Friday, February 5, 2010

Does the concept of national character make sense?

In my last post I noted that J S Mill argued that Jeremy Bentham did not qualify as a ‘true teacher of social arrangements’ because he was unable to point out how ‘national character’ ... ‘can be improved, and how it has been made what it is’.

It is clear that Mill saw national character as fundamental to human flourishing: ‘That which alone causes any material interests to exist, which alone enables any body of human beings to exist as a society, is national character: that it is, which causes one nation to succeed in what it attempts, another to fail; one nation to understand and aspire to elevated things, another to grovel in mean ones; which makes the greatness of one nation lasting, and dooms another to early and rapid decay’ (Bentham, 1838).

What is national character? A few years earlier, Mill had provided a sketchy outline of factors influencing national character in the context of considering the limitations of Bentham’s approach. He wrote: ‘A theory, therefore, which considers little in an action besides that action’s own consequences, will generally be sufficient to serve the purposes of a philosophy of legislation. Such a philosophy will be most apt to fail in the consideration of the greater social questions—the theory of organic institutions and general forms of polity; for those (unlike the details of legislation) to be duly estimated, must be viewed as the great instruments of forming the national character; of carrying forward the members of the community towards perfection, or preserving them from degeneracy’ (Remarks on Bentham’s philosophy, 1833).

What Mill had in mind in writing about national character seems to involve, among other things, what Douglass North has referred to as informal institutions or informal constraints. North’s institutional economics does not attempt to provide the explanation of national character that Mill criticized Bentham for not providing. By focusing explicitly on institutions, however, North has been able to make substantial advances towards a framework for analysis of social progress.

North writes: ‘In our daily interaction with others, whether within the family, in external social relations, or in business activities, the governing structure is overwhelmingly defined by codes of conduct, norms of behavior, and conventions’ (‘Institutions, Institutional Change and Economic Performance’, 1990: 36). He has explained the influence of such informal institutions on economic performance in the following terms: ‘Effective traditions of hard work, honesty and integrity simply lower the cost of transacting and make possible complex productive exchange. Such traditions are always reinforced by ideologies that undergird those attitudes’ (p 138).

Where do these ideologies come from? North suggests that our subjective perceptions ‘are continually being filtered through existing (culturally determined) mental constructs’. (p.183). At the level of the individual, ideological change can occur in a variety of ways. For example, it can occur as a consequence of changes in economic conditions that cause people to change their mental models of how the world works, changes in communications costs that influence how easily people can share their values and perceptions with others, and through institutional changes that influence the cost of expressing convictions that are at variance with conventional wisdom.

It seems to me that North provides a useful framework in which to consider the concerns that Mill expressed about mass media leading to the ‘growing insignificance of the individual in the mass’ which ‘corrupts the very foundation on the improvement of public opinion itself’ (See: Are J S Mill’s view about progress still relevant today?). Mill was concerned that the growth of the mass media would result in the weakening of ‘the influence of the more cultivated few over the many’. Paradoxically, those whom Mill would have viewed as ‘cultivated’ - people like himself - subsequently had a strong influence on public opinion on issues such as slavery and the emancipation of women. Nevertheless, I doubt whether Mill would consider that there has been much improvement in ‘national character’ since his time.

Mill’s approach seems quaint today because he was asserting that the views of a particular class of educated people should be considered to be cultivated and set above those of others. In my view he was right to recognize that some opinions deserve more respect than others but it is up to individual members of the public to decide for themselves whose views deserve respect.

Even if the public could be confident that opinions of experts are founded on a basic respect for truth there would remain the huge problem in choosing between conflicting expert opinions on complex topical issues. How can differing expert views be evaluated in a context which informs public opinion and discourages intervention by those seeking to confuse issues for economic or political advantage? How can the informal rules of the game of public discussion of topical issues be improved to encourage the development of public attitudes on public policy issues that are consistent with widely-accepted ethical values? Can the informal rules be changed so that overt populism is exposed in the media as disrespect for the intelligence of the public rather than viewed as clever politics? What changes in the rules of the game would encourage Australia's political leaders to make thoughtful contributions rather than presenting inane gibberish under headings designed to convey the impression that they are preparing for challenges of the future?

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