Thursday, 30 June 2005

Three Huge Challenges

Power imbalances in human society have always existed and will never go away.

Realizing that truth is no excuse for ignoring the resultant injustices or not working to fix them.

The extent of those power imbalances certainly has seen substantial fluctuation over history and across geographies, but the work of those who have sought to rectify injustice through non-violent means has ushered in the periods of greatest stability and prosperity. When violence has been the source of rectifying imbalances, more often than not the resultant power shift has not resulted in a levelling of power, but simply the supplanting of one powerful minority with another.

The American experiment in Democracy was unique it seems, in that there was an effort after a violent revolution to establish a system of checks and balances as a protection against any one faction from gaining too much power and hence abusing that power. The system was far from perfect, and did not stop the genocide of the native peoples which was going on, nor the horrific enslavement of humans from another continent. But in time the system accommodated progressive modifications which did eliminate slavery (sadly not without a great deal of bloodshed), and brought stepwise improvements in the lot and political voice of minorities, women, laborers and others who faced oppression and obstacles to self-realization.

When Americans are stirred to emotional patriotism, it isn't usually checks & balances which they are thinking of. But those checks and balances are the mechanisms that lie at the heart of our having been able to sustain, and indeed improve on, the ideals of freedom, dignity, opportunity, representation, and participation for all, which we like to see as the heart of our republic.

Egalitarianism, while a nice concept, should not be the goal here. Hierarchies, which by their nature enforce some power imbalance, can be very effective at helping organizations, large and small, function more efficiently. Robert Fuller in Somebodies and Nobodies: Overcoming the Abuse of Rank (which arrived mysteriously in our mailbox a few months ago) writes:
Greater efficiency and productivity follow when we get the right person into the right job. To remain successful, an organization must appraise personnel continuously and accurately. Selectivity is predicated on ranking; without it, choice would simply be random. Within each niche where it has been earned, rank has proven utility, legitimacy, and deserves our respect.
and:
The problem isn't that rank counts. When it signifies excellence, rank should count and it does. The trouble is that rank counts twice. No sooner is rank assigned than holders of higher rank can use their newfound power to aggrandize themselves at the expense of those of lower ranks. Although some exercise their rank properly -- within their area of competence and in a way that respects the dignity of those under their authority -- others do not.
Clearly the greater the imbalance of power any system establishes, whether between individuals or between larger entities, the more likely that power will be abused, and abused terribly. Fuller refers to the overarching problem as rankism, subsuming the many other isms such as racism and sexism, and rather than seeing egalitarianism as the goal, calls for a dignitarian movement, in which we insist that all our fellow humans be accorded the dignity that they deserve.

Affronts to dignity, it can be argued, are at the core of much of the violence and abuse we see in the world today. The most powerful are usually shielded from the worst behavior, as their status allows them to behave civilly in a seeming civilized environment, reinforcing their belief that they are worthy of their status, while the awful behavior reported in the underclasses or in other less well-to-do nations shows that others are not. But gross power imbalances are a cancer on organizations and society as status protects itself, and merit becomes less and less important in determining that status. Deserving individuals are denied the opportunity to contribute and may behave destructively out of frustration, instead of contributing their talents for the good of their communities.

America's attempt at meritocracy, complete with governmental checks and balances which have functioned to limit gross power imbalances, is the foundation of her success at innovation and invention, as opportunity has been afforded to far more individuals than would otherwise have been the case, and the whole of society -- including those at the top -- and indeed much of the rest of the world has benefited. No nation, however, is immune from threats to its own system of checks and balances, and vigilance is required, both to retain those balancing factors which are already in place, and to identify new sources of power imbalance which may call for new systems of checks and balances to be created.

There will always be resistance to any new restraints on power, but remembering that the restraints need not level the playing field, but simply circumscribe the power to keep it in check, reasonable people can be convinced of its necessity, and violence should not be necessary. For our government, the task is primarily to keep the checks and balances in place. It is for this reason that an arcane device, such as the filibuster, which seems odd in its own right, is worth protecting when we edge toward one-party rule. While I am certainly concerned about what is happening politically here as the Republicans attempt to consolidate their power, it concerns me less than three other power imbalances currently operating which do not have as much built in checks and balances to counter them.

Multinational corporations are accruing phenomenal power and influence, which I believe calls for new measures to keep that power in check so that they can serve rather than exploit the rest of humanity. This is one of the largest tasks that the world needs to take on in the coming century, and the answers are far from obvious to me. What does seem clear to me is that free market forces are not sufficient to circumscribe that power, and that a Marxist solution is even worse, as it simply transfers that power to the guardians of the revolution, where it is even more concentrated.

Globalization also forces upon us the ill consequences of gross power inequities in other nations, where despotism drains resources, spreads disease, and leads to unspeakable human suffering which should draw our attention in its own right. Creating a humane mechanism for non-military regime changes in which despots are forced out of power without the ravages of war should be a paramount goal. This is not easy, but there are surely steps that can be taken. Refusing to harbor the assets of the despots, such as in Swiss bank accounts, might be a good place to begin.

Finally, America should not be surprised if the rest of the world wants to take steps to circumscribe her power, which unfortunately has come to depend to too large an extent on the exploitation of people and resources in foreign lands. People will wrongly question my patriotism for saying so, but we should welcome checks on our own power and wealth, because without them the terror threat from others will only grow. We cannot indefinitely continue to drain the world's resources to feed our appetites, without expecting violent reactions from abroad. We can live more simply while leveraging technology to continue to live comfortable lives and provide more comfort to those in the developing world, and we may find our lives more rewarding in the process. There will still be terrorists in any case, but we can guarantee that their numbers will explode if we do not take an active role in solving sustainability for the whole planet, which with China's demands exploding, must happen fast. This I believe is our great opportunity, and can yet be our salvation, but it will require a bold new humility, combining technological innovation with sacrifice, but as Jimmy Carter could testify, it will be a mighty tough sell with the American people.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Most of the 'third world countries' that you are talking about, are that way because of the Thugs running them. Look at the Billions of dollars that have been poured into Africa over the years, what good has it done? The money gets siphoned off by the thugs in charge and the people barely get enough to live on. Why? Because that way we will continue to send money and supplies to these thugs. Not to mention the way that this aid crushes any chance of free market trade between the people to build up an economy. How do you create something to sell (clothes, etc) if it is going to be shipped in and passed out for free?

There are catastrophies that occur and do need our help and aid, but when you take over subsidising an entire contenent without any reforms in their government, you only exeracerbate the problem and give the thugs more power over them.

Walker said...

Anonymous,
Not sure whether you are agreeing or arguing, but certainly I agree that "third world thuggery" is a huge problem. Note the title of my post was "Three Huge Challenges", and what makes them huge is the difficulty of solving them. One of the problems I identified is despotism. What do you think of the idea of holding Swiss banks to account for providing the means for these thugs to store the assets which they steal from their countries? I make no claim that such a move by itself will overturn the despots, but if we presume to represent the free world, the least we can do is to refuse to enable and abet the despicable behavior of opportunists who put their own luxuries above the lives and well being of their own people.

I also believe that those who promote "fair trade" practices are onto something, as the current spate of free trade agreements are invariably skewed to retain the current power imbalances among the nations, and serve to exacerbate the expoitation and mistreatment of the lower classes in other nations.

I do not believe that throwing our hands up in the face of third world corruption and doing nothing is a defensible response. As always, I believe in choosing hope, in spite of long odds.

(P.S. Though I will never require it, I would appreciate it if anonymous posters would identify themselves in some way at the end of their post. I know that blogger's requirement of creating a blog in order to generate an automatic identity is annoying, but it does work to prevent spam comments.)

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