Monday, March 15, 2010

"Elections" are a problem for Taiwan

In Patterns of Force, Kirk and Spock beam down to a planet to find a Federation historian named John Gill, who apparently turned the place into a Nazi state (compete with I vant to make you talk hot Aryan chick). Kirk and Spock interrogate Gill, drugged and used as a figurehead:
Kirk: “Gill! Gill! Why did you abandon your mission? Why did you interfere with this culture?”
Gill: “Planet . . . fragmented . . . divided. Took lesson from Earth history.”
Kirk: “But why Nazi Germany? You studied history; you know what the Nazis were.”
Gill: “Most efficient State Earth ever knew.”
Spock: “Quite true, Captain. A tiny country, beaten, bankrupt, defeated, rose in a few years to stand only one step away from global domination.”
Kirk should have smacked Spock right down, as this is total nonsense: Nazi Germany was an illegitimate, bureaucratized, inefficient, inept nightmare, as numerous books on its economy and war conduct have chronicled. But for some reason one hears from time to time of the "efficiency" of authoritarianism, especially in the encomiums for Chinese growth. There's plenty of appeal to this idea in the discourse surrounding democracy in Taiwan, particularly in the Blue papers.

Lately there has been a spate of stories on the problem of "elections" in several newspapers that appeals to this feeling that somehow, democracy is inefficient. The China Times claimed the other day that Elections Hijack Taiwan. Commenting on resigning health minister Yaung's claim that elections have hijacked public policy in Taiwan:
For a long time, politicians from the Kuomintang and Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) have been reluctant to unveil public policies before elections in order to avoid displeasing voters.

But the passive attitude of politicians in doing nothing to please voters does not necessarily work, as evidenced by the results of the 2008 legislative and presidential elections when the then ruling DPP suffered consecutive losses.

In the run-up to the elections, it froze domestic gasoline prices out of election considerations to spare consumers from skyrocketing crude oil prices, but it also cost the state-run petroleum giant CPC Corp., Taiwan tens of billions of dollars.

In Yaung's view, Taiwan is a mature society in which the majority of the people are rational enough to cope with hikes in oil prices and insurance premiums.

If the politicians are right that the government should not move to carry out policies that could upset voters before elections, then the country will not be able to move forward.
The Apple Times similarly argued:
Although the ruling Kuomintang (KMT) has an absolute majority in the Legislature, many of President Ma Ying-jeou's campaign promises have failed to materialize. The reason behind this is that politicians and policies have all been held hostage by elections.

The latest example is a draft amendment to the Civil Service Performance Evaluation Act, which would require that government employees be dismissed if they get a "C" rating for three consecutive years. The bill drew a strong backlash from civil servants, who threatened to oust the KMT in the next elections.

As expected, Ma was frightened and decided to meet with Examination Yuan President Kuan Chung and Legislative Yuan speaker Wang Jin-pyng next week to try to sort out the differences. While we are not surprised that Ma would backtrack on his policy, we feel sad and helpless.

Who is the target audience of this show? It is the sitting duck taxpayers like you and me. Allowing elections to hold politicians hostage and extort them is the greatest misfortune of Taiwan's democracy.
There is a common claim in Taiwan that the island has become more disorderly since the advent of democracy -- it is practically a given that when you hear someone make that claim, they are Blue.

The problem lies in the construction that the cause is "elections." The problem in Taiwan is not the politician's need to get elected, but a public that has been coddled for decades by absurdly low water prices, absurdly high interest rates on savings for the bureaucracy (and other breaks such as low interest loans for homes for teachers), subsidized gasoline and electricity prices, low NHI fees... these are merely highly sophisticated versions of vote buying whose budgetary pigeons are now coming home to roost. The real problem is the political mentality that says it is ok to pay for tomorrow what we buy today, that lacks the political will to explain to the public what is needed, and treats the public like spoiled kindergartners to be bribed with candy and pretty pictures. This island so needs a progressive, pro-active legislature that takes for granted the political maturity of its public. Kudos to Minister Yaung for leading the way.
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Anonymous said...

NYT columnist Thomas Friedman...

"Watching both the health care and climate/energy debates in Congress, it is hard not to draw the following conclusion: There is only one thing worse than one-party autocracy, and that is one-party democracy, which is what we have in America today.

One-party autocracy certainly has its drawbacks. But when it is led by a reasonably enlightened group of people, as China is today, it can also have great advantages."

This meme also is floating around the USA now, too.

Robert R. said...

We'll I'll put my vote behind an enlightened philosopher-king... except that you don't vote for kings.

Unknown said...

I agree that a lot of time is spent posturing for electioneering purposes rather than governing. A lot of needed action is not taken because of fear of the ballot box, as well as a lot of counterproductive action promised to curry favor. Taiwan still has a long way to go before politics is elevated from ritual. As it's practiced now I think a lot of people see it as a new form of religion with it's own gods, demons and rituals staged to please the former and dispel the latter.
It's going to be a while before politics based on policies emerges from the current situation where personality is primary. In the meantime, combining all the elections for the presidency, legislature and local councils is a good move to reducing the amount of time given over to electioneering. OTOH, it also brings the danger that drama-politics can change the political landscape with one foul move. It could only take one faked shooting, sex-tape scandal or embezzlement type smear campaign to swing the whole country one way or the other. Dangerous.

Anonymous said...

The problem with your account is that Yaung Chih-liang himself complained about elections, not elections per se, but their frequency at various levels, each and every one in his experience having manifest influence on the attempts by bona fide policy makers to enact reform.

There is also the problematic nature of Taiwanese elections themselves. For local elections (township head and council) in particular, ubiquitous vote buying helps to squeeze out genuine debate on issues that distinguish between candidates, and ropes the candidates to specific interests that fund them.

Neither complaint necessarily represents an attack on democracy as such (it is possible the opposite is true), even if it is easy in certain quarters to widen the attack on democratic principles. But can it really be said that the Apple Daily, for example, was suggesting that elections be abolished or otherwise downgraded in importance?

Marc said...

Friedman is certainly ensuring that his place in history will be a fart in the wind.

Dixteel said...

I always thought a bit of chaos and "destruction" never hurts. A lot of creativity and advancement come from less than ideal situation and chaotic environment etc.

I think there is nothing new though. Back in German Nazi's glory day, many countries, including Chinese KMT, tried to learn from its economic and political system. Back in Soviet Union's glory day, many look at commuism as the future. Now China is on the rise, so naturally some will start to look at China and wonder if that is the future.

But in my opinion, all those are just idealistic thinking. They think there must be some sort of group of elite people that can lead the way and solve any problem, like the Health care problem in the US now. If only they can bring those Chinse elites into the US, health care would be solved in no time.

Yea....I have a better suggestion. Why don't they call Ghost Busters or Spider Man?

Michael Turton said...

They are not attacking democracy, so much as appealing to a certain idea about orderliness and efficiency being embodied in authoritarianism. No matter how many "elections" taiwan has -- and it is not many -- elections are not the problem. It is the cowardice of the politicians and the indifference of the people that have to change.

StefanMuc said...

Scary - sounds almost like someone is preparing a takeover or is testing the waters for it...

The alleged efficiency of Germany during the Nazis is not the only thing which Spock got wrong. There is also the claim that Germany was tiny. That would be true in today's terms, but at the time 80 million people was a fairly significant number. Add to that that Germany was dominant in Science and Technology and had one of the world's biggest economies (even today it's the fourth biggest), and you get a quite favorable starting position for the Nazis.

I think it's helpful to keep that scale in mind when people sometimes make Hitler comparisons - like the one which was so popular with Saddam Hussein. (One thing I thought was particularly funny was the "WMDs" which apparently included Scud missiles. Scuds being his closest link to Hitler, given that they were almost direct copies of the V2. A 50 year old weapon system qualifying as a threat to the western world ... gee)

kruzick said...

This is not just a problem in Taiwan. Look at Greece as an example of what happens when the government takes away the goodies......riots. In every democracy politicians have an incentive to spend now and defer payment to the future.

The role of government should be strictly limited to defending the country, defending property/enforcing contracts and maintaining infrastructure.

Anonymous said...

No political system and no law can work without some individual virtue (my two cents).

Anonymous said...


to be fair to the Greeks, a majority of the population seems to support the restructuring, at least so far. And the strikes look surprisingly orderly from here.

Chaon said...

Selection bias. In many areas (politics, business, vacation planning), the enlightened autocrat approach can beat the pants off a transparent democracy. But when the autocracy goes wrong, it is capable of disasters not possible in a system with checks and balances.

Anonymous said...

Michael, you're wrong about the former Health Minister Yaung. He complained about too many elections too.

SY said...


Your point was Plato's: an autocrat can be a benign one or a tyranny; mostly the latter as a saint is hard to find. But, this is rather beside the point.

The keyword is"enlightened", not "autocrat". That's where Tom Friedman revealed himself as a joke when referring to the Chinese regime.

Chaon said...

SY, I was responding to the original post and Michael's point about the myth of authoritarian efficiency, but my reply was muddled and incomplete. I certainly didn't mean to say that Thomas Friedman makes any good point.

I was trying to say that the myth of authoritarian efficiency comes from people remembering the situations where the autocrat succeeds (in which there is almost always a narrow and clear metric for success), and forgetting the catastrophes.

Beer question (as yet unresolved between Turton and me): In the first season of Battlestar Galactica, should the remaining scraps of humanity keep their democratic system, or should they put the fate of the human race in the hands of a benevolent tyrant? I say that since the tyrant is Commander Adama, go Plato. Turton says go Locke or Jefferson or something.

skiingkow said...

kruzick said:

"The role of government should be strictly limited to defending the country, defending property/enforcing contracts and maintaining infrastructure."

The role of government in Canada is much much more than that and we are doing pretty darn good, I must say. We have weathered this global economic storm (for example) due to, in large part, the government regulating the financial industry. Unemployment is now decreasing and our economy is tops in the world.

And -- oh yeah -- we are a thriving democracy, too.

Anonymous said...

Karl's point in real life for China:

Yes, the trains are built faster.

But you get the occasional Great Leap Forward or Cultural Revolution, or Tiananmen situation

On balance, you probably could wait longer for the trains to be built.

SY said...


Regarding your beer question, I always believe team work is the key to winning any competition/war. A team can work best when they are organized in the fathion they know best to work with/under.

So, if the majority of the remaining human samples were Nordic, Dutch, Brits, Non-British Anglos and North-French, I'd bet on a democratic team. If the majority of those survivers were Chinese, Korean or Japanese, I am sure an autocratic structure will work best for their survival.

Don't know about the Germans (I have a conflicting view between their older and younger generations), East Eurpoeans and people from the greater Latin sphere.

BTW, I believe the Taiwanese can survive best when each is left to fend for her/himself :-)

jerome in vals said...

As the saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words. I am referring to the picture that illustrates this post.

That picture could, or even should stand alone as the subject of a silent post. I was amazed at the layers of meanings crammed in this single railway sign. While you are off enjoying the wilds, your readers could exercise their informed imagination and be given free rein in pealing off those layers.

A white shading screen smothers the lower half of that seemingly innocuous railway sign. Readers, you are a mere click away from a gem in Michael’s Flickr account….

Anonymous said...

"For a long time, politicians from the Kuomintang and Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) have been reluctant to unveil public policies before elections in order to avoid displeasing voters."

So ridiculous. The Blue policy has ALWAYS been to disparage any semi-good policy on the part of the DPP as simply just designed just for elections. Now, they are claiming a LACK of policies? What the heck?

You want politicians beholden to the voters. That's how it's supposed to work! That's the point! Politicians that are elected and then subsequently do whatever they want are BAD.