China: Government of the People, by the People and for the People
This essay began as an effort to discover what China’s communist leaders might have to learn from the French Revolution. But the Chinese government seems to be making policy that reduces, rather than exacerbates, the revolutionizing effects of unequal class privileges. The new conservative Chinese leaders will seek first of all to “conserve” the status quo political structure with them on top. If they fear peasant revolt, then this requires keeping the Chinese economy working in ways that satisfy the needs of the Chinese people.
So if this requires a shift away from China’s investment and export driven “status quo” economic model that favors the more wealthy business class, to a more domestic consumption model that favors the masses, I think the “conservatives” will take this course. China’s biggest export markets, Europe and America, are in or near recession and demand for Chinese imports is declining. I don’t think emerging markets can take up the demand slack.
So the investment and export heavy growth model may have run its course in any event, necessitating a shift to a more domestic growth model. Which is what China’s “reformers” are advocating, and what de Tocqueville might advise to a central government that does not want to give its people political freedom but nevertheless wants to enjoy legitimacy among the governed. Unite them in righteous war against an evil foe; or offer them the prospect of getting richer. These are ways that centralized governments can placate their people’s lack of political freedom.
Morality, Good People and Bad Government
de Tocqueville observes that none but a moral people is capable of political freedom and self government, but morality is not enough. Good institutions are also required. Even people governed by bad institutions can be good people if they are guided by good morals. de Tocqueville writes,
“The men of the eighteenth century were strangers to that passionate love for ease which is the mother of servitude; which, equally tame and tenacious, combines with several of the private virtues, such as family affection, regular habits, respect for religion, lukewarm but assiduous devotional habits; which tolerates honesty, and justifies heroism, and is remarkably successful in producing respectable men and cowardly citizens. They were better and worse.”
Debilitating Passions and Despotism
A people who lack stable political and social institutions (including religion or a guiding philosophy of the morally good life) and who pursue wealth and ease as the highest and only good, will be ruled by power,
“In societies of this stamp, in which there are no fixed landmarks, every man is constantly spurred on by a desire to rise and a fear of falling. And as money, which is the chief mark by which men are classified and divided one from the other, fluctuates incessantly, passes from hand to hand, alters the rank of individuals, raises families here, lowers them there, every one is forced to make constant and desperate efforts to acquire or retain it. Hence the ruling passions become a desire for wealth at all cost, a taste for business, a love of gain, and a liking for comfort and material pleasures. These passions pervade all classes, not excepting those which have hitherto been strangers to them. If they are not checked they will soon enervate and degrade them all. Now, it is essential to despotism to encourage and foster them. Debilitating passions are its natural allies; they serve to divert attention from public affairs, and render the very name of revolution terrible. Despotism alone can supply the secrecy and darkness which cupidity requires to be at ease, and which embolden men to brave dishonor for the sake of fraudulent gain. These passions would have been strong in the absence of despotism: with its aid they are paramount.”
Incorruptible Systems of Government
“Government…is a dangerous tool and a fearful master“, said George Washington.
There can be no incorruptible “systems” of government, because all systems are invented and operated by imperfect men. But it cannot be reasonably denied that mass society with large scale, industry dominating economic enterprises that effectively oligopolize entire market sectors and shut out independent small producers, and high density city living, needs government. Individual self sufficiency and the exercise of individual liberty is either extremely constrained or impossible in environments where every space is owned by somebody and people are bumping up against other people’s behaviors and values and interests all the time. “There oughta be a law”, enforced by bureaucrats against every trifling inconvenience inadvertently inflicted by some citizen upon a state pacified whiner, is the death of individual liberty.
Contrary to the Enlightenment ideal, reasonable men cannot always come to a mutually acceptable agreement on a matter where one or the other interest must prevail. Dueling is out of fashion, as is ordinary murder and conquest. So people invoke the judgment and force of government to make laws and decide the case and, if grudgingly, abide by the decision. It’s not perfect. What is?
Liberty and Security
It is not true that the masses of people prefer political liberty to security. Personal and political liberty can only be exercised within mass society from a position of wealth and/or power, unless we choose to glibly perceive homeless indigents as “carefree vagabonds”. Or call voting to elect one or another leader who has been carefully groomed by elites to serve their interests “the exercise of political liberty”. Wage labor and debt peonage can hardly be called “liberty”, even if the peasants are allowed to vote. Security may be as illusory to these people as is their liberty, but they know they are not free and only discover their lack of security if their boss or government fails to deliver as promised.
Thomas Hobbes, an Englishman of the 17th century, believed a people need an all powerful governing Leviathan “to keep them all in awe”. He held the decidedly un-Romantic view that life in a state of nature is “nasty, brutish and short”. Perhaps the norm, if such a concept is applicable to the vicissitudes of human societies and histories, is somewhere between Hobbes and Rousseau. An enlightened tyranny can create wider opportunities for personal liberty, of ALL classes, than would a corrupted republic or democracy whose leaders seek to serve themselves at the expense of the powerless.
I don’t think China is going to choose democracy. I don’t think they should. The people can see and know who their communist rulers are, who has power to mold the broad outlines, and at the local level impose the narrow confines, of Chinese economic life, to open or close opportunity to them. They know exactly who to blame for injustices they suffer at the hands of power, and if there is equality before the law, they can get recourse.
Anyway, how does one politically rule his “self” within a unified nation of 1.3 billion other selves whose values and interests are usually divergent from one’s own? Democracy would be a worse disaster in China than it was in France. I don’t think China’s leaders will allow conditions to get so bad for the masses that it will come to revolution by people who have no understanding of how to govern. The leaders are reading de Tocqueville. They know better than to let that happen.
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About the Author
Derryl Hermanutz: “My academic background is in philosophy and political economy, but since 1978 I have made my living in small business so I consider myself a free enterpriser and a “worker” (though “owning” and “managing” are also part of being in business). I began studying monetary systems after the 1982 crash that was precipitated by the Mexican default. Most people are not aware that most of the big American (and Canadian) banks were rendered technically insolvent by their Latin loan losses, just as American banks are currently insolvent due to real estate value declines. I began blogging about monetary reform after the 2008 crash and have been happy to encounter a wide and varied movement promoting understanding of our money system and why its current operation generates the perverse outcomes we are suffering today.”