Sunday, January 15, 2006

The Brutality Calculus

Utilitarianism can be condensed into the statement:

The right action is the action that produces the greatest good for the greatest number of people.

As a credo, it works well in many situations, but famously runs up against other key principles in hypothetical situations, such as being forced to murder an innocent person in order to save many lives (perhaps by preventing a riot).

We also have what are sometimes called Kantian intuitions. These intuitions say that we should not use people as if they were mere tools in order achieve other goods, even if those goods are much greater in scope.

In real life (as opposed to philosophy classrooms and Star Trek episodes), these principles don’t come into conflict too often. However…

Chile appears likely to elect its first woman leader (make that, elected), Michelle Bachelet, a moderate socialist. The country has come a long way since Pinochet, and is now considered the region’s “most stable economy”, with “one of Latin America’s lowest poverty rates”.

While not as monstrous, Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan also went through long periods of fascism, during which their economies developed, and have emerged as nations with free market economies (tempered by greater or lesser social programs) and strong democratic institutions.

It looks like both China and Russia are also making the transition from centrally planned economies run by authoritarian regimes to free market economies with democratic institutions (we hope at least):

Post Soviet Russia shifted quickly to democratic institutions, then followed with free market reforms. Since then, Russia’s economy has suffered from extensive volatility. It now appears that Putin is rolling back many of the democratic reforms, and his popularity is soaring.

China retains its non-democratic government, but now wedded to an expanding free market. I’m not sure, in fact, what differentiates China’s free market communism from the capitalist fascism of pre-1980s Taiwan. We’re also still waiting to see if democratic reforms are coming, though I believe the growth of an educated middle class that comes with free market capitalism brings about democracy, whether or not the people in charge want it.

From the above, it appears that the most efficient method of transition from an authoritarian government to a free market democracy involves going through an initial phase of capitalist fascism, then bringing in the political reforms later. And, for my liberal-minded friends, remember that not only are these countries transitioning to democracies, but they’re often more liberal-socialist than the United States.

Too bad for you if you happen to be radically minded and living during the transitional period. Of course, if Russia’s example holds for other nations, listening to our Kantian intuitions might result in this generation suffering under economic chaos, criminal rule, then having to go through a capitalist fascism phase anyway.

It does seem that there are some counter-examples:

  • Czechoslovakia’s transition was smooth and fast without needing the fascism phase.
  • Hungary seems to be doing well now.
  • And Argentina doesn’t seem to have benefited much from its fascism.

If, however, the transition via fascism method is so much more efficient than the alternatives that it outweighs Kantian reasons to ensure liberty first, then we end up with some counter-intuitive, even scary results:

President Bush should trim back on the whole “freedom is on the march” thing. Freedom should sit on the bench, while the people get busy opening their own businesses, exporting and importing stuff, and sending their kids overseas to get engineering degrees then come back and open LCD manufacturing plants – all the while, unfortunately, making damn sure not to say anything that would irritate their leaders.

In fact, Saddam’s regime was just the kind of fascism we too often supported in the past, but which seemed to turn out well despite our blundering. Had the U.S. spent the 90s palling up to Saddam, while making clear the limits of his leash, then left him in charge and removed the sanctions, then Iraq might have developed significant free market institutions and eventually morphed into the kind of democracy we see in the Asian tigers.

That might be cold comfort, though, to Ms... President Bachelet and the others who were tortured on the road to freedom.


Rick Anderson said...

Chile has come a long way since the US and ITT brought down it's goverment and installed Pinochet. One amazing fact of that past was the previous governement installed what could be termed as an early internet. The governement owned companies were basicly networked and as the US brought pressure on the country this network coordinated the resources necessary to run as a county. The Guardian has a great article on it here:,13755,1037547,00.html

Also, it is clear that a controled transition into a capitalist society is clear. Just turning your economy into free market economy and let what ever happens is a proved failure. Russia has suffered because of this tactic. They have had to deal with controlling basic crime and corporate crime.

China on the other hand has had a much slower and controlled transition. With an eye to moving socially, and controlling the economy to some degree.

However, Chile could have just continued to evolve and would have got to the same place if it wasn't for US and US couporate destruction of their countries government.

In summary I think your point that a governement needs to coordinate a transition to a capitalism is on target. Direct intervention by the US has failed in almost all these examples. When the US competes with other countries economicly it provides an incentives for stable transitions.

Steve Peterson said...

That's interesting about the early internet in Chile. It's great that Chile is recovering so well from the bastard.

One of my concerns is how to react to China and Putin's Russia. On the one hand there's an awful lot of abuses that one wants to criticize, but the process they're going through might be the best option from a list of fairly bad ones.