ruled by one party and one somewhat enlightened dictator, Lee Kuan Yew. To elites, Singapore's quasi-dicatorship, with its ability to plan and make decisions, seems like heaven compared to California's sprawling dysfunction. Never mind a criminal justice system that uses caning and the death penalty for less-than-capital offenses.

What's interesting is to hear so many people express sympathy for Singapore's system. Gov. Jerry Brown said he was reading about Lee and joked at an event at UCLA last month that he could fix California if he had Lee's kind of power. During a recent interview with me, a prominent Republican -- who declined to let me use his name -- also mentioned Singapore as he talked about how much he thought California needed a stronger governor with the power to mandate a balanced budget.

More seriously, Nicolas Berggruen, the homeless billionaire funding the reform-minded Think Long Committee, also praised Singapore in a recent interview with the Financial Times. Asked about Singapore, Berggruen said: “I think it’s probably the best-run country in the world. It probably is on the authoritarian side and it needs to loosen up a little bit. But the ideal system is not necessarily the most exciting system. Probably, on average, boring is good for the average person.”

The Browns and Berggruens of the world reveal a bit too much of themselves here. They have an elite view that California is too democratic to be well-managed. But that's barely half-true. Too much of California government has been locked up by interest groups and constitutional prerogatives -- and thus is beyond any sort of democratic accountability. The irony, of course, is that democracy has been strangled via legislative actions and ballot initiatives.

Why is this important? Because centraliziing power -- or giving a California a strongman -- won't fix what ails California, precisely because of all the constitutional restrictions that make the tax base smaller and boost spending automatically. What's needed is a redesign of the whole system so that Californians can pass judgment clearly on the work of their elected representatives -- without fastening those representatives into a straitjacket. That is not the kind of democracy practiced in Singapore.

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