Thursday, October 14, 2010

Ideology and History

One, of rather many, ways of interpreting ideas and history is through the great debates of the time.  For the twentieth century I think I can rather uncontroversially say the debates were democracy vs. authoritarianism (three round match here, democracy vs. monarchy, democracy vs. fascism, and democracy vs. communist totalitarianism) and socialism vs. capitalism (pretty decisively settled with the Soviet Union's collapse). 

It's very important to remember that these aren't debates that frame all of history.  I'd argue that socialism vs. capitalism is a debate brought about specifically by the rapid change of the industrial revolution.  While it retains some force, I'd say we've extracted pretty much everything we can from this particular debate.  It turns out that this isn't a defining way of organizing society, try to organize society strictly by this philosophy and you get nothing besides eventual social collapse.  Instead, we have various forms of mixed economies and it seems increasingly dated as a way of classifying much of anything.  It's rapidly becoming as archaic as debates about religious identity and society would be today.  No one is going to argue that it's a critical state interest if our citizenry ascribes to the monophysite or Nestorian nature of Christ or even that Catholic hierarchy is necessary for social cohesion.  People fought and died over these beliefs because they believed they were essential to social and political identity.  While few would deny religion is important today, even fewer would argue that it is an essential component of social organization.  We can see that these beliefs simply had little relation to social outcomes.

Today, it seems obvious to all but a few academic theoreticians and idealogues that the debate of socialism vs. capitalism just isn't  descriptive of what makes societies successful or not.  It may remain a useful category for classifying certain economic beliefs or policies but in the end it is not an either/or choice and policies must be judged on individual merits, not on their place on the axis of socialism and capitalism.  It is also increasingly obvious that a lot of economic theory and policy don't fit well within this frame, people may have fought and died over these ideas but the social reality has roared past the point where these remain useful concepts.

Democracy vs. authoritarianism by contrast can be seen as an iteration of the classic debate about paternalism.  I believe it's undeniable that people have a certain degree of paternalistic instinct and an ingrained sense of hierarchy, these things just seem to form naturally.  However, at any given time there seems to be a debate over what aspects of life should be subject to paternalistic authority and which instead need the consent of the group.  In classical times, this was a debate about hereditary aristocracy vs. the masses.  In the middle ages it seemed more suppressed, but the relative freedom of the cities vs. the nobility seems to perhaps be a roughly equivalent frame (one that wasn't really decisively resolved, we just passed beyond the point it made sense).  By the Enlightenment we get the most famous iteration of this, liberalism vs. divine right.  Then of course, twin domestic and international debates of universal vs. limited suffrage and democracy vs. monarchy then authoritrianism.

Today, I see this debate largely settled.  Very few argue we should look to authoritarian states for guidance, in authoritarian states by contrast many argue they should look more to democracies.  The iteration of this debate that I think has been forming over the past few decades seems to be about the wealthy investor vs. democratic decision making (I really need a catchier term for this).  I call this paternalism because it closely resembles earlier iterations of this.  Some subset of powerful individuals has a special quality that renders their ability to understand a situation necessarily superior to another group of individuals not so empowered.  In this case, people with money have a proper understanding of social return on say, a tunnel, that people that don't have the money but might say, live in New Jersey but have jobs in NYC, don't have.  In this view, if the policy was a good idea the powerful would have found a way to make money off of it and done it themselves.  Since they can't, then obviously the not rich who want it must be wrong about its ultimate benefits.

While in the case given I obviously have an opinion on which side is right and which wrong, in general I don't think this particular debate has a clear answer.  I do think these debates on paternalism in society move a society forward, however, I believe they must be recognized for what they are.  This is a debate of the same kind that democracy vs. authoritarianism is.  It's about whether some people have special capacities by virtue of their social role (whether some people have special knowledge because they have spent a great deal of time learning about said subject would be a different debate, though still paternalistic.  As with other debates about paternalism, the paternalist often has a point, the problem is when it is taken too far) or if instead people who don't have that position can have just as strong arguments in favor of it.  Of course, as in other iterations the waters get muddied by those who benefit from obscuring the terms of debate.  In the end though, I don't really see how this is any different from other iterations of this particular battle.

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