Friday, September 20, 2013

New Hopes for a Changing World, End of the Second Period

The first section of New Hopes for a Changing World takes on the conflict between Man and Nature; the now-completed (by RBR) second section looks at the conflict between Man and Man. In this section, Russell sees technological and military considerations as raising the optimal size of social units, but he recognizes nationalism as an important counterforce; perhaps the upcoming Scottish independence referendum is a case in point. 

Nobel prize-winning economist Ronald Coase passed away earlier this month. Some of Coase’s best known work parallels Russell’s analysis of the size of social units. In his 1937 article “The Nature of the Firm,” Coase looks into the optimal size of corporations in a market economy – and like Russell, sees that agency problems, the difficulty of controlling large numbers of people through centralized commands, are a limiting factor. Further, though a rather staunch free-market thinker, Coase does not have a strong commitment to the notion that individuals make their decisions in a rational fashion.  (Russell points to substantial free trade zones as one of the advantages that accrue to large nations.) Russell’s observation that biased education leads to overly optimistic views of military adventures – and hence to even more war – perhaps would have been agreeable to Coase. I wonder if Coase, who was British (and was born in 1910), ever met Russell?

Russell sees the formation of the rule of law in Marxian terms, as the establishment of the rule of the powerful. (From The Communist Manifesto: “Your very ideas are but the outgrowth of the conditions of your bourgeois production and bourgeois property, just as your jurisprudence is but the will of your class made into a law for all, a will, whose essential character and direction are determined by the economical conditions of existence of your class….The ruling ideas of each age have ever been the ideas of its ruling class.” From Russell: “Property, in fact, is what the dominant political group chooses that it should be [p. 78].”) But order probably is better than anarchy, and offers the potential for transition to more democratic systems. World Government might have to follow from the usual historical pattern, where it is imposed by one or more powerful nations, but eventually develops independent legitimacy. The Marxian notion that class struggle will disappear following a revolution is a mirage, in part because the negative motivations that underlie Marx’s thinking will survive the revolution.

Communist-style ideas of full equality would lead to poor consequences, as socially beneficial acts would not be sufficiently incentivized, nor socially detrimental acts deterred. But this is only a theoretical concern, as the departures from equality currently are so severe that they themselves lead to inferior consequences, chiefly social instability. No justice, no peace, Russell seems to say, both within a nation and at the international level. So economic development of the currently poorer countries is necessary for global stability and for curtailing racial animus.

Russell uses historically-informed logic to make his case for World Government (Chapter 11). A global system of competitive nation states has always brought war. While the payoff to winners from a war has diminished, or become negative, the overall danger from war has increased with more terrible weaponry. We cannot maintain the old system of nation-states if we are to have a good chance of survival. Hence, we need an armed world government, one that will punish any militarily aggressive states. Russell does not examine the difficulty in determining which state is the aggressor, but there is some ambiguity even in seemingly obvious cases like World War II, and virtually all military adventures are characterized, and not without some justification, as humanitarian.

Three sources of human strife that must be neutralized to give peace a chance are economic, racial, and ideological conflicts. The spread of toleration and enlightenment can help to reduce these conflicts, especially in the face of the rising toll that even a winning war brings. (Enlightened economic self-interest would even indicate a cooperative, altrusitic approach towards other countries.) Marxism in practice is intolerant of the bourgeoisie, who thus respond with equal intolerance when Marxism gathers a following. In some sense, this second section of New Hopes for a Changing World is focused on anti-dogmatism – also the focus of Unpopular Essays, which was published only one year earlier.

Russell holds Keynes’s approach to macroeconomic policy in high esteem, believing that it offers a serviceable cure for sustained unemployment. Russell is in good company, even if the Keynesian solution no longer holds the same luster.  Russell’s encapsulation of macroeconomic distress as arising when private interest undermines the public interest (as with Keynes’s Paradox of Thrift) continues to be relevant, as does his recognition of the tendency of capitalism to evolve into state capitalism.

Russell foresaw the post-war economic renaissance in western Europe. along with the (eventual) softening inside Russia – although the emergence of a world government in the wake of the end of the cold war did not come to pass. Nonetheless, the international human rights project, which was all but non-existent when New Hopes was penned, has come a long way, and is helping to improve the situation for once (and sometimes still) marginalized groups like women and gays.

Despite his criticism of Marx and Lenin, Russell’s vision of the future involves a major role for a vanguard, which comprises some scientists and others devoted to world economic development, as well as sane, anti-dogmatic humanitarians; their work and example can help make today’s new hopes into tomorrow’s realities.

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