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.

History is not the case against collectivism

In an analysis of a newspaper article by David Brooks on China and collectivism, Mark writes

When we consider criticisms of Collectivism, we almost automatically associate it with the past experiences of Communism, Socialism, and Fascism, and how the societies based on these collectivist systems we’ve seen have either failed or stagnated.

Taleb calls history a fallacy and history is the only case against Collectivism.

In my previous post I mentioned that the critics of Collectivism and Individualism seem to have a common fear: that of society degenerating to serve the interests of a minority. This suggests that both lines of thought are capable of creating that horror.

Thankfully, what David’s article shows is that just as importantly: both lines of thought are just as possibly capable of creating a better world instead.
(Empasis mine, links added)

I will write on collectivism later. This post is about the role of history in evaluating it.

Consider my knowledge of the history of the Soviet Union. I learnt a little about Lenin and the 1917 revolution in school. I read a few Russian stories in my childhood. I read some references to the Soviet Union in some American novels. I picked up information about its political collapse and disintegration in newspapers and by hearing my parents talk about it (I was far too young to understand much of it at the time). I read a few entries in Wikipedia during my college years. I also must have picked up some information from several assorted sources which I do not remember now. Note that none of this knowledge is first hand. I believe that most of it is true because any given concrete fact is “verifiable” in principle. More importantly, however, most (almost all) of my knowledge involves written records made by someone else. Even if I do not doubt the veracity of these records, the records are selective – selected by someone’s judgement of what is significant and what is not. Any historical knowledge (especially about events that occurred long ago) is at best a selective record created by several peoples’ perception and judgement. And history in itelf does not help me to reach any firm conclusions. For that, I have to integrate the historical record with a relevant theory of cause and effect. At best history can serve as part of the empirical observations that lead to a such a theory.

Consider an evaluation of communism. To reach a conclusion about whether communism is a proper political system, I first need a vision of what a proper political system should look like – what sort of relationships between men it should enable and what sort it should prohibit. Note that any such vision necessarily has a moral aspect to it. What sort of relationships between men I regard as proper depends on the moral values I want to achieve. My political vision of liberty is inextricably tied to my moral values of rationality and independence. And moral values are not derived from history. Given that my political vision is liberty, I don’t need any knowledge of the history of the Soviet Union to decide if communism “works”. Even if the Soviet Union had succeeded in creating an economically egalitarian system at gunpoint, it wouldn’t “work” for me. I remember David Brooks writing something to the effect that “Communism failed because people stopped believing in it.” While there is much that I disagree with in that statement, it has an important element of truth. The mass poverty, the Gulags, the brutal suppression of all dissent, the famines, the economic failures don’t count as failure. If they did, communism probably failed in its first five years. The Soviet Union dictators and the communists who helped them stay in power were not deterred by these. They considered these things as necessities to achieve their ideals. As long as a sufficient number of people still held these ideals as absolute, the Soviet Union didn’t “fail”. The element of truth in Brooks statement is: Moral ideals shape history – not the other way round. What the statement does not acknowledge is: Moral ideals are not arbitrary. Some are impossible to achieve, no matter how strongly one believes in them. Communism would fail irrespective of what anyone believed about it.

The point is that political ideals are based not on history but on morality. A choice of political ideals cannot be made by some kind of a cost-benefit analysis of historical records. Consider an analogy in software. The industry has reached a consensus that there are great benefits to creating web-enabled software and spends a lot of resources in achieving it. Making complex software web-enabled is no easy task but the costs do not deter anyone since the end is desirable. The desirability of the end is independent of the costs. It is the same with politics. If the end (say egalitarianism) is seen as desirable, all the costs (in human life and liberty) can be easily shrugged off. But David Brooks and Mark seem to have no clear political vision. They have probably inherited the values of rights and privacy from the Western culture. And they have also inherited the altruist and egalitarian ideals that are ubiquitous today without realizing that these values are mutually exclusive. And that is where the emergence of China gives rise to cognitive dissonance. All this while they have been secure in the knowledge that a nominally capitalist and confused individualist political system (such as the ones in the West) is the best way to achieve their mixed bag of ideals. After all they have seen that consistent collectivist political systems do not “work”. They had history behind them. Now that China with a nominally communist and confused collectivist political system has achieved some economic success, their sense of security is lost. History now gives them no guidance. Their acknowledgement of cognitive dissonance is a confession of collectivism. Why do I call it a confession? Because they don’t like it themselves. Note the last line in Brooke’s article “It’s [Collectivism] certainly a useful ideology for aspiring autocrats.”

The struggle between collectivism and individualism is primarily a moral one. The case against collectivism (atleast my case) is not based on history. What is it based on? I will present that in my next post.

A Confession of Collectivism

In a guest article in The Times of India, New York Times columnist David Brooks writes1

“The world can be divided in many ways — rich and poor, democratic and authoritarian — but one of the most striking is the divide between the societies with an individualist mentality and the ones with a collectivist mentality … You can create a global continuum with the most individualistic societies — like the United States or Britain — on one end, and the most collectivist societies — like China or Japan — on the other. The individualistic countries tend to put rights and privacy first. People in these societies tend to overvalue their own skills and overestimate their own importance to any group effort. People in collective societies tend to value harmony and duty. They tend to underestimate their own skills and are more self-effacing when describing their contributions to group efforts … individualistic societies have tended to do better economically But what happens if collectivist societies snap out of their economic stagnation? … A new sort of global conversation develops. The opening ceremony in Beijing was a statement in that conversation. It was part of China’s assertion that development doesn’t come only through western, liberal means, but also through eastern and collective ones … it’s unlikely that the forces of individualism will sweep the field or even gain an edge … the essence of a lot of the latest scientific research is that the western idea of individual choice is an illusion and the Chinese are right to put first emphasis on social contexts. The rise of China isn’t only an economic event. It’s a cultural one. The ideal of a harmonious collective may turn out to be as attractive as the ideal of the American Dream. It’s certainly a useful ideology for aspiring autocrats.”
(Emphasis mine)

Note that Brooks sees China’s recent economic success as the sole criterion for deciding whether collectivist are attractive inspite of the fact that China is a dictatorship that routinely violates the rights of its people. By his own observations about the preferences of individualists (“The individualistic countries tend to put rights and privacy first”), that makes him a collectivist (Also note that he does not believe in individual choice). So why does a collectivist need to write an article saying that the ideal of a harmonious collective may turn out to be attractive? Because he believes in collectivist ideals but also wants the dignity of a society that respects rights and privacy. At some level he realizes that the two are incompatible (Note his cynical final sentence) but he is unwilling to choose one over the other. Even as some Eastern societies are accepting the fact that collectivism does not work and are starting to prosper by slowly embracing individualism, the collectivists in the West are trying to use this prosperity as evidence that their ideals can actually work.


1) Thanks to Aristotle The Geek who alerted me to the fact that there is an extra paragraph in the Brooks original NYT article. That paragraph does not change the essence of his article or my post however.

%d bloggers like this: