We are regularly lectured about the lack of kindness and humility of the western countries. Eastern and communist leaders in Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia point to Western pollution, consumerism, unemployment as prof you need a strong leader and central control to do good by regulation, thought policing, and wealth redistribution.
Let me point out that the good these leaders provide is extracted from the populace, and the advantage of central control is rarely as clear to the populous as to the leadership. When leaders redistribute wealth or place limits on the internet, movies or books, the leaders are generally exempted, and the populous are not made more moral or generous either. One does not say a prisoner or slave-worker is more generous of moral than one on the outside despite the prisoner working for free. The leaders feel certain they are protecting their people from thought and greed, but it isn’t clear outside of the leadership that these dangers are as great as the danger of despotism or rule by whim.
Authors and thoughts are blocked in the East by the whim of a supreme leader who also determines who is an infidel or enemy, or friend, and which businesses should flourish, and who should be rich (his buddies). By contrast, two fundamentals of western society — things that lead to purported immorality, are citizen rights and the rule of law: that citizens can possess things and do things for their own reasons, or no reason at all, and that citizens may stand as equals before a bar of law, to be judged by spelled-out laws or freed, with equal believability and claim.
In Russia or Iran, the Commissar and Imam have special rights: they can take possessions from others at whim, shut down businesses at whim; imprison at whim — all based on their own interpretation of God’s will, the Koran, or “the good of the state.” Only they can sense the true good, or the true God well enough to make these decisions and laws. And when they violate those laws they are protected from the consequences; the masses can be prosecuted to the full extent of the law, and then some, not even requiring a trial in many places (Gaza, for example) if the leader feels speed is needed. The rule of law with equal treatment is a fundamental of western civilization (republicanism). It is commanded by Moses in the Bible at least seven times: Numbers 15:15, Numbers 15:16, Numbers 15:29, Exodus 12:49, Numbers 9:14, and Leviticus 24:22, “One law and one ordinance you should have, for the home-born, and the foreigner who dwells among you.”
The equal treatment under the law: for rich and poor, king and commoner, citizen and foreigner is a revolutionary idea of the west; that justice is blind. Another idea is personal possessions and freedoms. There is no concept of equality under business law unless there is a business that you can own, and personal possessions and rights. These are not in place in eastern theocracies: they tend to treat the preachers (imams) better than non preachers because they are presumed smarter and better; similarly men are treated better than women, who have few rights, and the state religion is treated better than infidels. In communist countries and dictatorships the dictator can get away with anything. Admittedly, in capitalistic states the rich and powerful find loopholes while the poor find prison, but not always (our Detroit’s ex-mayor is in prison) and it’s not the law. A feature of Eastern theocracies and dictatorships is that they lack a free press, and thus no forum for public exposure of legal mischief.
Einstein on freedom producing good. I’d say freedom is also a good in itself.
The strongest arguments for socialist dictatorship and theocracy is that this is needed to protect the weak. Clement Attlee (labor socialist British Prime Minister, 1945 -56) explained his government’s take over of almost all British business: “There was a time when employers were free to work little children for sixteen hours a day… when employers were free to employ sweated women workers on finishing trousers at a penny halfpenny a pair. There was a time when people were free to neglect sanitation so that thousands died of preventable diseases. For years every attempt to remedy these crying evils was blocked by the same plea of freedom for the individual. It was in fact freedom for the rich and slavery for the poor. Make no mistake, it has only been through the power of the State, given to it by Parliament, that the general public has been protected against the greed of ruthless profit-makers and property owners.” (Quotes from Spartacus.edu). it’s a brilliant speech, and it taps into the government’s role in the common defense, but it’s not at all clear that a chinless bureaucrat will be a better boss than the capitalist who built the firm. Nor is it clear that you help people by preventing them from work at a salary you decide is too low.
England suffered a malaise from public ownership and the distribution of profit by those close the liberal party. Under Attlee there was lack of food and coal while the rest of Europe, and particularly Germany prospered, and passed England in productivity. Germany had no minimum wage, and still doesn’t have one. In eastern countries, ingenuity is deadened by the knowledge that whatever a genius or worker achieves is taken by the state and redistributed. A cute joke exchange: Churchill and Attlee are supposed to have found themselves in adjoining stalls of the men’s room of Parliament. Churchill is supposed to have moved as far as possible from Attlee. “Feeling standoffish, Winston” Attlee is supposed to have said. “No. Frightened. “Whenever you see something large you try to nationalize it.” Perhaps more telling is this Margret Thatcher’s comment, and exchange. Making everyone’s outcome equal does more to penalize those with real pride in their ideas and work than it does to help the truly needy.
While there is a need for government in regards to safety, roads, and standards, and to maintain that equality of law. It seems to me the state should aid the poor only to the extent that it does not turn them into dependents. There is thus a natural tension between private good and public service similar to the tensegrity that holds cells together. Capitalists can only make money by providing desired goods and services at worthwhile rate, and paying enough to keep workers; they should be allowed to keep some of that, while some must be taken from them to get great things done. I’ve related the tensegrity of society to the balance between order and disorder in a chemical system.
Robert E. Buxbaum, August 27, 2014. This essay owes special thanks to a Princeton chum, Val Martinez. Though my training is in engineering, I’ve written hobby pieces on art, governance, history, and society. Check out the links at right.