Saturday, April 20, 2024

The order of inequality

Professor Tongdong Bai (whom I had the pleasure to meet in Shanghai and who kindly alerted me to his new book) has recently published a book called perhaps somewhat provocatively Against Political Equality: The Confucian Case. The book offers a reinterpretation of Confucian school’s writings. It is a very well-written, tightly argued text equally of interest to those curious to learn more about, or those already tolerably knowledgeable of, the Chinese classics. In this review I focus on two central issues where my opinions may not agree with those of Professor Bai, but there are many other parts of the book, including on contemporary China, that can be studied with great profit by all, and which I do not cover in this review.   


The book argues that Confucian writings must not be seen simply as a collection of ethical teachings concerned with virtue and moral improvement but as political philosophy in the strict sense of the term.


In order to support his claim, Bai makes the analogy between the political situation faced by Confucius and Mencius (fifth and fourth century BC; relatively close contemporaries of Socrates and Plato), the two authors whose writings provide the bulk of Bai’s textual evidence, and the situation of Western Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries, at the time of dissolution of European feudalism. Both were politically pivotal moments. The Chinese, the so-called Zhou-Qin transition, was characterized by the breakdown of hierarchical, nobility-ruled, (loosely speaking) “feudal” order, and incessant warfare. The seven larger states were, as the name of the Warring States period implies (475 BC to 221 BC), engaged in mutual wars and the previous power legitimation was no longer sufficient. Consequently, Bai argues, Confucius’ followers and interpreters, including Mencius, had to reflect on politics, and to find the new bases of legitimation of the political order. This was analogous to the ideological effervescence, to the sudden break-in of “the political”, in the early modern Western Europe.


Confucians’ ethical teachings were, in Bai’s view, only secondary to their interest in political philosophy. Merit, virtue, righteousness, sense of duty, play a role, as we shall see, in their political system but it is the redefinition of the political order that they were after, not ethics alone. Perhaps, if one may interpret Bai, ethics were subservient to politics. Confucians were “revolutionary with a conservative façade” (p. 30).


The argument  by analogy with Western Europe is used by Bai as an indirect proof that Confucian writings should be considered political philosophy. One of the reason why they often are not is in their style:  aphoristic, allegorical, open to multiple interpretations. Their writings (as, for example, The Analects) are not structurally tight, nor is there an attempt to make all the intermediate points, from an initial statement to its full implication, explicit and clear. Defending this suggestive type of writing, Bai, in a few instances, falls back to the argument that not only are some kinds of knowledge ineffable, but that the authors were so superior in their knowledge to the ordinary person that they did not even see the need to explain their logic in a step-by-step fashion. Nietzsche is conveniently cited saying that the shortest path between the two peaks is the straight one, but only a person with very long legs (meaning superior mind) can make it at one go.  To a rational mind, it is a somewhat strange defense of murkiness in thinking—whereby that very murkiness is exalted to geniality. But it is this style, not fitting the canons of modern Western political philosophy that made, Bai holds unjustifiably, Confucius’ and Mencius’ writings ruled out as political philosophy. This is what needs to be corrected.   


Bai’s reinterpretation of Confucius’ and Mencius’ thought (especially of the latter who is cited more than Confucius) is comprehensive and symmetrical. It is comprehensive because it posits the rules for the organization of an ”ideal” state and then moves to the rules for the organization of the international order among these states.


The definition of the domestic political order begins with the statement, defended by Mencius more than Confucius, that all persons are in principle equal and capable of moral and cognitive perfection, or at least satisfactory development. That satisfactory development which includes virtuous behavior, regard for the others, empathy, concern with public affairs is developed through a process of education which should be understood much more broadly, as education and upbringing (that is, values that are normally inculcated through familial and friendly socialization). But that particular satisfactory moral development is achieved only by a select group of people. Them, being more “humane” than the others (or, as Bai writes, being truly human while the others may be just barely above the bestial level) are called forth to rule the state. They must rule it so that it is to the material benefit not only of themselves but of everyone including those who are being ruled. In that sense, government is accountable to the public, and its legitimation is based on the quality of its rule, and especially ability to improve economic conditions of the ruled. Bai, probably rightly, emphasizes the parts from Mencius’ teachings that hold that moral virtue cannot be achieved without some material sufficiency: it is difficult to adhere to the fully ethical  rules in deprivation. 


The political system thus sketched is, in principle, legitimate (as is based on merit) and accountable to the those who are being ruled. In what Bai calls a Confucian hybrid regime, “masses are competent enough to know whether they are satisfied with the regime and its policies or not, but they are not competent enough to make political decisions that will maintain or lead to a satisfying political environment” (p. 89).  If the system does not live up to what it is supposed to deliver, there is a corrective although it remains unexplained when exactly is the use of the corrective justified (i.e., when a revolution is acceptable) and even more generally how it should be applied (can it be violent or not?).


But the problems go much further. Bai, again basing himself on Mencius, argues in favor of what is today called “equality of opportunity”: everybody should have the same chance to succeed. This equality of chances  justifies meritocrats as “rightful rulers.” Leaving aside whether such justification is acceptable (in other words, accepting for the moment that we should be ruled by an “aristocracy” in the etymological sense of the term), two questions, at least, remain.


First, are the criteria for distinguishing between those chosen to rule and others acceptable? Will the right to rule be given by the score on SAT exams or good knowledge of ancient poets? How are the norms of “concern with society” as opposed to self-interest and selfishness to be defined and, even more importantly, observed? Who will judge them? Will not the rulers have incentive to bend the system in their favor and claim that whatever  characteristics they possess indicates moral virtue (the way that the chevaliers of the Middle Age saw their pedigrees and ability to handle the sword as most worthy virtues)?


The second problem is apparent as soon as the system unfolds  for more than one generation. After agreeing on both the “ideal” nature of such a  state and on the criteria whereby the elite is selected, we can immediately notice that already by the second generation children of the elite will enjoy a much better starting position that the rest of their peers.  So, the initial assumption on which the entire system is premised, namely, an even playing field, collapses as soon as the system begins to develop. It will, as we have seen it amply in history, lead almost inevitably to the rule of a small elite not selected because of any special ability but purely thanks to familial ties, friendship, or patron-client (honestiores-humiliores) relationship.


Structurally the same is the theory proposed by Bai---again based on Confucius and Mencius—of international relations. Here, the original distinction made by Confucian thinkers was between the xia or civilized states, and yi or “barbarous” states. Bai is at pains to underscore that this distinction was not made on ethnic criteria, although it was often interpreted as such because, once China got unified, its interactions tended to be with the people whom the Chinese considered culturally inferior even when they were militarily stronger. (This changed only, as Bai writes, with the encounter with the West who was militarily stronger and whom the Chinese could not, given the development of Western philosophy and science, treat as “barbarian”). Confucians proposed differential treatment of xia and yi. The use of violence (say, invasion, change of government, annexation) between the xia states was prohibited. Civilized states may compete, but they should never use violent means against each other. However, a civilized state has the right to use violent means against a barbarous state with the ultimate objective of helping the barbarous state to become xia.


Bai applies this rule to today’s international relations holding that internal matters of individual states are not their own affair only but, if they are yi, of international concern. Hence, for example, states that leave their citizens in poverty, violate human rights, try to subvert other states etc. are fair targets for the international community composed of xia states only, and violent behavior toward them is condoned, and perhaps even, desirable.


(In a perhaps strange case of historical amnesia, Bai forgets that almost identical arguments, including unremitting poverty, awful sanitary conditions, infectious diseases, and infanticide were used to justify to “civilize” and “pacify” China but that “international effort” to do so brought only wars and destruction. It is unclear why it should be different elsewhere.)


It is obvious that such an idea is a prescription for the “greatest disorder under the Heaven”. If the domestic rules for the elite-selection are unclear, as I argued before, how much more unclear and contested will be the international rules that would distinguish between the “civilized” and  “barbarian” states? Let us just mention that the “ideal” state, according to Bai’s own rules, could be regarded by a liberal democratic state as a yi state because it does not accept democracy and the rule by the people. Thus, Bai’s international rules could ironically be used to overthrow his own “ideal” Confucian state! But this is the least of our problems: who is to decide what constitutes a “barbaric state”? Bai’s definition is all-encompassing: “[Barbaric state] is one that either tyrannizes its people out of incompetence or indifference, fails to offer basic services to its people, leaving them in great suffering; moreover, it threatens the well-being of other people or completely disregards its duty to other people such as the duty to protect a shared environment” (p. 185). One can use this definition at will to justify moving a state to the category of “barbarous” or deserving to be overrun by a coalition of “civilized” states.


I mentioned that Bai’s domestic and international orders are built symmetrically. The symmetries are in the introduction of a normatively-defined elite (in one case, the educated minority; in the other case, the “civilized” states), in almost breathtakingly broad or easily contestable definitions for such elites, and in the rights given to that elite to rule over the others. In the national case, at least the ruled have, in principle, the right to rebel against the elite if badly run, but in the international case, not even such a notional recourse is envisaged.


At both levels, it is thus an extraordinary elitist and unequal order that, so that it might function, has to rely either on exercise of brute power that would keep pacified the domestic “helots” and foreign “barbarians”, or an extremely unlikely acceptance of inferiority by the domestic subjects and the foreign yi. Perhaps this unequal order had some chances to be accepted, tacitly or not, thousands of years ago, but it has (close to) zero chance to be accepted today. Luckily.

Sunday, March 31, 2024

Should poor countries remain poor?


    The Industrial Revolution in North-Western Europe, studied in innumerable papers and books, happened largely “endogenously” by building upon the Commercial Revolution of the Middle Ages, putting science to direct economic use and creating new technologies. The Industrial Revolution in one corner of the world had been however accompanied, or perhaps even accelerated, by the four “bad” developments elsewhere.


    The first was colonization of many non-European parts of the world. European nations imposed political control over most of Africa, Asia, and Oceania, and employed it to exploit natural resources and cheap (or forced) domestic labor. This is the so-called “unrequited transfers” whose extent is widely debated although there is no doubt that it was substantial. Angus Maddison puts it, from India to the UK, and from Java to the Netherlands, between 1 and 10 percent of the colonies’ GDP per year. Utsa Patnaik thinks that it was much larger and that it contributed significantly to the British take-off by funding up to 1/3 of funds used for investment.


    The second “bad” was trans-Atlantic slavery  that added to the profits of those who controlled the trade (mostly merchants in Europe and the US), and those who used the transported slaves in plantations in Barbados, Haiti, Southern United States, Brazil etc. This was clearly another huge “unrequited” transfer of value.


    The third “bad”, as argued by Paul Bairoch and Angus Maddison among others, was that Northern countries discouraged technological advances elsewhere by imposing rules favoring themselves (bans on production of processed goods, Acts of Navigation, monopsony power, control of internal trade and national finances etc.). They are summarized in the term “colonial contract” coined by Paul Bairoch. Countries as diverse as India, China, Egypt and Madagascar come under this heading. “Deindustrialization and the fact that profits from exports have probably been appropriated by the foreign intermediaries have caused a catastrophic decline in the standard of living of the Indian masses.” (Paul Bairoch, De Jericho à Mexico, p. 514)


    These “bads” have been, and continue to be, debated and while learning about each of them is to be encouraged, they do not have direct political or financial consequences on today’s world. The ideas, floated from time to time, for monetary compensation for such ills are far-fetched and unrealizable. Nor is there any ability to clearly identify the “culprits” and the “victims”.


    However this is not the case with the fourth “bad”, the accumulation of CO2 in the atmosphere, and thus climate change, which is largely the product of industrial development. The fourth “bad” is today’s problem. It is not a simple past injustice that can be studied and debated, but regarding which nothing else can be done. The reason is that fresh industrial production continues to add to the problem of climate change. To the extent that the former Third World nations are now in the process of catching up with the “old” rich world, it is the fast-industrializing countries in Asia, as well as those who have recently discovered large deposits of oil (like Guyana), who may be significantly adding to the stock of CO2. Certainly, much more than they have done in the past. China, for example, is today the largest emitter of CO2. (It is not at all obvious that countries should be the main “parties” to this problem because it is the rich people who are the most important emitters. This is an issue I discussed here, and that for now, I leave out.)


    If newly developing countries are then held responsible for their share of annual emissions (that is, for their share in the annual “flow” of emissions) as if the responsibility for the previous “stock” of emissions does not matter, this would slow the growth of the new industrializing countries and impose unjust costs on them. The emissions that exist are a “stock” problem. It is because in the past, the world, i.e. the currently rich countries, have made so many emissions that we face the problem today. In other words, climate change cannot be treated as a “flow” problem alone, and not even primarily so.


    This holds especially true for countries that are poor today and that have not contributed to the emissions in the past. Shaming them means slowing their growth and undermining poverty reduction in the world. A poor country that is emitting 100 units of CO2 this year cannot be treated as a rich country that is emitting 100 units of CO2 this year. The rich country is more responsible because of its past emissions. (Whether the net accumulated stock of its emissions is directly proportional to its today’s GDP I do not know—but that it is positively correlated is acknowledged by all.) Thus, by any concept of fairness, the rich country would either have to commit to much lower absolute annual emissions than a poor country (which by itself would reduce income of the rich country) or to compensate poor country for all the income that it would have made through oil production or industrial output that it forgoes in order to reduce emissions.


    Rich countries would either have to emit (on per capita basis) much less than poor or developing countries –ideally, in proportion to which they are responsible for the “stock” of emissions—or to compensate poor countries for any loss of income that comes from voluntary reduction of production.  


    This means that rich countries must either reduce their income levels, or transfer significant resources to the developing countries. Neither is politically feasible. The first scenario would imply GDP per capita reductions of a third or more. No political party in the West can win votes by suggesting income declines that exceed several times those experienced during the 2007-08 recession. The second scenario is likewise unlikely since it would involve open-ended transfers of billions if not trillions of dollars.


    As rich countries cannot do either of these two things, and wish to maintain some moral high ground by speaking about the problem, we are treated to the spectacles like the recent interview on BBC where the President of Guyana was lectured about the possibility of Guyana emitting millions of tons of CO2 into atmosphere if its new oil deposits are exploited. Before the recent discovery of oil, Guyana’s per capita GDP was some $6,000 or in PPP terms about $12,000; the first number is one-eighth of that for the United Kingdom, the second, a fourth. Guyana’s life expectancy is 10 years less than that of the UK and the average number of years of schooling 8.5 vs. 12.9 in the UK.

    The conclusion is thus: if rich countries are unwilling to do anything meaningful to address climate change and their responsibility for it, they should not use moral grand-standing to stop others from developing. Otherwise, one’s seeming concern with the “world” is just a way to shift the conversation and to maintain many people in abject poverty. It is logically impossible to (a) hold moral high ground, (b) to do nothing in response to past responsibilities; and (c) to claim to be in favor of global poverty reduction.