Talking Travel (and Singapore) with economist Bryan Caplan

“I used to think the same things as everyone else,” economist Bryan Caplan said in a recent podcast, “and then I started reading economics.”

I too was a pretty conventional thinker once upon a time, and then I began following provocative economics blogs by the likes of Tyler Cowen, Will Wilkinson, and Chris Blattman (all three Gadling interviewees– really, click the links!)

One of my new favorite bloggers, Bryan Caplan recently visited the unusual city-state of Singapore and wrote about some of the most interesting aspects of his trip at his blog, EconLog (see here, here, and here, for starters).

Bryan and I recently chatted about Singapore’s rather unconventional policies, some misconceptions that are often shared about the country, and why travel memories are the most valuable to those who live longest….

Singapore is often thought of as an authoritarian dictatorship and it’s strict laws are well-known– corporal punishment is still employed, drug trafficking is punishable by death. But at the same time, it seems to be undergoing a period of liberalization. Why, in your view, is this happening?

Well, I think it’s not true that it’s a dictatorship. It’s a British parliamentary system and by the accounts of international observers the elections are not corrupt. Really what you have is just the ruling party has managed to win up to 60% of the vote in every election for the last 40 years. Which I’ll admit is strange, but I was thinking about it more upon getting back, and I realized that when you think about Singapore as a city rather than a country, there are lots of cities where one party has been in power for 40 years in the United States. For example, the Democrats have been in charge in San Francisco for longer than a single party has been in charge in Singapore.

So it’s not true to say that it’s not a democracy. You could make a case that it’s not a liberal democracy– you’ve got corporal punishment and a wider use of the death penalty. But in terms of liberalization, my main guess would be that it’s modernizing like other Asian countries, and as countries modernize they become more Western, and the attitudes of the population become more similar to those of other developed countries.

And the Internet has a lot to do with it. On the one hand, the standard media are quite dull, but they have a very active blogosphere that the government doesn’t censor, and that’s where a lot of intellectually alive people are getting their information. The only Internet censorship they have is that they have a token list of about 100 porn sites that they block, but that doesn’t make much difference because there are a lot more than 100 out there.

What policies has Singapore adopted that have allowed it to flourish?

There’s a lot going on in Singapore, but what is unique about it is that its government is much more willing to follow policies that economists think of as economically efficient. They’re much more willing to use incentives, and they’re one of the few really free trade countries.

What about the immigration policy in Singapore?

It’s very interesting– about 25% of Singapore’s population is foreign-born. It’s certainly not free immigration but it’s a much less restrictive policy than in, say, the United States. It’s a lot easier to get low-skilled laborers into Singapore. This probably has a lot to do with the fact that the public is very deferential to the government. One of the main kinds of complaints about the main party is that it does allow in a lot of immigrants. Probably if there were a vote just on immigration policy, Singapore would keep out a lot more people than it does.

What are some misconceptions that residents of Western countries might have about Singapore?

People think it’s not a democracy, or they think the elections are corrupt. And those seem to be false. The idea that it’s a rigid, rules-based society, there’s something to that, but it wasn’t nearly as rigid as I was expecting. I blogged about the fact that on the walls at the civil service college there are a bunch of things that make fun of government and government policy.

Before I went to Singapore, they asked me what I’d like to talk about and I said public opinion in Singapore: Do they actually support these unusually economically-efficient policies? Some Americans I talked to said they’ll never talk about that, that my trip was going to get cancelled. But it was nothing like that. They set up a very interesting lunch with one of their main sociologists who works in public opinion. Later that day I had the same discussion with an audience of civil servants. And not only were they happy to talk about their government’s policies, they were enthusiastic.

What were some of their feelings about the West?

I think they think they are the West. They identify with the US more than with Britain because of television. The older generation still feels British while the younger generation feels American.

One of your colleagues Alex Tabarrok says that people tend to have a status quo bias about travel– that if they knew their lives would be longer, they’d travel more, and they’d also travel more if they knew their lives were going to be shorter. Do you feel the same way?

Alex thinks that’s a paradox. But my thinking is that if I knew I was going to live longer, I’d travel more. If I knew I’m going to live less, I’d travel less. With a longer life, you have more time for experimentation and to see what else is going on in the world. And also your memories are like a durable good– you get to keep them with you for as long as you live. The longer your life is, the better the memories are to have. But if I knew I had six months to live, I probably wouldn’t go anywhere. I’d probably stay home and enjoy the things I’ve worked for.


Besides being an economics professor at George Mason University, Bryan Caplan is the author of the outstanding book, The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies.