Can Asian-Style Capitalism Save the West?

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As you can imagine, the people out in Asia are feeling pretty good about themselves these days. And why shouldn’t they? While the U.S. and Europe struggle with debt, unemployment and sagging competitiveness, most of Asia seems to jump from strength to strength, its economies powering through the downturn with apparent ease, its companies becoming more and more prominent on the world stage. So it’s no wonder that many Asians have come to believe that their economic systems are superior to those of the U.S. and Europe — and that policymakers in Washington, London and Berlin should finally sit up and pay attention. For decades, Asia had been schooled in the wonders of free capitalism by the West, and benefited tremendously. Now, many out there believe, the time has come for the West to learn from Asia.

Kishore Mahbubani, dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, made this argument outright in a recent blog post on the Financial Times website, in which he argued that Asian-style capitalism is the solution to the West’s woes:

The time may have come for Asians to reciprocate the generosity of the west in sharing capitalism with Asia. Western policymakers and thought leaders should be invited to visit the industrial complexes and service industries of Japan and Korea, Taiwan and China, Hong Kong and Singapore. There may be a few valuable lessons to be learnt.

What are those lessons? Can they really turn around the economic fortunes of the West? Despite Mahbubani’s confidence, those questions are not so easy to answer.

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I should point out that there is nothing particularly new in the notion that the secret to the West’s future economic prosperity can be discovered in the exotic East. For a fascinating read, pick up Ezra Vogel’s classic 1979 treatise Japan as Number One, which propagated the argument that the U.S. had to learn from a rising Japan to ensure its economic competitiveness. (Oops!) And the interest in Asian ways as a solution to the West’s ills goes beyond economic policy. We can see that in the attention Amy Chua has gotten with her view that American parents can learn a thing or two about raising successful children from Asian “tiger mom” parenting. Educators in the West admire Asian school systems that seem to churn out students with better test scores. Chinese-American basketball star Jeremy Lin is held up as a paragon of how the Asian values of hard work and perseverance can create miracles.

I’ve lived in various parts of Asia for 16 years and I too believe that the rest of the world can learn a great many things from the ascending East. Those countries still stuck in desperate poverty should look to East Asia for a way out; politicians in the West searching for direction could benefit greatly from a reading of Confucius’ Analects.

But what about Western capitalists?

Well, first we have to define what Asian capitalism actually is. Many analysts make the mistake of thinking that every rapid-growth Asian country has followed the same policies, which is not entirely true. But there are a few general similarities: (1) Asian policymakers don’t trust that free markets always produce the best results, and they are more willing than their Western counterparts to intervene directly to alter their direction (through, for example, industrial policy, or the control of interest rates or exchange rates); (2) Asian governments have traditionally avoided the extensive welfare programs popular in the West (though that is changing); (3) all Asian economies are obsessed with exports; and (4) Asian policies tend to favor industry over services and investment over consumption to drive growth.

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So how can this “Asian” capitalism rescue the West? Mahbubani argues that the West needs to adopt Asia’s results-oriented attitude toward government intervention in economies. The West, he says, must become less ideologically predisposed to think markets solve problems better than governments, and more willing to see the state as a potentially positive force in achieving economic results:

The [West’s] first error was to regard capitalism as an ideological good, not as a pragmatic instrument to improve human welfare. Alan Greenspan was probably the greatest victim of this ideological conviction that markets always knew best … As Mr Greenspan … believed that market traders were smarter than government regulation, and he failed to regulate them vigorously … But no Asian society, not even Japan, fell prey to this ideological conviction. Instead, Asians believe that no society can prosper without good governance … For capitalism to work well, governments have to play an essential regulatory and supervisory role.

In order for Mahbubani’s argument to hold, we have to answer a key question: Is heavier regulation the reason why Asian economies are outpacing those in the West? I think it is a very hard case to make that the average financial-market regulator in Asia is somehow more capable than the folks at the SEC. In China, policymakers lay a heavy hand on the financial sector, and that state direction appears to be a threat to the health of the banking sector. Just because Asian regulators tend to be more intrusive, doesn’t mean they are better at their jobs or achieve better results. And it is even harder to prove that Asian economies are so successful these days because their bureaucrats are more eager to meddle. The reason why Asian financial sectors escaped the chaos of the post-Lehman meltdown is because its banks generally avoided dabbling in the toxic assets that tanked so many institutions in the U.S. and Europe. That wasn’t a result of smarter regulation, but smarter, sounder banking. Businessmen I talk to around the region, furthermore, complain a lot more about persistent regulatory hurdles to their business than the supposed helping hand of Asia’s bureaucratic states. In other words, it is difficult, in my opinion, to credit Asia’s recent success with the heavier hand of the state.

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