Thursday, December 31, 2009

JMG, Immodest Proposals

One word of caution, though: readers expecting me to offer them a ticket to Utopia are going to be disappointed. There’s a common notion that everything that’s wrong in the world is the fault of the institutions or personalities officially in charge, and can be fixed by replacing them with some other set of institutions or personalities. That notion has been tested more thoroughly by history than any other hypothesis I can think of in the social sciences, and it’s failed abjectly every time. Maybe we should finally get around to admitting that people will not behave like angels no matter how (or whether) they are governed, or who (if anyone) does the governing; and, in the process, admit that human beings are incurably human – that is, capable of the full spectrum of good and evil all by themselves – rather than moral puppets who can be expected to dance on command to the tune of a good or evil system.

It’s easy to come up with a perfect system of human society, so long as it doesn’t have to work in the real world, and it’s very easy to compare a perfect system on paper to the failings of a system in the real world, to the latter’s detriment. Nearly always, though, what John Kenneth Galbraith said about innovation in finance is just as true of innovation in political and social institutions: what gets ballyhooed as new and revolutionary thinking is normally the repetition of a fairly small set of fallacies that worked very poorly the last dozen or so times they were tried, and will work just as poorly this time, too. Those systems that function at all are fairly few in number, though there are a lot of minor variations on the basic themes, and the ones we’ve got now – representative democracy in politics, a market system in economics – have certain advantages. Though the current examples are troubled, corrupt, and at very high risk of being overwhelmed by the consequences of some very bad decisions made over the last few decades, the basic systems are noticeably less dysfunctional most of the time than most of the alternatives.

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