Is Singapore a Libertarian Utopia?


Matthew Yglesias kindly comments on "Guests in the Machine":

I'd definitely recommend that you give Kerry Howley's Reason article on guest workers in Singapore a read. It's a very thorough and balanced discussion of the way it works. That said, given that the crux of the opposition to such programs for the United States is "it's repugnant and un-American, violating everything this country stands for" to say in reply but look at how well it works in a small, regimented, highly inegalitarian Asian dictatorship doesn't seem very persuasive.

The experience of a more similar society, Germany, is not something that many Americans look at and would desire to replicate. Meanwhile, I have no desire to see the United States become more like Singapore. We are, however, in the midst of a burgeoning libertarians against democracy moment (a return to classical liberalism's traditional anti-democratic sentiments) of sorts, so maybe we'll start seeing more and more aspects of Singapore and Hong Kong recommended to us as models.

This gets at the article's core themes and then somehow misses the point completely. Is Singapore a more totalitarian country than the United States? Absolutely. But who has the more illiberal immigration policy? In 2006 the U.S. government allowed something like .3 percent of the current population to immigrate legally. Insofar as uneven access to wealthy labor markets reinforces global inequality, numbers like that strike me as "repugnant and un-American," as well as pathetic and cruel.

No, we don't want to be more like Singapore overall. We want to be more like Singapore in the ways that Singapore is more liberal than we are. I think we can reasonably expect a U.S. guest worker program to be more compassionate and less disturbingly efficient than a Singaporean one. If the system is bettering lives over there, it would surely do so in a country less excited about, say, executing people for marijuana possession.

That such a system would be more difficult to stomach in an egalitarian society like the United States is obviously true, and that's the point of this paragraph:

The moral calculus, then, is to be weighed between the welfare of potential workers and the preservation of an idealized American narrative. Does it reflect better on the American character to lock poor people out than to permit them entry on limited terms? Guest worker programs do clash with deeply held mythologies about our relationship to the global poor. We live in a state of relative political equality nested awkwardly within a deeply unequal world, and it can seem better, kinder, to keep the inequality outside, walling it off and keeping our hands clean.

Hundreds of thousands of people in Southeast Asia would be worse off if Singaporeans thought they had to endow every immigrant with the legal status of citizenship–a legal status that plenty of those people wouldn't even want. That's something that needs to be grappled with honestly, preferably without recourse to "but that's not what America stands for." If your conception of "what America stands for" is one that leaves people worse off, maybe it's time to rework your definition of Americanism.

I'm happy to cede that we're in a "libertarians against democracy moment," but this article does not belong in that ideological space. My libertarian dictatorship would be one of wide open borders; a guest worker program is the compromise libertarianism makes with democracy. It's a messy, ugly compromise, to be sure. The pure humanitarian, pure libertarian position is not one that is currently politically feasible in any nation worth immigrating to. I think we'll get there eventually, but meanwhile we need to measure proposed policies against the current situation.

If you've gotten this far, I recommend checking out James Poulos' thoughtful response to the article, which is an honest expression of the conservative mentality that finds open borders-ism totally horrifying.

[Cross-posted at