In light of the recent controversy over NLB’s removal and pulping of two children’s books deemed to be contrary to “community values”, it would be useful for us to reflect on how we can resolve such normative conflicts that involve such deep-seated value-judgements. Social conservatives claim to be pro-family, and don’t see a problem for government to exercise their power to regulate personal behaviour and choices that are deemed immoral. Yet, many other Singaporeans have converged on the liberal idea that tolerance and acceptance is important; parents should exercise the responsibility of guiding their children’s reading and learning, for instance.
In fact, Singapore is well-known for its state paternalism, and this only comes at the expense of individual responsibility and maturity. The philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville expressed this very well:
“Above this race of men stands an immense and tutelary power, which takes upon itself alone to secure their gratifications, and to watch over their fate. That power is absolute, minute, regular, provident, and mild. It would be like the authority of a parent, if, like that authority, its object was to prepare men for manhood; but it seeks on the contrary to keep them in perpetual childhood: it is well content that the people should rejoice, provided they think of nothing but rejoicing. For their happiness such a government willingly labors, but it chooses to be the sole agent and the only arbiter of that happiness: it provides for their security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principal concerns, directs their industry, regulates the descent of property, and subdivides their inheritances – what remains, but to spare them all the care of thinking and all the trouble of living? Thus it every day renders the exercise of the free agency of man less useful and less frequent; it circumscribes the will within a narrower range, and gradually robs a man of all the uses of himself.” (Democracy in America Vol II:338)
In short, even adults in Singapore are treated as children unable to make proper decisions. So vulnerable are Singaporeans that they must be coddled at all costs, lest two gay penguins influence and corrupt their children, lest the wayward gay people at Pink Dot destroy all semblance of civilised living. In almost all aspects of social life in Singapore, individual choice is all but lost. The State even wants to educate people not to bet their life savings on Germany, an effort that hilariously backfired. As Tocqueville explained very well, the free agency of man becomes “less useful and less frequent”; he becomes a useless follower of dictated commands.
Such paternalism must involve despotism. The German philosopher Immanuel Kant explained: a “paternalistic government, where the subjects, as minors, cannot decide what is truly beneficial or detrimental to them, but are obliged to wait passively for the head of state to judge how they ought to be happy…would be the greatest conceivable despotism.” (TP 8:291)
Not only should we worry about the entrenched paternalism in Singapore, we ought to explore certain institutional arrangements that can help to manage conflicts that involve deep-seated value judgements. The institution of private property rights has always been, and is an excellent way to minimise social conflict.
When something is run publicly, it is directed by the State, and whatever standards it applies would inevitably come at the expense of some groups, usually minorities. “Community values” perpetuate a tyranny of the majority, and is simply whatever the State conveniently interprets it to be at a given political climate. What about individual values? They are simply unheard in the sea of democratic majorities.
Without private property, it is almost impossible to objectively decide how to run a given public agency. Should government schools teach evolution, or creationism? Either way, there would be a social group that will feel slighted. Atheists and evolutionists would be unhappy if creationism was dictated in the curriculum, vice versa. Should public parks allow loud and noisy music? Should public libraries hold religious texts like bibles? How about that of obscure religions? In short, central planning in the absence of private ownership perpetuate social conflict, because only the social group most influential and commanding the apparatus of the State would get their way. Other voices are crushed.
Imagine a whole host of private libraries all competing with one another for profit. First, this would mean a diversity of libraries with their own values and hold their own books. If library A wants to hold “pro-family” books only, so be it. If library B wants to hold only books that ostensibly “promote” homosexuality, so what? Why do we require a one-size-fits-all system dictated by a government ministry? A competitive marketplace of private libraries will allow everyone to pursue their values and read their own books in peace, without one group dictating its values to the other.
Second, competition can ensure high quality, good service and low prices. Private companies that mess up will be punished under competitive pressures. But government agencies are monopolies. If NLB messes up and displeases customers, what correction is there? If a government bureaucrat in NLB or MICA messes up, will they go out of business? No they won’t.
The following video clip explores the theme of privatisation in the United States of America, and why it makes sense.