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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

Why Authoritarianism Isn’t The Way to Get Nice Things

No, introducing Singapore-style canings is not going to make American public infrastructure stop sucking.

Lately, I’ve been trying to get myself to resist responding to every terrible piece of right-wing nonsense I see, because I know that while there are many people who sincerely hold terrible views, professional provocateurs have a financial incentive to publicly spout the worst opinions imaginable. They are trying to draw attention to themselves and get clicks, and the more annoying and controversial they are, the more likely people are to talk about them. I should not feed the trolls. I should not help these people get attention.

On the other hand, I also think the right-wing propaganda machine can’t just be ignored, and I do believe in responding to the right, because if their arguments aren’t debunked, people might end up being persuaded by them. 

I was torn, then, when I recently saw conservative commentator Matt Walsh (whose Nazi-like What Is A Woman? documentary I previously reviewed for this magazine) saying that the United States should adopt floggings and expand the death penalty, so that we would have a clean, beautiful, low-crime country like Singapore. On the one hand, do I want to waste my time writing “Actually Beating People With Sticks Is Bad”? On the other hand, there are plenty who think that expanding state violence is a valid path to public safety (the good news is that public support for the death penalty has been dropping, though it’s still too high). Walsh has offered a convenient opportunity to correct the mistake. 

Walsh responded to a video of Singapore’s gorgeous Changi airport (which has a giant forest in the middle of it, and which I have written about before) by arguing that if we like the airport and want the U.S. to have such airports, we need to adopt Singapore-style justice, which includes the death penalty for drug traffickers and the use of caning as a punishment. Walsh explained:

Singapore is able to have nice things in part because they execute drug dealers by hanging and arrest even petty vandals and thieves until they bleed. We don’t have nice things because we aren’t willing to do what is required to maintain them. 

Lest his meaning be misinterpreted, Walsh added emphasis: “There are some accusing me of advocating similar laws in this country and I just want to clarify that yes absolutely I want those laws in this country.” Posting pictures of homeless people in Los Angeles, Walsh said that it was “basic psychology” that “there will be less of a certain behavior if that behavior is punished severely.” Walsh said that there were no clear downsides to executing drug dealers. “In what way would society be harmed if every Fentanyl pusher was eradicated and buried in a grave marked only by their inmate number? Please explain the horrific consequences that would befall a society deprived of its Fentanyl dealers.”

My friend Ben Burgis pointed out to Walsh that “nice things” like the Changi airport do not spring into existence through the beating of petty criminals. The Changi airport is wholly owned by the Singapore government. It is the result of public investment in beautiful infrastructure. (Walsh replied that Burgis was an “oblivious moron” who couldn’t understand that “our nice things wouldn’t turn into crime ridden, shit covered hellscapes if we appropriately punished the people who made them that way.”) I have noted before that the United States does not have nice airports, and it’s not because we’re not tough enough on crime. (We have one of the highest incarceration rates in the world. How much tougher do you want us to be?) It’s because we don’t invest in building great public infrastructure in this country. The problem with American airports is not that there are drug addicts loitering in them, it’s that they’re ugly, crowded, confusing, and don’t have rainforests in them.

You don’t need to beat people to build a functional country, and if the message Americans take from Singapore’s gorgeous public airport is “We should thrash criminals until our airports are this nice,” I’m afraid Americans will only succeed in making their country even more dystopian than it already is. It’s true that Singapore has a very low murder rate—but so do Italy and the Netherlands, suggesting that you don’t have to have a harsh justice system in order to keep violence much lower than it is in the U.S.

Now, I do think that we on the left can often unwisely end up saying that the death penalty is not a deterrent or harsh sentences do not deter. It’s true that getting rid of the death penalty does not cause more murders. But I think it’s also fully possible that if you had a harsh enough punishment system, the state could succeed in deterring a lot of behavior. For instance, if the punishment for smoking marijuana was death, I suspect a lot of people would be more reluctant to try marijuana. A better argument than harsh punishments do not deter, then, is harsh punishments are both cruel and totally unnecessary in order to build a good society. Empowering the state to inflict more violence on people is also a recipe for abuse. Walsh asks how the world would be worse off without Fentanyl dealers. I would not only point to the fact that I believe Fentanyl dealers are human, but the fact that this is the wrong question. The right one is: Is it a good idea to give the state new powers to take life? One ought to be awfully confident that one will never be wrongfully accused of a crime in order to push for new applications for capital punishment. 

Walsh takes such extreme positions that he’s a cartoon of a reactionary. But one thing history should teach us is that nobody is so cartoonishly right-wing that their faction cannot take power. I can certainly see an authoritarian right-wing movement rising up in this country that advocates exactly Walsh’s position: don’t just get tough on crime, get ruthless. Kill the drug dealers. Fully criminalize homelessness. They’ll promise to clear the streets. They’ll tell us that the liberals have created a failed state and the only path to having “nice things” is to give the cops full license to do whatever they feel is necessary to combat “crime.” (The crime of street-level drug dealers, that is, not the crime of the Sacklers or the cops themselves.

But it will all be a lie. You’ll get all of Singapore’s beatings without its lovely airport. Turning the U.S. into more of a prison state than it already is will not give us what people need in order to be happy or safe. The recipe for that is universal provision of the basics: housing, healthcare, education, employment—without means testing and without moral judgment. But in a time of fear and desperation, it’s easy to tempt people into thinking all they need to do is empower strongmen who promise to solve their problems.

The United States can, in fact, build good airports. I grew up near one, the publicly owned Tampa airport. It’s gorgeous and it runs well, but it was built by committed and conscientious people who wanted to give the community convenient transport. It was not built by hateful people who thought that the path to utopia involves rounding up all of the Undesirables. Such people promise great things, but they are only capable of producing nightmares. 

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