I asked the Indonesian diplomat if she thought her country was becoming more democratic.
"But we are democratic," she rejoined, evidently startled that I didn't know.
Well, but, for example, 100 seats in the 500-seat legislature are reserved to the army.
Yes, said the diplomat; that is to keep the army out of politics while insuring that its interests are represented. Guided democracy.
Suharto, the ex-general who came to power in a blood bath 30 years ago, has been elected to six consecutive presidential terms by an electoral council, most of whose members he appoints. When you can depend on the outcome of an election, you don't have to make rash campaign promises.
Suharto's rule looks after the army's interests and provides his cronies and family members with lucrative business opportunities. But by any measure it has also rewarded Indonesia's 190 millions. Personal income, life expectancy, literacy and diet are up; infant mortality is down.
Variants on guided democracy have worked similar wonders in Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea, Thailand and Malaysia. Possibly the most important unfolding story of our time is whether authoritarian market capitalism will modernize China. The Economist magazine has boldly stated that -- right now -- one billion Asians are in the process of joining the consumer economy.
A billion new consumers! Businessmen quicken; someone's going to get rich selling mouthwash and baseball caps. Environmentalists tremble; someone's got to clean up the waste. What hath guided democracy wrought?
Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew has said that developing countries need discipline more than democracy: "The exuberance of democracy leads to indiscipline and disorderly conduct which are inimical to development." To follow Mr. Lee's logic, The Economist proposes a thought experiment about "unguided democracy" -- the kind Americans and other Western countries have.
Assume a democracy of three persons (A, B and C) with $1 to divide among them. A logical solution is to share the dollar equally. But A suggests to B that they use their majority to vote a 50-50 spit for themselves, leaving C penniless. C counters with an offer to take 45 cents, leaving 55 for B, if B will vote with him against A. And so forth.
The game has no stable solution. The three agree only that there ought to be more than one dollar in the pot. And for a generation that's the way Americans have played the game. Congress hypothesizes a $3 pot so that A, B and C all can be satisfied today at the eventual expense of tomorrow's children.
A benevolent despot can short-cut the problem. The strongman takes care of the army and his cronies, insuring regime stability, and shares out the rest, insuring rising prosperity.
It can be an effective way to run a country. Many of the current generation of Asian strongmen, advised by economists from Berkeley, MIT or Chicago, have chased economic growth. Unencumbered by niceties of human rights or messy political process, they have succeeded in forcing through measures that are bringing a better life to most people.
But, of course, this is not the American way. Or is it?
Any constitution imposes a form of guided democracy. It is a paper strongman that tells us what we can and can't do. We can't torture drug dealers, even though most of us might vote to do so. We can't deny the vote to stupid or funny-looking people.
Now some of us want to give up some of our power to the paper strongman. We want to take difficult issues out of politics: term limits, balanced budgets, school prayer, abortion. We try to talk the Supreme Court into taking the tough calls on environmental legislation or affirmative-action policy. In most cases, it's when we can't win democratically that we appeal to the constitutional strongman's guidance.
Interestingly, as we try to place more issues off-limits for politics, a number of the guided democracies want to weaken their strongmen in favor of more political give-and-take.
In Thailand, South Korea and Taiwan, a newly enriched middle class has turned ingrate, demanding a say in government. Indonesia's President Suharto, 74, could be the next to be confronted by ingrates. The convulsion that brought him to power claimed, by the lowest estimate, more than 100,000 lives. Pray that the convulsion that ends his rule is more gentle.
Hal Piper edits The Sun's Opinion * Commentary page.