In the US Presidential campaign of 1928, Herbert Hoover called for `a chicken in every pot'. He staked his legitimacy on the promise of prosperity for all.
Certainly, over the past century, every country has sought to increase the prosperity of its people.
Is that goal going to continue, or will it be replaced by a new goal?
Philip Bobbitt, 1 a man who combines legal and military ideas, argues that the next major political argument will be over the ways in which governments provide opportunity.
This means that some will succeed materially more than others; there will be many who perceive themselves and are perceived by others as losers. They will have made a mistake when they were 16, or an `Act of God' will befall them, or they will fail at any job valued by a market society.
In turn, this means that compassion will become more important politically, since enough successful people will think `there but for the grace of God go I'. Only with the growth of a strong countervailing belief will compassion become less significant.
Moreover, since people dislike free riders, and since new times mean new issues which do not fit into traditional categories, visible justice will become more important.
Opportunity implies meritocracy. It means that enough individuals find a chance to do better, and that social status and material rewards come to those who best do what society seeks. The chance to do better is not determined, or at least, not ultimately determined, by religious upbringing or by accidents of birth considered extrinsic to a person, such as wealth or race.
When people receive rewards according to their degree of success, many see the system as a whole as just and legitimate.
It goes without saying that others value different sources of legitimacy and justice: people who become rich, for example, often want to pass on their positions to their children. In so far as their children are less capability than others, the others' opportunities must be restricted. Otherwise, the rich children will lose. If others are not overtly restricted, then the rich children must be given advantages to compensate. Thus, the rich provide better schools for their children, whether public or private, provide better health care, and provide language that justifies this.
As I write this in the Spring of 2004, it looks as if this emerging conflict is being sidelined by efforts on the part of Al Qaeda and its allies to beat infidels and to replace corrupt governments with virtuous governments, and by the responses of countries such as the US.
Both in the US and elsewhere, many hope to succeed by doing `more of what they should have done' rather than by doing `more of what they should be doing'. The former is a known path, and clearly some followed it well. The latter requires deciding what `should be done' and then doing it. Both deciding and doing are fraught with uncertainty.
However, over time, countries that make better military and economic use of their resources tend to overwhelm those that do not. This means a better use of all talents within a society, not just a few. Put another way, meritocracy wins wars.
So I expect that over the next generation or two, the backward looking responses of people in the US and other countries will fail. (Whether the countries will also fail is another question.)
But there are different ways for a `market state' to handle opportunity. Bobbitt identifies three:
Each theme handles justice differently. In the United States, and countries with the same goals, justice comes from a focus on individual rights, a belief that `acts of God' are few, and that in any event, everyone has a `second chance'. In the US, the `second chance' belief is most vividly seen in those who are `born again', an act which enables such people to disown the mistakes and accidents of their pasts.
In Japan, Korea, and the like, justice comes from a focus on stability and a ban on chaos, even when rapid material changes take place.
In Germany and the like, justice comes from a focus on social equality and on caring for those who are eager to work but cannot. The premise that by acting this way few become so alienated as to become criminal or addicted to alcohol or other drugs, or become active in the kinds of political movement that have caused so much suffering.
I do not know how countries will respond to technological changes, but think there are strong suggestions for two themes.
Consider the following change: a sharp drop in the cost of information reduplication. Right now, unless effective law enforcement raises the price, a full computer operating system and office suite on a CD costs US$1.50 - US$2.50. The cost of the machine on which to run the CD is high, but still a modern computer costs less than any from 50 years ago. The cost of manufacturing a CD with data on it is much less than the cost of duplicating, marketing, distributing and selling 650 megabytes in 1954.
This is a technological change with social consequences. In particular, the only way to keep the price of data high is to enforce laws against inexpensive data transfers.
Effective law enforcement costs. In schools, for example, children must be taught that it is wrong to share non-rivalrous 2 goods, like games or learning. Programming students must be forbidden to study certain topics lest they become common knowledge. If this is not done, children will grow up to favor sharing; students will learn. Police actions to hinder sharing or knowledge will lose legitimacy and law enforcement will become more difficult.
The key political factor is whether people think that a shirt that only one person can wear at one time is different from software that two people can use at the same time, or whether they think the two are similar? The latter requires the metaphorical extension of the concept of property from a rivalrous good, such as a car or chair, to a non-rivalrous good, such as software.
As far as I can see, a country that focuses on social stability, a `mercantile' state like Japan, will be less inclined to admit the turbulence that comes from lower prices. It will try artificially to keep prices high when technology permits them to drop.
On the contrary, a country that focuses on social equality, a `managerial' state like Germany, will figure that its institutions will care for those hurt by price changes, and be more against governmentally enforced high prices.
The outcome in a country that focuses on `rights', an `entrepreneurial' state like the US, will depend on how it defines legal `rights'. It could come to think that people have a right to do what they want, so long as they do not prevent others from also acting; in this case, the right will be to copy information, and the price will be allowed to drop. Or they may come to think that individuals and companies have a right to keep information from others, and government policing will increase.
Opportunity, Compassion, and Justice make for a slogan. It seems to me that one or other political party in the US should adopt it. I think that the Democratic party is better positioned than the Republican party.
The Republican party once favored fiscal rectitude, balanced budgets, small government, and individual freedom. Now it implements government deficits, unbalanced budgets, large government, and government intrusion on private lives.
The Democratic party has already made the transition to fiscal rectitude and balanced budgets. It generally favors social as distinct from economic freedom.
For an entrepreneurial, opportunity based country, the keys are fiscal rectitude and individual freedom. This favors the Democrats.
On the other hand, by `going back to its roots', the Republican party could re-adopt both these keys, and size the opportunity.
The Shield of Achilles: War, Peace, and the Course of History,
Random House, Knopf edition, 2002: ISBN 0-375-41292-1,
Random House, Anchor Books edition, 2003: ISBN 0-385-72138-2
In this long and hard to read book, Bobbitt writes,
A great epochal war has just ended [the war lasted from 1914 to 1990]. The various competing systems of the contemporary nation-state (fascism, communism, parliamentarianism) that fought that war all took their legitimacy from the promise to better the material welfare of their citizens. The [newly emerging] market-state offers a different covenant: it will maximize the opportunity of its people. ....
A society of market-states ... will be good at setting up markets. This facility could bring about an international system that rewards peaceful states and stimulates opportunity in education, productivity, investment, environmental protection, and public health by sharing the technologies that are crucial to advance in these areas. .... Markets, on the other hand, are not very good at assuring political representation or giving equal voice to every group. ....
Put another way, Bobbitt argues that the 20th century saw conflicts among those who espoused different ways of promoting economic development, but that in the 21st century, we shall see conflicts among those who promote different paths towards equal opportunity.
Philip Bobbitt is Professor of Law, University of Texas at Austin; he has served as the director for Intelligence, senior director for Critical Infrastructure and senior director for Strategic Planning at the National Security Council.
The word `rivalrous' means that your consumption rivals mine. Only one or the other, not both of us, can enjoy the consumption at the same time.
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