Tuesday, May 22, 2007

There Ain't No Such Thing As A Quick Fix

As always, or almost always, Brad Delong, the premier Blog for economics (with a large dash of US Presidential politics included: Professor Delong is often calling for the President’s impeachment, a rather extreme measure, I should have thought, best used sparingly to avoid discrediting the office altogether), he has an interesting quote about the ‘bash China’ debate, or harangue, according to your taste.

This is a debate between Thomas P.M. Barnett and James Mann, who ‘specialises in overwrought arguments”. Mann has written a book, “The China Challenge: a shining model of wealth without liberty”.

China”, says Thomas Barnett, “is no "new" model or threat. It follows the model of Singapore, and before that South Korea, and before that Japan: a single-party state that bases almost all of its legitimacy on rising income and development through export-driven growth. It is a self-liquidating model: eventually the society wants more political freedom to go with that wealth. China's just so fricking huge and so poor that this process isn't going fast enough for Mann--hence the inevitable "threat."

Mann recognizes neither those past examples nor the significant economic and personal freedoms unleashed inside China over the past quarter century. His Z not having been reached fast enough, he discounts all movement from A since the bizarre depths of Mao's cultural revolution, which is no more distant politically than our Vietnam.... As for our take on it, we should logically welcome any so-called model that promotes external economic connectivity, because we know where that goes historically (i.e., where Japan and South Korea finally ended up: creating political freedoms that match their system's potential--something that took us a while to achieve as well)”

I am inclined to agree with Barnett from a Smithian point of view. People in a hurry for historical processes to be completed quickly are worrying. They end up thoroughly impatient and liable to extreme stances. If in charge of foreign policies, they are dangerous.

It took Britain two centuries to move from a minority parliament of the 18th century to universal franchise of popular voting, and Britain only got to the restricted franchise of a constitutional monarchy in the 18th century after several centuries from feudal rule. Even the USA, with its magnificent Constitution, was well short of its ideals as late as the 1960s.

Democracy does not arrive quickly. People who believe the world must change quickly in this or that way, are certain to be disappointed in their lifetimes, and pointlessly angry because this or that blemish persists. This gets so bad that you never hear the end of the pointless cliche: ‘too little, too late’, no matter what the change or how big it is, that is announced. People in this frame of mind, want it all, they want it now, and you can never satisfy them whatever you do, which produces the counter-reaction of conceding change even slower than their opponents felt they had to move at.

Smith took the long view. He was calmer as a result. He noted the trends and had the satisfaction of noting their direction, if not its pace. He didn’t expect there to be big changes away from the false doctrine of mercantile political economy in the immediate future. History showed that everything moves slower in practice.

Expecting commercial life to change China’s political structure as quickly as it changes the economic relationships is pure utopianism. But the changes that it is causing in the daily lives of tens of millions are remarkable by any scale of judgement, and they run much deeper than the mere arithmetic of pushing people out of abject poverty. Everything changes with it. Leaving abject poverty for absolute poverty and then towards relative poverty changes values taken as inevitable for generations.

Time becomes available for reflection and a minority realises this. I like this last paragraph quoted in Brad Delong’s extract from Thomas Barnett:

China's "model"... is about transforming a hugely rural, impoverished, disconnected society (one-sixth of humanity) into an urban, consumeristic, connected one. Once achieved, and China is nowhere near that at this time, with well over half its population still living in very Gap-like conditions, then its model self-liquidates that all before it. China's future leaders know this, so do our smart observers. Mann ain't one of them...”

Brilliant! Pure Smithian! Pity about James Mann, though...


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