The puzzle of Barbados

Recently I was on honeymoon in Barbados.  It is a socially conservative and well-governed place, as if a particularly well-organized group of Rotarians were put in charge of a country.  Indeed, in a recent NPR Planet Money radio story, the interviewer asked a random Barbadian about life in Barbados, and got the reply that Barbados had been blessed with extremely good government.  But unlike many other such countries, it actually has a functioning democracy.  Where does a state of only 300,000 people manage to find everyone needed to run it?  300,000 is less than half the population of San Francisco.  Let’s be generous, and take the whole of SF, and suppose it had to run itself as an independent country.  We could maybe have Nancy Pelosi as Prime Minister or President, but after that it becomes difficult to imagine a cabinet.  Who would be Minister of Defence?  The Treasury?  Would Mayor Gavin Newsom make a good Minister of the Interior?  I would barely trust him with the Ministry of Interior Decorating.  Which San Franciscan would you want to be ambassador to the U.S.?  Supervisor Chris Daly, who moved his children out of the city and curses on a regular basis?  The city would be invaded in a couple of weeks.  And yet, Barbados manages to find seemingly competent people for all these tasks and more.  Not to say that it is a utopia – unemployment is 10% (like many places), and the local paper manages to be one of the dullest I have ever read (sample headline: British High Commissioner Impressed with Barbadians).  Still, I’d take that as part of the whole package.

So what separates Barbados’ competent government from San Francisco’s dysfunctional one?  Are San Franciscans too leftist?  But Barbados has a Labour government, which heavily subsidizes education, housing, and transport.  Is it the benefits of Empire?  But Jamaica has a state of emergency in its capital for crime, St. Kitts and Nevis can barely hold itself together as a single country, and Grenada flirted with Cuba and got invaded.  Is it Barbadian culture?  (Everyone we met was quite concerned that we see all the correct tourist sights, and our bellhop was very disapproving that we left it late to get gifts for work colleagues – “What were you doing yesterday?” he asked).  But that seems to mix causality with description.  Whatever the reason, you’d think we’d know more about it than we do.


6 Responses to “The puzzle of Barbados”

  1. Scott Locklin Says:

    San Francisco’s problem is that it is a refugee camp for people who hate their parents. You can’t build a viable culture of any kind out of such timber. I figure confidence in your civilization is kind of elemental to making it work. A friend of mine who grew up in Berkeley points out that Berkeley politics is literally run by crazy people who are on SSI and have nothing better to do. Since nobody else has any confidence to call them crazy bastards and tell them to shut up, you get the inmates running the asylum.
    I doubt Barbadians have any such lack of confidence. Certainly, the Malaysians and Singaporeans had pretty good democratic (though paternalistic) countries -I doubt as they let any looney people make important decisions there.

  2. Ken Says:

    Hmm. Better government? Let’s double check some numbers.

    GDP Barbados – $3.8 billion (
    GDP San Francisco – $261.6 billion (with, according to this source, 14 times more people, granted) (

    Debt Barbados – $3.6 billion (same source as GDP)
    Debt San Francisco – $2.6 billion (a guess hard to find –

    Clearly, the key to better government is less opportunity in the private sector! 😉
    Borrowing heavily helps, as well. Ask any Bush and they’ll confirms it frees up time for fishing.

  3. erehweb Says:

    Interesting point on S.F. Malaysia and Singapore are interesting examples – Barbados is a little different in that the government changes between parties reasonably often, but apparently not to bad effect.

  4. erehweb Says:

    Hi Ken,
    Thanks for the comment – I wonder why it went into the spam filter? Maybe it was all the links. Shouldn’t happen any more for you, though.

    SF is a lot richer than Barbados, but of course it did start from a much better place. Still, per the link, it’s the richest city / metro area in the U.S., so I suppose we have to give SF’s government some credit. But it is interesting that Barbadians are very happy with their govt. and schools, if you believe the planet money story. It would be hard to find a San Franciscan who was too enthusiastic about either.

  5. Maynard Handley Says:

    “SF is a lot richer than Barbados, but of course it did start from a much better place. ”

    It seems unfair and not useful to make statements like this without qualification. After all, back in the day (around the Napoleonic wars) the Caribbean was *the* center of wealth in the world.

    Having said that, it is interesting that Barbados has not become a dysfunctional hell-hole, and knowing why would be useful; but the problem is probably not best solved by approaching it with any particular ideology, whether that ideology is “leftist governments suck” or “colonialism is the root of all evil”.

    • erehweb Says:

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Maynard!

      The qualification I’d make is that I’m talking about from when Barbados becomes independent, as I’m interested in the governance of Barbados, rather than London’s imperial / colonial administration.

      Yes, the Caribbean was the source of a lot of wealth. But I wonder how much this is dependent on slavery – what do the GDP / capita figures look like?

      I would agree that it’s probably not best to approach the question with an answer in mind. Equally though, an answer may end up boiling down to an ideological bullet point, so I think it’s worth trying out our favourite ones to see which, if any, stick 🙂

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