Political systems and success

In a comment on my previous post “History is not the case against collectivism”, Mark asked

I also just realized, that a system/ideal can be judged from a moral standpoint separately from a history: then is it possible for an ideology that is inferior from a moral standpoint to actually succeed in history?

The question is important enough to deserve a post of its own, so here goes.

A judgement based on history(and nothing else) is a consequentialist judgement. It is based on a consideration and evaluation of the consequences. It is of the form “X is good (or bad) because what followed X was good (or bad)”. The problem with such a judgement is that consequences do not necessarily indicate causality. To arrive at causality, one needs a theory that explains why X led to the consequences. Consider an example: Dictatorship is bad because the Soviet Union collapsed after several dictatorships. To which someone might say: Dictatorship is good because Singapore (or China) is doing well under one. An appropriate theory of market behavior and the difficulty of determining prices without markets can be invoked to explain the collapse of the Soviet Union. But what if a ‘wise’ dictator is able to replace (if only partially) the market with his commands? Would his dictatorship ‘succeed’?

political ideal is a moral ideal, not an economic one. A political system is an economic/organisational structure that attempts to realize political ideals. A political ideal of economic equality leads to a political system of communism (example: The Soviet Union). A political ideal of ‘equality of opportunity’ or ‘social justice’ leads to a political system of socialism (example: India until the 90s). A political ideal of national superiority leads to a political system of fascism (example: China). A political ideal of liberty leads to a political system of capitalism (example: the early USA).

Only political ideals can be judged morally. The construction of a political system is a matter of science (political, legal etc…), not of morality. For example, whether to have a presidential system, or a parliamentary system; whether the tenure of elected representatives should be 4 years or 10 years; whether copyrights should be granted for 20 years or 50 years; whether the minimum voting age should be 18 years or 21 years; etc.. are not moral questions.

The success of a political system is the extent to which it achieves its ideals. Just as the construction of a political system is a scientific matter, the evaluation of its success is a scientific matter. It involves analyzing the relevant historical facts with an appropriate theory of causality. It is like measuring the efficiency of an equipment.

There is no such thing as the success or failure of a political ideal.Ideals do not succeed or fail. They are accepted or rejected. While the failure of a political system might cause some people to reject (or at least question) their ideals, the failure does not prove that the ideals are wrong. As long as one still holds the same ideals, the failure of a particular political system is simply useful empirical data for constructing a better political system.

Now coming  to the question “Is it possible for an ideology that is inferior from a moral standpoint to actually succeed in history?”

Consider some concrete cases:

The political ideal of economic equality is an impossible ideal. Men are not equal in their abilities or their experience and nothing can make them equal. No political system that holds economic equality as an ideal can ever succeed and none ever has.

The political ideal of equality of opportunity is also an impossible ideal for the same reason. No political system can ever achieve it. But since, equality of opportunity is a less extreme ideal than economic equality, systems which attempt to realize it merely cause economic stagnation and not collapse.

The political ideal of national superiority is a fuzzy ideal (like all collectivist ideals). Because of its collectivist nature, it can never be defined or understood precisely. Depending on how it is defined, political systems that attempt it may or may not succeed. If winning the maximum number of gold medals in an Olympics is a measure of national superiority, then China’s political system succeeded. If achieving a high economic growth rate is a measure of national superiority, then China’s system has succeeded.

So my answer to Mark’s question is:

As long as its political ideals are not impossible to attain, a political system can succeed even if it is not moral. Of course, that raises the question “How does one decide what ideals are moral and what are not?” My upcoming post on my case against collectivism should answer a part of that question.

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4 Responses

  1. ^ This is an interesting framework, differentiating political systems and ideals.

    I agree about ideals never failing, only being rejected.

    However, I think there seems to be a tendency for people to reject political ideals on the basis of the failure of associated political systems. Is this naive? There’s also an inherent difficulty judging ideals on a moral/philosophical level, which may be too abstract for most people.

    The common response in these cases seems to be: Avoid The Question, or tolerate ANY ideal for the sake of accomodation. Call it laziness.

    I recently wrote about how Critical Thinking is about the active judgment and discernment of issues (including ideals). It is not about moral agnosticism, or blind tolerance of anything (another term for: political correctness).

    I think finding morality is an active search, not a passive one–and this seems to jive with your framework about differentiating how a system performs in history (which is part of a passive approach in thinking) vs. challenging/validating an ideal on its moral grounds (which is part of an active critical approach).

  2. […] K.M. gives us a complimentary angle which can help us in our critical thinking: on evaluating an ideal from a moral or philosophical […]

  3. Mark,
    “I think finding morality is an active search, not a passive one”
    I agree.

    I think there seems to be a tendency for people to reject political ideals on the basis of the failure of associated political systems. Is this naive?” (duplicate response, also on your blog)
    Not necessarily. After all, political ideals (and all ethical thought) must have some empirical base. The failure of a particular political system can (and should) trigger a re-examination of the political ideals, and as long as it is such a re-examination that causes people to reject a political ideal, it is great. But such a re-examination should be an examination and reformulation of principles from known facts – which include a lot more than the particular failure.

  4. the parliament system of fails because it is like divide & rule policy of britishers . political system of india should be change to presidential form of system. so plz change it as soon as posible. other wise there will no existence of our country .

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