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Wisdom Letter #35 | The one about the "isms"
“In times of a pandemic, everyone’s a socialist”
There’s a certain ring of truth to that quote. When we are in a crisis of this scale we all rely on our governments to take care of us.
We want the state to have more power, and more access so that it can infringe on some of our rights to take care of the greater good of the nation. Right?
We want the state to dole out more welfare schemes that take care of the unlucky ones among us, its okay if the prosperous few have to empty their pockets just a little bit extra to help support that endeavor. After all, its the state that enabled their path to this prosperity. Right?
And no, we don’t want free market competition right now, that will be the death of an already struggling economy. Right?
There’s a narrative brewing around the world right now, that an authoritarian communist system (China) is better suited to deal with a large scale pandemic than a democratic system based on free market economics (US of A).
By the time this crisis is over, there’s a good chance that most of the world would have moved many inches left on the political scale. In fact, the methods and systems we will have to build to tackle this crisis will ensure that the state gets more and more power. And we know, once a state grabs some power, its nearly impossible to wrest it back.
A small example of this are the contact tracing apps developed by various governments.
They have been criticized of collecting more data than necessary to do their jobs. These apps are exactly the kind of tool that will enable problematic surveillance states in the future.
But who can question the government right now on the nuance of which permissions its app “needs” to do effective contract tracing, and which permissions its actually taking unnecessarily which I am uncomfortable with.
As I said — “In times of a pandemic, everyone’s a socialist”.
And naive socialism believes in the idea of an incorruptible state with more and more power for enabling the greater good.
An idea is not very different from a virus.
It has the power to spread far and wide, and spread fast. It can take over the world in a matter of a few days. And sometimes even the whole of humanity combined can find it hard to come out of the shackles of the idea.
I think by the time the Corona Virus is under control, the idea of Socialism will be well and truly on its way to spreading far and wide into the world. Its an idea that has been around for a few centuries and has already been tried, tested and failed in multiple iterations in multiple countries. (Including India)
Every new generation still finds it seductive and falls into the Utopian dreams that socialism promises. (By the way, the Millennial Socialists are also coming.)
But is it really that bad?
And what are our alternatives?
And what exactly goes on in China? Is it Socialism? Or Communism, Capitalism, Authoritarianism ? Or something else? How did China get to where it is today, how did it become one of the most powerful economies in the world within a couple of generations?
Today on The Wisdom Project, we explore the “isms” being used around the world to drive policy. We rekindle the age old “socialism vs capitalism” debate in a new light. And we try to understand a much misrepresented value system that very few people actually get — Libertarianism.
The History of ‘-isms’
If we look at the history of the last couple of hundred years one conclusion that can be easily drawn is that western style free market democracy is the best way to run a country. It leads to economic prosperity and brings the poorest of the poor out of misery.
But that stand is debatable. History also tells us that Capitalism often leads to economic disparity in a society and causes more unrest among the classes. It does bring prosperity, but only to a few at the cost of the many.
And as we have discussed before, the current form of western capitalism might not be good for a sustainable planet in the long run.
Singapore and China offer interesting alternatives to western capitalism. They still encourage industry and corporations to innovate and produce value while making sure that lowest rungs of society also rise up.
The only problem, they are authoritative, China absolutely, and Singapore partly. But it may feel like a problem only to us, because of our western world view.
Its very hard to strike the right balance between the right economics and politics to achieve long term, prosperous sustainable growth.
Check out this Video from the guys at Crash Course that throws more light on these ideas.
An Old debate in a new light
So its clear that both Socialism and Capitalism have their own set of problems and its also clear that neither can work in the long term to build the kind of world that we need to build.
Both of these systems came out of the industrial age and were based on ideas of labour and capital that suited the factory era discourse.
The discourse today has moved into a knowledge economy, and cares a lot more about conversations around the environment and gender equality and homosexuality.
Its a new world we are entering, and its also a new world we will be building as we go along. It demands a completely new set of ideals to strive to.
We will need to rid ourselves of measures such as GDP and GNP. We will need to redefine what we call productivity. A lot more weightage needs to be given to the quality of human life, to happiness and well-being of individuals of a society.
This article from Quartz proposes just that. It argues that the new world will need a new “ism” and it will incorporate the best of both capitalism and socialism while redefining what we mean by growth of a country and an individual.
Its an interesting idea, and something worth discussing about while we strive to unravel what the world of the future will look like.
Check it out —
Also checkout this cool RAP battle between Karl Marx and Ludwig Von Mises from the guys at American Institute Economic Research. Its funny, catchy and so relevant to this eternal battle between these two ideologies, its a must watch —
Of Individual Rights
What do you think should be the relationship between the state and the citizen?
Does the state exist for the well-being of the individual? Or does the individual exist for the progress of the state?
Amit Varma is an Indian journalist, podcaster and self reported 1 of 2.5 libertarians in India. Libertarianism apart from being difficult to pronounce and hard to spell is also quite a misunderstood ideology.
Its also called classical liberalism by the academics today because the word “liberal” has become more of a cuss word these days.
Its defined mainly as a system where we value individual freedom and rights above anything else. Amit argues that in its ideal form there should be no need of the state at all. There should only be free prosperous individuals living in perfect harmony fulfilling each others needs.
Yet the paradox of classical liberalism is that you need a basic minimum government with some power to ensure that all individuals rights are protected. For example, the government needs to have a monopoly on violence to ensure the right to life of the entire citizenry.
These principles apply widely to many debates we are having as a society today. Right from our freedom of expression, to our freedom of sexual orientation, our freedom of privacy of our biometric data.
Listen to this podcast from Amit Varma’s show The Seen and the Unseen, he explains that libertarianism ultimately comes down to one word: consent.
These ideas are also applicable to a lot of economic conundrums we face in times of crises such as recessions and depressions.
Almost after every recession we provide bailout packages and stimuluses to protect large corporations. We artificially foster demand by printing more money which ultimately sows the seeds of the next downturn.
As classical liberal thinker FA Hayek would say, we should let organic economies run their course, companies to go bankrupt, that is the right way to weed out inefficiencies in a market and build a sustainable long term system.
Its hard to pick a side when the stakes are so high. To understand the issue better watch these two really cool RAP battles between John Maynard Keynes and FA Hayek. These are produced by the guys at Emergent Order.
China as we know care very little about individual rights and freedom. In a communist regime, people are a resource to be used for the progress of the state.
But we know very little of how the communist party of China functions. We have all heard the rumours of the corruption and we know for sure about the authoritarian practices. But we hardly know how it actually functions.
How has it been able to bring more than 650 million people out of poverty in just 30 years? How does it churn out such efficient administrators one after that other that help it run such a large country so efficiently?
The current containment of casualties due to COVID19 in China is also a testimony to the party’s well oiled machinery.
Checkout this Ted Talk from 2013, where Chinese political scientists Eric Li explains the inner workings of the party. He also makes an interesting point that there need not be just a single way to rule a modern nation.
Towards the end he also explains that the success of China does not mean that it is an alternative to democracy, instead its just a demonstration of the fact that there are alternatives.
What political system a country works with should be customised according to its own culture and sensibilities and the relevance of the times. There is no one system that we must all aspire to achieve, instead we should aspire to invent our own systems that help us function to our full potential.
Checkout the Talk, its very interesting, informative and provocative—
Signing off for the weekend, here’s a quote worth pondering.
“The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong are more powerful than is commonly understood.
... Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually slaves of some defunct economist.”
-John Maynard Keynes | British Economist| 1883-1946
The world needs ideas to function as an ordered society. Like it or not, its run by one idea or the other. Living in the 21st century even ordinary citizens like us have been given the responsibility to make the world in our own image and ideals.
We are more connected as a society than ever before. Ideas can spread more rapidly today than ever before, and now when we have the privilege to be writing and reading on the internet, it behooves us to spread and discuss ideas that we think would make the world a better place.
China has already given the virus to the world, and we might all see its socialist ideas also creeping up around us gradually. Yes, authoritarianism gives quick levers to control a pandemic, but this should not become an excuse for governments across the world to abuse the powers they have gained in this crisis.
We must also realize that communist authoritarianism does not give us the freedom under which spontaneous innovation thrives. It does not provide the freedom to fail that is necessary to create a new world that we need to.
China may have contained the virus, but its highly likely that the vaccine will be invented by one of the ventures from the stable of Bill Gates than of Xi Jin Ping.
Think about it.
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This was Wisdom Letter #35. In case you want to revisit any of the previous 34 letters, checkout our entire archive.
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