07 September 2010

Fear, Greed, and Trust

Last week I visited the real, red China. Though there's nothing "red" about it these days. I know they still call themselves communists, but these days the political system in China seems to be based more on the philosophy of Thomas Hobbes, not Karl Marx.

Fear, not philosophy, is the primary tool of persuasion in Communist China. People obey the law for one reason, and one reason only: they might get caught, and the consequences of disobedience are severe. Hobbes, at least as he is commonly understood, believed that the only way to keep people from constantly robbing and murdering each other was to give absolute power to the state. His philosophy made very pessimistic assumptions about human nature. It made no room for love, for empathy, or cooperation. For Hobbes, the only way for one man to trust another was if there was a Leviathan, a hugely powerful state that would punish all wrongdoing, lording over them both.

When people are treated this way, as if the only reason they should cooperate or show consideration for their fellow man is fear of Big Brother, they start to fulfill those expectations. This is the clusterfuck nightmare that is modern, totalitarian China. In supposedly cosmopolitan Shanghai, people warned me never to give out my family name or mobile number because people could "use it against me." And I started to believe it: everywhere I stepped, it seemed like someone was trying to scam some money out of me. Cars routinely aimed for pedestrians, honking their horns to scare everyone out of their way. And why not? Unless there's a cop on the corner, there's no conceivable reason for a car not to hit a pedestrian, except for the potential damage to the vehicle. Right of way on the road is determined like everything else: whoever is biggest and strongest (and best connected) can do whatever the fuck he wants, and everyone else had better scramble out of the way. It's a kiss up, kick down kind of country. But it doesn't have to be that way.

Back in the Hi-Tech Village, the political/economic system isn't based on fear, but greed. Here, people are given a high degree of personal freedom, which they are expected to use for the purpose of ruthlessly making as much money as possible. This system is based on the works of libertarian thinkers like Friedrich Hayek and John Nash. The assumptions these philosophers make about human nature are just as pessimistic as Hobbes's. The result is the same, if you assume people are greedy fucks, and base your entire political and economic system on that assumption, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

But Hobbes was a pussy who fled England rather than fight for the Royalist cause he professed to believe in. And Nash was a paranoid schizophrenic. It's possible that when these two assholes looked into their own souls, they saw nothing but fear, greed and self-interest. But when the rest of us look into our own souls, is this really what we see? I think people would rather cooperate than compete. If you give people the benefit of the doubt, show a little trust and a little trustworthiness, they often surprise you. Yes, sometimes they just rip you off, but that is only because they don't know any better. The virtuous cycle is much more mutually beneficial than the vicious cycle. But government institutions need to foster trust, not discourage it.


  1. Wesmcl, this is probably the best post I've read on this blog for a long time, not only is your article insightful, you present a worthy approach to a societal problem that is fundamental to our political and economic system. 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?


  2. Here is an interesting article you may want to check out http://www.whale.to/b/callahan1.html

  3. Interesting article. However I'm not sure the distrust you experienced in Shanghai is a result of Hobbesian totalitarianism, more a case of the widening of gap between the rich and the poor since Motherland "opened up" its markets 30 years ago. If it was ruling by fear, with heavy punishment for those caught offending, then these incidents would not happen. In the "good" old days, the only distrust between people would be fearing for people in the neighbourhood acting as spies for the government, there were no scams, tricks for money, because nobody had any!! During the same 30-year period, the Gini Index rose from 0.16 to 0.5. I see many people here in Ningbo, who came from farmlands in nearby provinces, and work for less than 1000 RMB a month, yet at the same time, there are millionaires who throw their money on luxury goods as if it's pocket-change for them.

    This is the real dilema for China, have equality where everyone is equally poor, or let a few get rich first and face the consequences we are seeing today?

  4. Daveed, need your account of the Motherland!

  5. From a close acquaintance who ran a multi-million dollar business in China, I know that the army and police can be 'hired' to tame an angry village which is having its resources 'stolen' by a nearby factory, and the media will never know about it. Most laws can be broken if you're rich, and if there is a grievance between two sides, the wealthy guy will always be in the right. The police can also make a bit of extra money on the side by making it difficult for upcoming competition, ensuring that large companies maintain their monopolies.

    I'd say that the poor live in fear, and the rich can get away with whatever they want.


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