Saturday, July 4, 2009

European Miracle: side thoughts

One of the things I very much enjoyed about reading Eric Jones’ The European Miracle, which I reviewed in my previous post, is the thoughts that were provoked while reading it.

States building nations: one can argue that, in Europe, states built nations at least as much as nations acquired states. Nation-states also rest on the demotic idea that characteristics of ordinary folk (language, ethnicity) matter in their own right, not just in terms of convenience of rule.

Christianity’s institutional influence: It seems likely that Christianity, in particular its institutional manifestation in a powerful, trans-polity Church (which has no equivalent in other civilisations) increased the institutional competitiveness. One could also mount an argument that it encouraged a higher level of requirement of moral duty among rulers (it would only have to be marginally higher to, across centuries, have a significant long-run effect).
By contrast, the key problem of East Asia in particular, and of Asian civilisations in general, was simple:
State and subject were disconnected and the economy was unable to transform the state. (p.253)
Marxism’s baleful influence: clearly, this was utterly disastrous social milieu into which to import the idea that the state should run everything, though one can see how the idea that the state should actually provide services and, at least in theory, care about its people would seem revolutionary and apposite. Conversely, liberal ideas of a limited, service-providing accountable state constrained by other social interests with enforceable rights might as well as been from Mars – or perhaps Venus.

Competitve globalisation: In the modern world, with globalisation, suddenly all states are in the position of competitive pressure which European states used to be in. Hence the shift towards market-friendly policies. Though contemporary European states are leading the charge to reduce/eliminate those same competitive pressure through the global governance agenda. Hopefully, the US will continue to be curmudgeonous about the whole, very bad, idea.

Fluctuations in the representative principle: Jones’s analysis of ruler conciliation of interests accords with the way the representative principle has waxed and waned in Western civilisation since medieval times. The representative principle waxed during the later Middle Ages, as kings balanced against nobles and clergy the burghers whose activities gave them the tax base which allowed them to turn suzerainty (shared jurisdiction and legitimate organised force) into sovereignty (sole jurisdiction and legitimate organised force).

With some exceptions, notably British Isles and the Netherlands, the representative principle then waned again as the continuity of funded monarchical sovereigns overbore the transience of representatives who no longer, even in theory, had independent access to military power. After the American and French Revolutions established the notion of popular sovereignty, and the American Civil War established that representative government could handle the test of great military effort, the representative principle then waxed to its current unparalleled heights.

It now appears to be in decline again. The notion of judicial activism elevates the judicial principle higher, and the representative principle lower. The growth of internationalisation (the increasing tendency for political decisions to be made by international bodies) depresses the representative principle further both directly and through whittling away at national sovereignty – the vehicle for citizen consent. Internationalisation reduces competitive pressures between states while the tendency for the Western intelligentsia to adopt common positions reduces competitive pressures between ideas. Within a framework of coercive decision-making, the less important the representative principle is, the easy de-legitimisation of alternative ideas becomes. Once again, the operation of the representative principle does not buttress the position of the intelligentsia, the operation of non-representative conduits for ideas, particularly coupled with de-legitimisation of alternatives, does.

Property matters: It used to be a commonplace of European thought that property was a key bulwark against tyranny and of a free society. On the other side of the socialist disaster, we can see again that that is so. And it is appalling to contemplate how many lives, how much misery, how much destruction, was caused as a result of the fading of this understanding. Ideas have consequences. How was this understanding lost? It wasn’t through deeper knowledge of other societies: if anything, grasp of the differences faded. It wasn’t through deeper understanding of the history of Western societies – ditto. It seems to have been a destructive sentimentalisation of the prospects for state and revolutionary action tied to a fading in serious, clear-eyed concern for consequences. A fading that continues.

With globalisation (encouraging competition between states) and internationalisation (reducing or eliminating it), much of the ‘progressive’ intelligentsia are backing entirely the wrong horse. What a surprise. Then again, if you are operating on a presumption that the traditions of the West, the most successful of human civilisations, are wrong – i.e. you define virtue against success – you are going to end up backing a lot of failure. If you adopt positions that lead you discount the lessons of history, ditto. The increasing tendency among the Western intelligentsia to adopt outlooks that buttress their own status and social position has frustrated understanding. Which raises the question of why should folk be taxed to pay for that?

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