For the past several centuries, most of what mattered to the world was happening in Europe or European derived societies such as the U.S. The first big exception was Japan, which, somewhat over a hundred years ago, began developing into a modern society. It was followed by Taiwan, South Korea, Hong Kong, and Singapore, all of which now have standards of living and economies comparable to those of western Europe.
I have thought for some time that one of the interesting things about the 21st century will be seeing what happens as more of the old civilizations come back online, become serious participants in the modern world. We can expect the result to be interestingly different from the versions of modern civilization we are familiar with, similar technologies, perhaps similar economies, but different cultures and, probably, different legal and political structures. The two big ones, pretty obviously, will be India and China, with Iran another likely candidate.
I was reminded of this issue by a piece I just read describing Singapore. Judging by that description, it is the society that would be produced by a ruler who shared my views of economics but without either my prejudice in favor of individual freedom or the egalitarian prejudices common among other members of the society I live in. The system is interventionist but not dirigiste, objectives chosen by the state but achieved through market mechanisms.
In at least one case, Singapore is doing something that I proposed more than forty years ago, controlling traffic congestion using modern technology to charge drivers according to where they drive, when they drive, and how congested the roads are. I proposed it for roads run by a private firm, they are doing it for roads run by the government.
Judged by the article, the government of Singapore does a more competent job of intervening to achieve its objectives than the governments I am familiar with, but it still makes mistakes. The biggest one was population policy. The rulers of Singapore, like those of mainland China, apparently bought into the population hysteria popular some fifty years ago, according to which overpopulation was a terrible threat to the welfare of the world and required stern measures to deal with it, the 1960's equivalent of the current global warming scare. They responded with policies designed to penalize families that had lots of children, a much milder version of China's one child policy. Whether as a result of that policy or other changes happening in the society, the growth rate of population dropped well below replacement and they have now reversed course, are using economic incentives to encourage families to have more children instead of fewer.
It is logically possible that they were right both times—for all I know, that is what those responsible believe—but I doubt it. Back when population was a hot topic, I did a simple calculation—population per square mile for different countries. According to the then dominant view, I should have found that the most densely populated countries were the poorest. In fact, of the five most densely populated countries in the world, two were rich western European countries (Belgium and the Netherlands), three third world countries in the process of getting rich (Taiwan, South Korea, and Singapore).
Singapore was the mostly densely populated of the lot, but Hong Kong, which did not go on my list because it was not a country, had a population density (by memory--I haven't gone back and checked the figures) about ten times that of Singapore. Singapore introduced strict population control policies, Hong Kong did not, and both prospered, with per capita income in Hong Kong passing that of the U.K. some decades ago. So my guess is that if the rulers of Singapore had ignored the western voices warning of population catastrophe they would have done at least as well for themselves as they did, would be ruling a larger but not poorer society, and would have less reason now to intervene in the opposite direction.
A different point that struck me in the article on Singapore was that, for a range of criminal violations, the punishment is not imprisonment but flogging with a rattan stick of specified dimensions. That is interesting for two quite different reasons. On the one hand, it is the sort of punishment a cold blooded economic analysis might suggest, since it imposes a cost on the offender at a much lower cost to the state than imprisonment, making it a relatively efficient punishment. Readers interested in the case for and against efficient punishments will find it discussed in an old article of mine; readers who don't have access to that source and don't want to pay for it can find a shorter version of the discussion near the end of a chapter of my Law's Order webbed on my site.
The other interesting thing about that punishment was that I had encountered it before—in the legal system of Imperial China, where flogging with a stick of specified size was a common punishment for low level offenses. That brings me back to the point I started this essay with. Singapore is a very modern society, arguably more modern than the U.S. But its choice of punishments is in part a result of its origin in one of the world's oldest civilizations. One might even argue that the competence of its government has a similar source, since China had a sophisticated system of bureaucratic government for a very long time. It can even be argued that the Chinese civil service system, which allocated people to high status government offices on the basis of their performance on an exam testing intellectual rather than practical skills, resulted in selective breeding for intelligence since, in a polygynous society, high status correlated with reproductive success. Perhaps Singapore today should consider itself the beneficiary of a thousand plus year program of selective breeding for smart rulers.
And perhaps Singapore today gives us a rough picture of what China will be like in another few decades, when it finishes shaking off the remnants of its recent communist past.