17 September 2010

Fear, Greed and Trust Continued

I kept meaning to answer some of the questions in the comments from my post last week, but every time I thought about what I would say, it seemed more like a new post.  So here is that post:

Zombiehellmonkey commented: I agree with the idea that if the system is created for greed, then it will nurture greed by rewarding it, as well as opening itself to corruption; so how might government institutions begin to foster trust?

Well, that's a tough one, and I'm not sure the government's job is to foster trust.  But in China the government actively discourages it by putting major restrictions on voluntary organizations (both real and virtual).  Getting together to discuss politics is pretty dangerous in China, so that problem seems unlikely to be solved.  

But Zombie's question wasn't about China, it was about government institutions generally.  I don't have a lot of special insight on that, so I'll refer to what Robert Putnam has written on the subject.  In Making Democracy Work, Putnam's study of trust and social capital in Italy, Putnam found that northern Italy had very efficient government institutions, an advanced economy and a generally higher quality of life than southern Italy.  The moral system in southern Italy has been characterized by Putnam and others as "amoral familism."  In this system, there is virtually no trust between people who aren't members of the same nuclear family: relationships are based on power and coercion, not cooperation and mutual benefit.  This is the moral system I saw operating in China.  (Interestingly, in the post before mine last week, William talked about how his parents taught him to be distrustful of strangers, and how that has affected his ability to form close friendships as a young adult.  Ok, so William used the "royal we" instead of referring to this as his personal experience, but I think we all know what he really meant.)  

So why this difference between northern and southern Italy?  Why this difference between China and Hong Kong? In Italy, Putnam attributes the difference to the different histories of the two regions.  In the South, "third party enforcement" was the solution to the Hobbesian dilemma because of the hierarchical political system there during the Middle Ages and early Renaissance.  In the North, the political system was more democratic: voluntary networks of civic engagement (things like sports clubs, social clubs, etc.) helped create a reserve of social capital that people could rely on to help solve collective action problems without the need for a third party enforcer.  

China's recent history may have created a similar situation.  Daveed commented on my last post that the distrust I saw in China was not the result of the Leviathan, but of rising inequality.  With respect to Daveed, who surely understands much more about China than I do, I think it's a little bit of both.  During the Cultural Revolution, Mao attempted to wipe the slate clean, replacing religious values and traditional, secular morality with communist morality.  "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need" isn't exactly the golden rule, but it's a moral system, and not a particularly unreasonable one, on it's face.  But with the Gini coefficient rising, nobody believes the Communist lie anymore.  So what's left?  Coercion, power, and the third party enforcement of the state, and amoral familism.  The communist ethic has been replaced by capitalist ethic of "from each according to his gullibility, to each according to his greed," except that this amoral ethic isn't tempered by democratic political institutions or webs of civic engagement as in northern Italy.  

What could a government do?  Encourage civic engagement, voluntary organizations and webs of relationships that don't revolve around profit or power.  Obviously, encouraging any of this sort of thing is NOT in the interest of any authoritarian government, so I'm afraid China is stuck...until the next revolution.  As I interacted with this amoral familism in Shanghai, I couldn't help but laugh at the thought that these are the people who are supposedly going to  be the next rulers of the world.  Sometimes we laugh when we are deeply afraid. 

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