Noonan: A Statesman’s Friendly Advice
I found myself engrossed this week by the calm, incisive wisdom of one of the few living statesmen in the world who can actually be called visionary.
The wisdom is in a book, “Lee Kuan Yew: The Grand Master’s Insights on China, the United States and the World,” a gathering of Mr. Lee’s interviews, speeches and writings.
Mr. Lee, of course, is the founder and inventor of modern Singapore. He made it a dynamo. He pushed it beyond its ethnic divisions and placed a bet that, though it is the smallest nation in Southeast Asia and has few natural resources, its people, if organized and unleashed within a system of economic incentive, would come to constitute the only resource that mattered. He was right. When he took office as prime minister, in 1959, per capita income was about $400 a year. Last year it was more than $50,000.
He is now 89, a great friend of America, and his comments on the U.S. are pertinent to many of the debates in which we’re enmeshed.
He is bullish about our immediate prospects but concerned about our long-term trajectory. He believes what made us great is the ancestral nature of our people—creative, inventive, original, inclusive.
His advice on immigration: Keep it up but keep your culture.
What threatens America? A political culture stuck in the shallows, and a mass-entertainment edifice that is destabilizing, destructive and injurious to the national character.
Is the United States in systemic decline?
“Absolutely not.” It is the most militarily powerful and economically dynamic nation in the world. America faces debt, deficit and “tremendously difficult economic times” but “for the next two to three decades” it “will remain the sole superpower.”
America has shown over its history “a great capacity for renewal and revival.” It doesn’t get stuck in “grooved thinking” but is able to think pragmatically and imaginatively. Its language “is the equivalent of an open system that is clearly the lingua franca” of all the economic and political leaders and strivers in the world. In the coming decades “it is the U.S. that will be pre-eminent in setting the rules of the game. No major issue of world peace and stability can be resolved without U.S. leadership.”
A major factor in America’s rise and economic dominance: All the brightest people in the world know “Americans will let you work for them in America and in their multinational corporations abroad.” But America will lose its technological edge unless it is able to continue attracting talent.
The American advantage in coming economic and technological contests? A “can-do” approach to life. Americans always believe a problem can be solved. An “entrepreneurial culture” that sees both risk and failure “as natural and necessary for success.”
The U.S. is still “a frontier society.” “The American culture . . . is that we start from scratch and beat you.” They would settle an empty area, call it a town, and say, “You be the sheriff, I am the judge, you are the policeman, and you are the banker, let us start.” Not long ago the U.S. was losing to Japan and Germany in manufacturing. “But [Americans] came up with the Internet, Microsoft MSFT +1.29% and Bill Gates, and Dell. . . . What kind of mindset do you need for that? It is part of their history.”
America is great not only because of its power and wealth. After World War II its “magnanimity and generosity” helped it “rebuild a more prosperous world.” “Only the elevating power of her idealism” can explain this. “The United States is the most benign of all the great powers.”
What worries him about America? Our elections have become “a never-ending process of auctions” in which politicians outbid each other with promises. America’s leaders seem captive to popular sentiment. They must break out of this and do what is necessary for America, “even if they lose their re-election.”
Our consumer society and mass communications “have made for a different kind of person getting elected as leader.” Politicians hesitate to speak needed truths: “A certain coyness or diffidence seems to have descended on American politicians.”
Mr. Lee is “amazed” that “media professionals can give a candidate a new image and transform him . . . into a different personality. . . . A spin doctor is a high-income professional, one in great demand. From such a process, I doubt if a Churchill, a Roosevelt, or a de Gaulle can emerge!”
What worries him about the prevailing U.S. culture? A lot: “guns, drugs, violent crime, vagrancy, unbecoming behavior in public—in sum, the breakdown of civil society.”
“The ideas of individual supremacy . . . when carried to excess, have not worked,” and the world has taken note: “Those who want a wholesome society where young girls and old ladies can walk in the streets at night, where the young are not preyed upon by drug peddlers, will not follow the American model. . . The top 3 to 5% of a society can handle this free-for-all, this clash [but] if you do this with the whole mass, you will have a mess. . . . To have, day to day, images of violence and raw sex on the picture tube, the whole society exposed to it, it will ruin a whole community.”
Asians visiting the U.S. are often “puzzled and disturbed by conditions there,” including “poverty in the midst of great wealth.”
In spite of this, America often now exhibits to the world a sense of its own “cultural supremacy.” When the American media praise a country such as the Philippines for becoming democratic, “it is praise with condescension, compliments from a superior culture patting an inferior one on the head.” America criticizes Singapore as too authoritarian. “Why? Because we have not complied with their ideas of how we should govern ourselves. But we can ill afford to let others experiment with our lives. Their ideas are theories, theories not proven.”
What can destroy America is “multiculturalism,” which he speaks of as not an appreciation of all cultures but a gradual surrendering of the essential culture that has sustained America since its beginning. That culture—its creativity and hardiness, its political and economic traditions—is great, and it would be “sad for America to be changed even partially.” Will waves of immigrants from the south assimilate, or will America become “more Latin American?” America must continue to invite in all the most gifted and hard-working people in the world, but it must not lose its culture, which is the secret of its success.
And America goes the way of modern Europe at its peril: “If you follow the ideological direction of Europe, you are done for.” There are always people who require help, but “addressing their needs must be done in a way that does not kill incentive.”
“Americans and European governments believed that they could always afford to support the poor and the needy: widows, orphans, the old and homeless, disadvantaged minorities, unwed mothers. Their sociologists expounded the theory that hardship and failure were due . . . to flaws in the economic system. So charity became ‘entitlement,’ and the stigma of living on charity disappeared.” Welfare costs grew faster than the government’s willingness to raise taxes. They “took the easy way out by borrowing to give higher benefits to the current generation of voters.” The result: deficits and dangerously high public debt.
A version of this article appeared April 6, 2013, on page A13 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: A Statesman’s Friendly Advice.