How a Singaporean sees Professor Bryan Caplan

I had never before heard of Professor Bryan Caplan but having read his recent article [1] republished on TRE about Singapore I felt somewhat compelled to respond.

Prior to responding however, I wanted to better understand the man and his point of view so I could properly frame my response to his obvious infatuation with the Singapore “model”. He is a Professor of Economics, and describes himself in the article as being “as libertarian as they come”. Libertarianism is often described as emphasising less government control and more individual freedom. In spite of this, the Professor seems to be a huge fan of Singapore, a country where 60% of GDP is attributable to government linked companies. In fact he goes so far as to say that other than national service, the Singapore government has probably the best policies in the world. I couldn’t help but wonder if he banged his head getting off the plane at Changi airport and completely misunderstood every single thing that he learned while in Singapore, but let’s give him the benefit of the doubt and look at what he had to say.

“If Singapore had an open border with Malaysia to create lots of convenient suburban housing, I’d seriously entertain the idea that Singapore is the best place in the world to live.”

There are so many problems just with this one sentence, it is hard to know where to even begin. First of all, on a purely factual basis, Singapore does have an open border with Malaysia and thousands of commuters cross it every day. So living in suburban Malaysia and working in Singapore is certainly possible. Furthermore, the splendid irony inherent in suggesting that the only way to improve the country would be to live somewhere else didn’t seem to dampen the muddle-headed Professor’s enthusiasm for Singapore. One wonders why Singaporean suburban housing in say Woodlands, Tampines or Choa Chu Kang would not be equally suitable? I’m afraid it might be because Singapore’s ruling party – the PAP – seeks to put its big government fingers into as many pies as possible, and treats the Singapore housing market as a political tool. A massive 85% of Singaporeans live in government subsidised housing, and when election time comes around, the government likes to remind them of it. In fact the PAP promises that wards which vote against the ruling party will be last in line for future public spending. Let us not forget also that the house building arm of the state Housing and Development Board was privatised by the government and is now a majority owned subsidiary of the same sovereign wealth fund of which the Prime Minister’s wife is CEO. Are these examples of what our libertarian Professor considers the best policies in the world?

Later on in the piece Caplan slips in an arguably more telling quote:

“I felt right at home. Government officials in Singapore publicly quote me”

I clicked his link [2] and it turns out that Caplan has a track record of defending the PAP from criticism that Singapore is not a democracy. Never mind that the Economist Intelligence Unit describes Singapore not as a full democracy, or even a flawed democracy – but as a “hybrid regime” [3] – one step up from “authoritarian regime” on their four point scale. The Professor, in his unbelievable naivety, is under the impression that if you have elections, then your democracy is a done deal. Never mind the big-government controlled media which publishes virtually no criticism of the ruling party and imposes an almost total blackout on the opposition. Never mind that the elections department is not free nor independent, but a part of the Prime Minister’s Office! No, Professor Bryan Caplan is happy to state that Singapore is a democracy. And the PAP, presumably lacking such support from any more credible sources, quoted him on this point, much to his evident satisfaction.

I could go on about how oppressive and anti-freedom the government of Singapore is, for example by forcing its citizens to save for retirement by buying government bonds that yield below inflation, but I won’t. If the economics Professor was intelligent and open-minded enough he would have figured out the truth by now, and wouldn’t be basking in the dubious publicity that comes from supporting a government that imprisons its political opponents.

Final point – while researching this note I came across something written by another American economist, titled “Yes, Bryan Caplan is the stupidest man alive”. I’m not inclined to disagree.

[1] http://www.tremeritus.com/2012/12/29/how-i-see-singapore/
[2] http://econlog.econlib.org/archives/2009/11/whats_really_ro.html
[3] http://graphics.eiu.com/PDF/Democracy_Index_2010_web.pdf

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6 responses to “How a Singaporean sees Professor Bryan Caplan

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