Saturday, March 16, 2013

New Hopes for a Changing World, Chapter Seven

“The Size of Social Units,” pages 59-66

Technical and psychological factors determine the size of social units. Psychological factors tend to constrain optimal extension before technical scale economies have been exhausted. The technical tradeoff is that larger organizations bring more people into cooperation, but large size begins to compromise unity. “Where Governments are concerned, the essential condition is that it must be possible to transmit orders and troops from the center in less time than it takes to organize a revolt [p. 59].” Traditionally, roads were the determining factor, but they have since been eclipsed by railways. Both the railroad and the telegraph greatly enlarged optimal state sizes – and then the plane came along. “A journey from London to Sydney is now a no more serious undertaking than a journey from London to Edinburgh was two hundred years ago [p. 60].”

Soon, any state will be able to attack any other state almost instantaneously. The optimal size of states has grown, and might be limitless, because military power requires huge and dispersed resources. [Adam Smith noted in The Wealth of Nations (V.1.43) how the invention of firearms tilted the military advantage to rich nations: “In modern war the great expence of fire-arms gives an evident advantage to the nation which can best afford that expence, and consequently to an opulent and civilized over a poor and barbarous nation. In ancient times the opulent and civilized found it difficult to defend themselves against the poor and barbarous nations. In modern times the poor and barbarous find it difficult to defend themselves against the opulent and civilized. The invention of fire-arms, an invention which at first sight appears to be so pernicious, is certainly favourable both to the permanency and to the extension of civilization.”] And large countries permit large free trade zones, themselves friends to opulence. Multiple countries could establish similarly large zones, but national prejudices seem to preclude them. [Would Bertie’s fondness for world government extend to the EU and WTO?]

In the past, empires generally were unthreatened by nationalistic uprisings, but now they make it very hard to hold power by force alone. “Most moderns accept nationalism as a natural phenomenon and do not realize how new it is [p. 62].” Communism is a powerful force, but it succumbed to nationalism in Yugoslavia. [Odd now to hear tragically multi-national Yugoslavia held up as a beacon of nationalism.]

State power is dominated by nationalism even though the state controls impressive means of propaganda in the press, radio, and schools. “Every child during the impressionable years is exposed to a point of view which, whether avowedly propagandist or not, is always such as might be expected to imbue the child with loyalty to his Government [p. 63].” Where states and nations are equivalent, this control inflates nationalism to new heights. British people today show much more connection to British military success than they did at the time of Nelson. But state propaganda fails when states are opposed to nations, as Britain found in Ireland.

Nationalism is stoked by crude means involving historical falsification and assertions of the moral superiority of the nation in question. Today’s Russian state wants to claim priority in all sorts of old inventions and discoveries, at the expense of Newton, Darwin, and Copernicus. “If men were anxious to live happily they would allow a committee of Unesco to pronounce on all such matters [pp. 63-64].”

Young people around the globe generally are taught history in ways that will lead them to exaggerate their nation’s chances of victory in the next encounter. This over-optimism breeds over-war in the future. Nationalism is the major force driving humanity to extinction. In America, the nationalism of the Republicans is so extreme that they cling to it despite it being obviously counterproductive to their own aims. They choose to insult foreigners whose assistance is requisite in advancing American policy. “The Republicans apparently feel that if America could only prosper by causing other nations to prosper, then it would be better to fail [p. 65].”

Nationalism is not the only bar to social cohesion and to enlightened self-interest. In ancient Greece, strains within city-states between democrats and oligarchs prevented Greek unity. (The Romans soon enough reduced the import of these disputes to the level of neighborhood political spats.) A similar dynamic played out in Renaissance Italy, and modern Western Europe is hosting a revival.

Sadism, the love of cruelty and of seeing some enemy punished, is the psychological barrier to the unity we need to survive. Unity cannot be maintained if the love of cruelty is merely suppressed; rather, it must be extirpated. “It is possible, and in slightly different circumstances it would be easy, to live happily – far more happily indeed than anyone now lives – without malice and hatred and the desire for victory in disastrous contests [p. 66].” But this is a topic postponed until part three, “Man and Himself”.

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