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Lee Kuan Yew on the Proper Balance Between Competitiveness and Equality

Lee Kuan Yew, the former Prime Minister of Singapore and the one responsible for its rise from third world to first in only a generation, is a great source of wisdom.

In this excerpt from, Lee Kuan Yew: The Grand Master’s Insights on China, the United States, and the World, he talks about the necessary balance between competitiveness and equality.

To be successful, society must maintain a balance between nurturing excellence and encouraging the average to improve. There must be both cooperation and competition between people in the same society.

If everybody gets the same rewards, as they do under communism with their iron rice bowl, nobody strives to excel; society will not prosper, and progress will be minimal. That led to the collapse of the communist system. On the other hand, in a highly competitive society where winners get big prizes and losers paltry ones, there will be a great disparity between the top and the bottom layers of society, as in America. … At the end of the day, the basic problem of fairness in society will need to be solved. But first, we have to create the wealth. To do that, we must be competitive and have a good dose of the “yang.” If we have too much of the “yin” and over- redistribute the incomes of the successful, then we will blunt their drive to excel and succeed, and may lose too many of our able, who will move to other countries where they are not so heavily taxed. On the other hand, if too many at the lower end feel left out, then our society will become divisive and fractious, and cohesiveness will be lost. Communism has failed. The welfare state of Western democracies has also failed.

There is a continual need to balance between a successful, competitive society, and a cohesive, compassionate one. That requires judgment, to strike a bargain or social contract. Each society must arrive at that optimum point for itself. Between the two ends, the highly competitive and the excessively equal, lies a golden mean. This point will move with time and changing values.

I can best explain the need for balance between individual competition and group solidarity by using the metaphor of the oriental yin and yang symbol. … The more yang (male) competitiveness in society, the higher the total performance. If winner takes all, competition will be keen, but group solidarity will be weak. The more yin (female) solidarity, with rewards evenly distributed, the greater the group solidarity, but the weaker the total performance because of reduced competition…. We have arranged help, but in such a way that only those who have no other choice will seek it. This is the opposite of attitudes in the West, where liberals actively encourage people to demand entitlements with no sense of shame, causing an explosion of welfare costs.