The Real Lessons of Sri Lanka

The crisis in Sri Lanka is a cautionary tale for both the authoritarian right and the progressive left.

Image Credit: Neil Webb/Debut Art

A recent David Brooks column ruminates about “a presidential candidate perfectly suited for this moment,” who would be “culturally conservative” but “economically center-left,” with a message that “everything is broken” and an agenda of “comprehensive institutional reforms.” What he is proposing, in effect, is an authoritarian populist with left-leaning economics. Brooks is not necessarily rooting for this and projects it merely as the ideal scenario for a “cynical political operative”—though he fantasizes for a moment that such a candidate might be “a sort of modern Theodore Roosevelt,” of which he seemingly approves.

(This is a reminder, by the way, that neoconservatives like Brooks were the first ones to talk about a conservatism centered around “American greatness” and a strongman leader who is supposed to look like Roosevelt—only to discover, to their horror, that he actually looks like Donald Trump.)

There’s a lot of doubt about how popular this “populist” vision really is. Trump appealed to cultural conservatism and railed against the “coastal-educated establishment,” just like Brooks’ imaginary neo-Roosevelt, but he lost decisively in 2020 and never broke 50% in either of his elections. As for a candidate who is center-left and fiscally unrestrained—well, didn’t we just get that with Joe Biden, who is now deeply unpopular in large part because of inflation? Voters might like free-spending policies at first, but they sure don’t like the eventual results.

If we look further afield, we find an even stronger cautionary tale about this right-on-culture, left-on-economics, tear-down-the-system political mix. This is exactly what the people of Sri Lanka got, and it destroyed the country’s economy, plunged its politics into chaos, and in the past few weeks brought down the transformative leader who embodied this combination.

The Green Counterrevolution

Americans tend to pay too little attention to what happens halfway across the world, but Sri Lanka managed to work its way into our headlines recently when a mass of demonstrators stormed the presidential palace, causing the country’s leader, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, to resign and flee the country.

The American right seized on this as a story of utopian environmentalism run amok, and while there is more to the story, that part is absolutely correct. The immediate trigger for the popular uprising against Rajapaksa was the collapse of Sri Lanka’s agricultural economy after his government imposed a ban on chemical fertilizers and launched a vast and sudden national experiment in organic farming. “Eco-realist” Michael Shellenberger surveys the results.

Over 90 percent of Sri Lanka’s farmers had used chemical fertilizers before they were banned. After they were banned, an astonishing 85 percent experienced crop losses. Rice production fell 20 percent and prices skyrocketed 50 percent in just six months. Sri Lanka had to import $450 million worth of rice despite having been self-sufficient just months earlier. The price of carrots and tomatoes rose fivefold. All this had a dramatic impact on the more than 15 million people of the country’s 22 million people who are directly or indirectly dependent on farming.

Things were worse for smaller farmers. In the Rajanganaya region, where the majority of farmers operate two-and-a-half-acre lots, families reported 50 percent to 60 percent reductions in their harvest…

But the damage to tea was the key to Sri Lanka’s ruin. Before 2021, tea production generated $1.3 billion in exports annually. Tea exports paid for 71 percent of the nation’s food imports…

The results have been devastating and widely predicted by tea farmers, with exports crashing 18 percent between November 2021 and February 2022—reaching their lowest level in more than two decades.

Prior to this disaster, Sri Lanka’s agricultural success was a tribute to the “Green Revolution” of the 20th century that introduced modern fertilizers and pesticides to increase yields and make it possible for poor but populous nations to feed themselves. All of that was swept away in a single executive decree, and the price—which Sri Lankans have not finished paying—is mass poverty and starvation. The government’s ability to impose such a drastic and sudden change on the economy points to the larger picture of corrupt and incompetent economic regulation and quasi-authoritarian rule.

A Government Big Enough to Give You Everything You Want

The decision to ban the importation of fertilizer was not motivated just by environmental idealism, by bogus health scares about pesticides or by a desire to appeal to foreign investors who focus on a nation’s “ESG” score, a measure of left-wing political correctness. It was also motivated by a shortage of the foreign currency reserves necessary to pay for imported goods like fertilizers and pesticides.

This, in turn, is the result of a long history of reckless spending and borrowing, particularly from China, in the name of a Potemkin program of “super-growth.” This set the stage for a currency crisis that was touched off when the COVID-19 pandemic deprived Sri Lanka of $5 billion a year in tourism dollars.

The debt was part of a corrupt scheme by the Chinese to curry favor with the ruling Rajapaksa dynasty. Gotabaya Rajapaksa was merely the latest member of his family to hold high office. He had previously served in the cabinet during the presidency of his brother, Mahinda Rajapaksa, and his family has played a leading role in Sri Lankan politics since the days of British rule. But Gotabaya Rajapaksa took steps to make this dynasty more permanent.

After an election that gave his party a strong majority, he pushed through the 20th Amendment to the country’s constitution, which reversed previous democratic reforms that reined in the power of the executive. Crucially, the amendment allowed the president to appoint anyone he wants to his cabinet, without having to seek parliamentary approval. It would be as if the U.S. Congress voted to repeal the requirement for presidential appointees to submit to the “advice and consent” of the Senate.

Protestors outside the presidential palace in Colombo on July 9, 2022, prior to storming the building. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa subsequently fled the country. Image Credit: AFP via Getty Images

Rajapaksa promptly appointed members of his family to key government positions, cementing a quasi-aristocratic system in which the government was increasingly synonymous with a single governing family whose interests it served. As elsewhere, this dynasticism was dressed up in religious nationalism, in this case the nationalism of the Sinhala Buddhist majority.

These are exactly the kind of Teddy Roosevelt-style reforms intended to break legislative and administrative gridlock by giving more unchecked power to the executive, on the presumption that this will make for more vigorous and effective government action. The reality is quite different, as a recent article in The Guardian details. The piece describes a conversation between Dilith Jayaweera, a local media mogul, and Basil Rajapaksa, yet another Rajapaksa brother who was then serving as finance minister and was reputed to be the real power behind the throne.

[T]he media mogul had some urgent questions for the man responsible for Sri Lanka’s economy. Was the country heading for a terrible crash?


“Basil couldn’t answer even my basic questions,” recounted Jayaweera. “He was giving very lousy answers—that we’ll find money from here, from there, saying it would all be fine to pay our debts. I saw then he really didn’t understand the economy at all; that it was done, dusted, finished for us.”

Increased power for the executive led, in practice, to greater corruption and gave free rein to the incompetence of regime insiders.

Be Careful What You Wish For

There’s an old saying that a government big enough to give you everything you want is also powerful enough to take everything you have. My own corollary is that a leader strong enough to do all the wonderful things you hope for is also strong enough to do all the terrible things you fear. Reforms that give the executive the ability to act without checks and balances are sold as a way of making sure he can solve the country’s problems. But unchecked power also gives a ruler the ability to upend the nation’s entire economy in a desperate and flailing attempt to salvage his family’s political power.

Yes, one of the lessons of Sri Lanka is a warning against the left and its fantasies that it can mandate the complete and sudden restructuring of the economy, particularly for environmentalist goals, without disastrous costs. But the other lesson is about the lure of a strongman who will be able to knock down all political restraints and “get things done,” because unrestrained power to do good also means the unrestrained power to do harm. Combining these two—conservative populist authoritarianism and left-wing economics—is the worst of both worlds.

All of this should give us a greater appreciation for the system our current ideological fads long to overthrow. Free markets and liberal democracy may have their discontents, but holy heck are they better than the alternatives.

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