Thursday, February 15, 2024

What makes a narrative good?

 


I asked myself the question posed above as I was reading Michèle Lamont’s book, Seeing Others, How to Redefine Worth in a Divided World. The passage quoted below seems central to Michèle Lamont’s book:

“The hegemony of the American dream manifests in the emphasis Americans put on neoliberal virtues of material success, self-reliance, individualism, entrepreneurialism, and competitiveness. These criteria of worth have gained more and more influence as “models of ideal selves,” and encourage many to internalize blame for the increasing precarity of their lives. This model can also lead people to seek out a scapegoat group to blame.” (p 31)

Those sentences seem to suggest that neoliberalism encourages people to either internalize blame for misfortune or to seek scapegoat groups to blame.

Internalizing blame

The author doesn’t explain why she believes neoliberalism can cause people to “internalize blame for the increasing precarity of their lives”, but she lists several references in the notes section which may support her claims. The one which seems likely to be most relevant is an article by Glen Adams, Sara Estrada-Villalta, Daniel Sullivan, and Hazel Rose Markus entitled ‘The Psychology of Neoliberalism and the Neoliberalism of Psychology’, Journal of Social Issues 75 (1), 2019.

Adams et al use the term ‘neoliberalism’ to refer to an economic and political movement that came to prominence in the late 1970s, advocating “deregulation of markets and free movement of capital with an emphasis on fluidity and globalization”. Such usage of ‘neoliberalism’ to refer to advocacy of free markets is now common, even though the term was once generally understood to refer to advocacy of left-leaning policies, e.g. a ‘social market economy’, rather than free markets. Like most advocates of free markets, I would prefer to be referred to as a classical liberal or libertarian, but I can usually assume that I am among good company when I am labelled as a neoliberal.

The authors argue that neoliberalism encourages “an entrepreneurial approach to self as an ongoing development project, an imperative for individual growth and personal fulfillment, and an emphasis on affect regulation”. I don’t object to that characterisation. It describes some aspects of the approach to human flourishing in Part III my book, Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing.

However, the authors suggest that neoliberalism also supports psychological “responsibilization” - an ugly word for an ugly concept. The claim they make is that neoliberals advocate that individuals should not only accept personal responsibility for problems which it may be possible to ameliorate through behaviour change (such as obesity and substance abuse) but also to accept responsibility for misfortune more generally.

Neoliberals argue that free markets tend to reward individual effort, but that doesn’t mean that they believe that economic misfortune is always attributable to lack of individual effort. In fact, one of the characteristics of neoliberalism is recognition that social problems of poverty, unemployment etc. are often attributable to foolish government economic policies that are opposed to economic freedom.

I don’t know any neoliberal who would suggest that individuals should “internalize blame” for any disruption of their lives associated with innovation and competition. Neoliberals are more likely to suggest that people who lose jobs or other remuneration because of the disruptive impact of innovation and competition should view such setbacks as beyond their control. The potential for such setbacks is a price that previous generations have willingly paid to enable to enable their descendants to enjoy the benefits of economic growth. Deirdre McCloskey – a prominent classical liberal – has coined the term, ‘bourgeois deal’, to refer to the willingness of people to accept the potential for their lives to be disrupted by innovation and competition in exchange for ongoing expansion of economic opportunities. (See Bourgeois Equality.)

I doubt that many psychologists would suggest that their clients should “internalize” blame for all the bad things that happen to them. When psychologists suggest that individuals should take responsibility for their lives, I am sure that the vast majority would mean that individuals should focus on taking personal responsibility for problems that are within their locus of control.

Who is responsible for the scapegoat narrative?

It took me some time to work out why Michèle Lamont believes that neoliberalism encourages people to seek out scapegoat groups to blame for misfortune. Her reasoning evidently has more to do with her belief that Donald Trump is a neoliberal than with the beliefs of neoliberals.

On the page following the passage quoted above, Lamont writes: 

“From Ronald Reagan to Donald Trump, neoliberalism has come to be understood as a precondition for a successful society”.

I believe that free markets help societies to become and remain successful, but it is hard to understand how anyone could perceive Donald Trump to be an advocate of that view. While in office, Trump administered the final blow to the “neoliberal consensus” on international trade that characterised the post-Cold War period, and he currently favors further restrictions on international trade and international movement of labor.  

Lamont’s claim that neoliberalism encourages people to seek out scapegoat groups to blame seems to rest on the behavior of Donald Trump. She observes that in 2015 former president Trump advanced a false narrative in which immigrants from Mexico were rapists and drug dealers. (pp 51-2). During the 2016 campaign Trump appealed to “America’s forgotten workers” by recognizing their plight and “by blaming globalization and immigration for it”. (p 70)

Lamont also suggests that Trump provided “an empowering narrative” for the working class “who are often perceived as “the losers of the system”. (p 165). Early in the book, she notes:

“Instead of depicting ‘everyday Americans’ as ‘deplorables’, as Hillary Clinton was perceived to do in the 2016 presidential campaign, her opponent Donald Trump affirmed their worth in his various electoral speeches, explaining their loss of social status as a result of globalization and immigration.” (p 8)

Lamont’s narrative

The title of Lamont’s book, “seeing others”, refers to “acknowledging people’s existence and positive worth, actively making them visible and valued, reducing their marginalization, and openly integrating them into a group”. (p 6) She suggests that having one’s sense of worth affirmed “is a universal need that is central to our identity as human beings and our quality of life”. (p 7) She urges that we “bridge boundaries with those who are different” via “ordinary universalism”, or “emphasizing similarities over differences”. (p 144)

I don’t object to those sentiments, and I doubt whether many other neoliberals would either. It is certainly appropriate to recognize that ordinary universalism can be “a vital counterweight” to “Nationalist populism, Islamophobia, and xenophobia” which “are on the rise in many countries”. (p 146) As an advocate of ordinary universalism, however, I think it is unfortunate that the author was not sufficiently “inclusive” to recognize that antisemitism also belongs on that list.  

I also object to the idea that “individualist approaches” to improving wellbeing “may harm more than they help, since they pull people’s attention away from more meaningful efforts”. (p 48) The author seems to be suggesting that excessive attention is given to approaches that help individuals to improve their assessments of their own worth. Instead, she urges:

“We need to ask ourselves hard questions about how we decide who matters and what we can do to create a more inclusive society.”

It seems to me that people who are lacking in regard for their own worth are unlikely to make a positive contribution to ensuring that the worth of others is appropriately recognized.

Much of the book is devoted to a discussion of how it is possible to change hearts and minds in order to reduce stigmatization of marginalized groups, and thus build a more inclusive society. That discussion is largely beyond the scope of this essay.

In Chapter 7, however, the author discusses the result of a survey of the attitudes of Gen Z students (aged 18 to 23). She seems a little perplexed that Gen Z tend to “embrace some neoliberal ideals – hard work and success” but is pleased that they “combine personal professional aspirations with the promotion of collective well-being”.

The author claims that apart from “the wealthiest of the wealthy” every other group “finds itself reeling from an onslaught of difficulties, disappointments, and anxieties, grasping for dignity and stability”. (p 47) That is implausible and seems at odds with her message about destigmatization of marginalized groups. However, it fits well with another theme of Lamont’s narrative.   

As already mentioned, Lamont suggests that Trump provided “an empowering narrative” for the working class. She suggests that the Democratic party should counter that with “messages of solidarity and dignity”:

Redirecting working class anger toward the one percent is more likely to sustain fruitful alliances than driving wedges between diverse categories of workers who have so much in common.” (p 159)

Is Lamont’s narrative good?

It seems to me that appropriate criteria to consider whether a narrative is good include whether it encourages ethical behaviour and whether it is factually accurate.

Regarding ethical behaviour, Michèle Lamont seems to be seeking to “mobilize” good narratives when she suggests:

“We engineer our world together by mobilizing narratives that expand recognition of who is worthy.”

Leaving aside engineering, the message she is attempting to convey seems to be that narratives have a role in reinforcing the ethical intuition that we should respect other humans and behave with integrity toward them, irrespective of gender, sexual preference, race, nationality, religion, wealth, social status, political affiliations etc. I am not entirely convinced that she would include ideological opponents among those who are “worthy”, but she does acknowledge that “it is worth trying to understand even people we may strongly disagree with”. (p 159).   

On the question of factual accuracy, Lamont’s narrative, which suggests that the workers have reason to be angry with the wealthy one percent, seems to me to be just as questionable as Donald Trump’s narrative which suggests that the workers have reason to be angry about globalization and immigration. Neither of those narratives promotes an accurate understanding of economic reality.  

Conclusion

In this essay I have examined Michèle Lamont’s narrative that neoliberalism encourages people to either internalize blame for misfortune or to seek scapegoat groups to blame. My conclusion is that her claim that neoliberalism encourages people to internalize blame is baseless. Her claim about seeking to blame scapegoat groups seems to be based on the false belief that Donald Trump is a neoliberal.

Good narratives should encourage ethical behaviour and be factually accurate. One of Lamont’s objectives in this book seems to be to “mobilize” good narratives that reinforce the ethical intuition that we should behave with integrity toward all other humans. However, the factual accuracy of her narrative that workers have reason to be angry with the wealthy one percent is highly questionable. If accepted by governments that approach would encourage unethical redistributions of incomes and further dampen incentives that are essential to the ongoing growth of widespread economic opportunities.


Wednesday, January 31, 2024

Do you live in harmony with your daimon?

 


Some readers will be wondering what the question means. What is this daimon? How does it relate to eudaimonia? How can you identify your daimon?

Your daimon

In his book, Personal Destinies, David L Norton explains that your daimon is your innate potentiality – a unique “ideal of perfection”. Every person has this innate potentiality as well as an empirical actuality. Self-actualization is the process of discovering your daimon and living in harmony with it.

Norton suggests that people begin to discover their daimon during adolescence. He argues that autonomous self-awareness first occurs in the form of one’s awareness of being misidentified by other people. (That is clear in a passage quoted in the preceding essay on this blog.) Adolescence is a period of exploration and experiment when mistakes are inevitable. Exploration and experiment are part of the process by which individuals may discover their daimon and obtain the maturity to choose to live in harmony with it – to live an integral life.

Integrity is the consummate virtue. It is “living one’s own truth”. An integral life follows from choosing “wholeheartedly” the self one shall strive to become.

Eudaimonia

I have been accustomed to thinking of eudaimonia in terms of the good life, or self-actualization. As indicated in the passage quoted above, however, Norton draws attention to the distinct feeling of eudaimonia that constitutes its intrinsic reward. He describes that feeling as “being where one wants to be, doing what one wants to do”, as well as the feeling of being where one must be, and wholeheartedly doing what one must do. (pp 216, 222). The feeling of eudaimonia signals that the present activity of the individual is in harmony with his daimon. (p 5).

By contrast, the dysdaimonic individual is impelled to two different directions at the one time:

“The dysdaimonic individual is perpetually distracted, being only in a part of himself where you find him while part of himself is somewhere else, his ‘here’ and ‘there’ being not continuous but contradictory.” (p 221)

Norton suggests that eudaimonia is fully present whenever a person is living in truth to himself or herself. Eudaimonia is as much present for the individual who has just set foot upon his path, as for the accomplished genius of self-actualization. I particularly like this sentence:

“It would make good sense to say that to set foot upon one’s path is as good as arriving at the end, provided we recognize that a condition of being on one’s path is to be engaged at walking”. (p 239)

Norton’s book begins with a quotation from Carl Jung, who speaks of the daimon as an “inner voice” that has determined the direction of his life. Norton recognises that we may be apprehensive that “an ear turned towards our inwardness will detect at most only meaningless murmurings”. Many people who read the book will no doubt have a desire to listen to their daimon but might still have some difficulty in hearing its voice, amid all the meaningless inner murmurings that are seeking their attention.

How can you identify your daimon?

As a philosopher, David Norton could not have gone much further than he has in this book in helping readers to identify and follow their personal daimons. Anyone wishing to proceed further might find some contributions from positive psychology to be of assistance. In what follows, I briefly mention some approaches that I think are helpful.

Two relevant approaches which I discussed briefly in Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing involve identifying personal values and character strengths. Stephen Hayes developed Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) to help people to identify the personal values that they want to guide them in important aspects of their lives. Russ Harris, a therapist who has written extensively about ACT, has written a book, The Happiness Trap, which I reviewed here. Harris’ book is highly relevant to some of the issues discussed by David Norton.

Martin Seligman and Christopher Petersen identified 24 character strengths that they view as the routes by which virtues can be achieved. People can obtain useful information about themselves by responding to a questionnaire at the VIA Institute of Character, and having the responses fed back in summary form.

At a more personal level, I should mention the help I have obtained from the “inner game” books written by Tim Gallwey, a sports and business coach. Gallwey’s books (described here) are pertinent because they deal with performance problems that arise when an individual becomes confused by inner voices that conflict with his or her authentic inner voice. Gallwey suggests many techniques to help people to maintain focused attention on the task at hand, avoid self-doubt, and exercise free and conscious choice when that is appropriate. People are helped to discover their true identity as they master this “inner game”. My podcast episode, entitled “Tim Gallwey, my inner game guru”, can be found here.

Conclusions

David Norton’s book, Personal Destinies, provides an insightful account of the nature of eudaimonia. He explains it as a distinct feeling as well as the condition of actualizing one’s innate potentiality.

I have suggested some contributions from positive psychology that I think are helpful in complementing the approach adopted in this book.


Tuesday, January 23, 2024

What is wrong with Sartre's view of self-creation?

 


I have read a great deal of the fiction written by Jean Paul Sartre, but my knowledge of his philosophical works is second-hand. I read Nausea, The Age of Reason, The Reprieve, and Iron in the Soul, when I was in my 20’s. Those novels still sit on my bookshelves along side novels by Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Ayn Rand.

The only Sartre novel that left a lasting impression on me is Iron in the Soul. I have a vague recollection of the plot of Part One that novel. It ends with Mathieu Delarue, an academic who became a soldier in the French army, taking part in a futile military operation after France had been defeated by Germany during World War II. The purpose of this military operation was apparently to use up ammunition. Part One ends with Delarue declaring that he is free, even though it seems that his life is about to end.

At the time I read the book I would have been impressed that Delarue had found inner freedom by doing something decisive, but I doubt that I contemplated whether he had discovered himself or created himself.

It is only in the last decade or so that I have pondered whether personal development is best described as a discovery process, or a creative process. David L Norton’s book, Personal Destinies: A philosophy of personal individualism (1976) has recently prompted me to think further on the topic. I will begin with a general discussion of Norton’s view of personal destinies before considering his view of Sartre’s position.

Is your destiny in your genes?

While reading the first chapter of Personal Destinies, I balked at Norton’s injunction to "accept your destiny".

I accept the author's argument that self-actualization requires a person to discover the daimon within, and to live in accordance with it. I have no problem with injunctions to "know thyself", "choose yourself", and to "become what you are". However, being told to "accept your destiny" seems more challenging.

What does Norton mean?

Norton suggests that from the moment of birth, it is the destiny of each individual to actualise their potential in a particular way. If they live in accord with their destiny they become like the heroes of a Greek tragedy, showing undeviating consistency of character as they meet their fate.

He is suggesting that individuals are destined to have a unique personal character if they follow their daimon. He is not suggesting that the individual’s fate is pre-determined.

Why did I object?

My first objection was that accepting one's destiny seems opposed to accepting personal responsibility for one's choices. Norton explains that is not so. Individuals are free to choose to adhere to their destiny or to deviate from it.

I think my second objection has more substance. I have seen individuals change their character through their own actions. Genes play an important role in determining our destinies, but they are not the only determinant. Brain plasticity seems to enable people to change their destinies, for good or ill.

I recommend David Eagleman’s book, Livewired: the inside story of the ever-changing brain, to anyone who needs to be persuaded that genes are not destiny. As previously discussed on this blog, Eagleman, a neuroscientist, makes the point that the human brain arrives in the world unfinished: “despite some genetic pre-specification, nature’s approach to growing a brain relies on receiving a vast set of experiences, such as social interaction, conversation, play, exposure to the world, and the rest of the landscape of normal human affairs”.

It may even be possible for adults who follow their daimons to create more "potential" to actualize. If that is correct, it makes sense to think of personal development as involving self-creation as well as self-discovery. In the post already mentioned, I referred to the approach offered by Gena Gorlin, a psychologist, as an example of self-directed personal development. Gorlin has referred to her approach as a call to self-creation.

What is the problem with Sartre’s view?

Sartre argues that humans are “condemned to be free”. Each self constitutes itself as a “fundamental project” which is a product of free choice.

Norton explains that Sartre’s view of self-creation stems from the idea that whatever may be given to consciousness can appear in consciousness only as a meaning, and meanings are the product of consciousness itself. A person is nothing until he or she (or ?) chooses an identity. Human reality owes nothing to “inner nature”. There are no innate capabilities. “Talent is nothing other than acquired ability deriving from activity that is engaged in by choice.”

Norton suggests that autonomous self-awareness first appears in adolescence as a discovery rather than as a creation:

“In adolescence, autonomous self-awareness first occurs in the form of one’s awareness of being misidentified by the other. … Throughout childhood the individual has unquestioningly accepted adult identification of himself, usually that of his parents. Now, however, it is in the parental identification that the adolescent recognizes misidentification …. . Beneath this sense of misidentification and responsible for it is the adolescent’s new-found awareness that only he can speak. The moment is portentous and felt to be such. By its tone of  “from this moment and forever-more,” it signals a future very different from the past, it marks a disruption of the personal continuum. At the same time misidentification by others cannot be corrected because the new found “inner self” of the adolescent as yet has no voice with which to speak to the world, it is but a murmur within, audible to one person alone, and this helplessness projects itself as “fated to be misunderstood.” (p 111)

That passage brings back some memories of adolescence. And, even now, that feeling of being “fated to be misunderstood” sometimes returns to me.

An internet search suggests to me that developmental psychologists commonly believe that autonomous self-awareness first occurs during adolescence between the ages of 12 and 18 years. That stage of life often involves a great deal of experimentation leading to self-discovery.

The attraction of Sartre’s view of self-creation is that it appears to offer unlimited opportunities to individuals choose their identity. In arguing that human freedom is freedom for self-discovery and self-adherence, Norton suggests that Sartre’s advocacy of absolute freedom is actually a capitulation to “the forces of alienation at work in contemporary life”:

“The man who has no authentic feelings, and must on every occasion manufacture his feelings, is no exemplar of freedom but rather the self-alienated product of special conditions of life today.” (p 116).

Sensible self-creation

The main difference between Gena Gorlin’s approach to self-development and that of Sartre is that Gorlin does not claim that it is necessary to choose an identity before becoming a self-aware person. The existence of a person is presupposed in the builder’s mindset that Gorlin advocates:

“A person chooses what she wants to build, and she holds herself accountable for the work of building it.”

Robert Kegan’s concepts of self-authorship and self-transformation also seem to me to be sensible approaches to self-creation. Most adults have socialized minds – they are faithful followers and team players. Those with self-authoring minds are in the next largest group. They are self-directed and can generate an internal belief system.  Only a tiny percentage have self-transforming minds, capable of stepping back from, and reflecting upon the limits of personal ideology. I included some discussion of Rober Kegan’s concepts in Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing.

Conclusions

David L Norton’s book, Personal Destinies, has prompted me to think further on the topic of whether personal development is best described as a discovery process or a creative process. Norton’s view that personal destinies are determined at birth does not leave any room for self-creation. The existence of brain plasticity suggests, however, that it may make sense for psychologists to view personal development as having a creative component.

Norton offers an illuminating account of what is wrong with Sartre’s extreme view that it is necessary to choose an identity before being aware of being a person. Norton seems to me to be correct in suggesting that autonomous self-awareness occurs as a discovery process during adolescence.

Sensible advocates of self-creation do not claim that it is necessary to choose an identity before becoming aware of being an individual person.


Sunday, January 14, 2024

How do democratic institutions survive in Papua New Guinea?


 

In countries with endemic law and order and corruption problems, outbreaks of rioting and looting often lead to military dictatorship, or some similarly authoritarian style of government.

However, I don’t think many people expect the recent outbreak of rioting and looting in Port Moresby and other major cities in Papua New Guinea (PNG) to result in authoritarian government. In the 50 years since it gained independence from Australia, PNG leaders have muddled through several major crises without resort to authoritarianism. Local leaders, including military leaders, have generally displayed little appetite for radical change. They have responded to major crises by seeking to uphold the PNG constitution. Responses to the Sandline crisis of 1997 are a prime example.

The Sandline crisis

In January 1997, the PNG government approved a contract to engage Sandline International – a firm employing mercenary soldiers – to neutralize the Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA). The aim of the exercise was to reopen the Panguna copper mine which had been shut down in 1989 as a consequence of BRA activities seeking Bougainville’s independence from PNG.

General Jerry Singirok, the commander of the PNG defence force, did not believe that the proposed Sandline operation would succeed, and was concerned that it might result in mass civilian casualties. He also believed that the Sandline contract was unconstitutional. He resolved to expel the mercenaries from PNG before they were able to begin military activities on Bougainville. To achieve that objective, Singirok and some trusted colleagues devised and implemented Operation Rausim Kwik. The operation received overwhelming public support in PNG.


I don’t propose to present my view on whether Jerry Singirok did the right thing. I encourage readers of this blog to make up their own minds after reading Singirok’s recently published book, A Matter of Conscience: Operation Rausim Kwik. I enjoyed reading the book. It was given to me for Christmas by one of my brothers, who lives in PNG. As well as discussing the matters of conscience that Singirok had to consider, it provides an exciting account of the planning and implementation of this secret military operation.

My purpose in the remainder of this essay is to sketch out how the Sandline contract and Rausim Kwik were viewed in Australia, and to offer some additional thoughts about PNG institutions.

Australian views of the Sandline crisis

As I remember, there was intense interest in the Sandline affair in Australia. News stories about mercenaries and mutiny always attract attention but the Sandline affair was of particular interest because of the proximity of PNG to Australia, PNG’s history as an Australian colony, and the large number of Australians who had lived and worked in PNG or had family living there.

As the former colonial power, the Australian government didn’t want to interfere overtly unless it became necessary for action to be taken to protect Australian citizens. The official reaction of the government could be described as hand-wringing.

Prior to the Sandline affair, Australian authorities had been trying to persuade their counterparts in Port Moresby that peace on Bougainville could only be achieved via a negotiated settlement. Support provided under the Defence Cooperation Program included a requirement that the helicopters provided could not be used as “gunships”, and other similar conditions. Sir Julius Chan, the PNG prime minister, claimed that it was Australia’s reluctance to provide adequate support that had led his government “to go to the private sector”.

The Australian government did not send a strong message to the PNG government about its opposition to employment of mercenaries in the region until after Jerry Singirok had taken action to arrest the Sandline executives. At that point the Australian PM, John Howard, sent three senior public servants to PNG to urge Sir Julius to cancel the Sandline agreement and deport the mercenaries. The emissaries threatened that Australia might not continue its aid program if the PNG government continued in the proposed use of mercenaries to put down the rebellion on Bougainville.

In his public address to the nation, Singirok reassured the public that he was not conducting a military coup. Nevertheless, he insisted that the government ministers involved should step aside pending a judicial inquiry into the hiring of Sandline.

I think there was as much concern in Australia about Singirok’s mutinous behaviour as about the PNG government’s employment of mercenaries. The actions of the military commander in preventing implementation of government policy seemed like a step in the direction of military dictatorship. Singirok notes that the Australian High Commissioner handed him a diplomatic note from Canberra stating among other things:

“We strongly believe that it is essential that the PNGDF obey the directives of the PNG government and cease any illegal or unconstitutional activity.”

However, I doubt that the Australian government’s hand-wringing had much influence in ensuring that the Sandline crisis ended peacefully.

PNG institutions

Some prominent PNG citizens helped to end the Sandline crisis by assisting negotiations between Singirok and Sir Julius Chan. Singirok was dismissed as commander of the PNG defence force, but his demands were met. The PM and two other ministers stepped aside while an inquiry was held. Normal constitutional processes were resumed.


Sean Dorney, an Australian journalist with over four decades of experience in reporting on Papua New Guinea, regards the professionalism of its defence force as one of PNG’s strengths. In his book, The Embarrassed Colonialist, published in 2016, he writes about the PNGDF under the heading: “A Developing Country’s Military With No Ambition to Rule”. He quotes General Toropo, who was then commander of the PNGDF, as saying that he cannot see a military coup ever happening in PNG because the PNGDF regards itself as a professional organisation and “has got beyond tribal and regional differences”. Dorney notes that prior to independence, Australia made a conscious effort to recruit soldiers from all around the country so that the defence force would not be dominated by a group from any one province or region.

Dorney has a less favourable view of the police force. He notes that a police department had not even been created until the decade before independence and suggests that inexperienced and untrained staff were major problems at that time. He notes that by international standards the size of the police force relative to population is very low in PNG.

The professionalism of the police force is obviously still a problem. The most recent bout of rioting and looting occurred after police went on strike because of a pay dispute. Hopefully, the increased foreign aid that Australia announced last year to police training etc. will be of some help in improving the professionalism of the PNG police force.

Improved policing is an obvious response to a law-and-order problem, but it may not be necessary to invest vast amounts of public money in crime deterrence in order to make the transition from a high to low crime society. In his book, The Enlightened Economy, Joel Mokyr points out that firm government enforcement of laws could not have played a major role in enabling Britain to achieve a low crime society. In the 18th century, large parts of Britain were virtual “lawless zones” and in others, legal practice often deviated considerably from the letter of the law. Enforcement was largely a private enterprise with the courts at best serving as an enforcer of last resort. There was no professional police force. Daily law enforcement was in the hands of amateurs and part-time parish constables. Justice had to rely to a large extent on volunteers, local informers, vigilante groups and private associations specializing in prosecution of felons. Private law enforcement remained of substantial importance until well into the 19th Century (pages 376-379).

The incentive to engage in crime depends on the alternative economic opportunities available to potential criminals as well as on the expected rewards of crime. The more general issue of what has been holding back the growth of economic opportunities in PNG, discussed previously on this blog, is relevant in this context.

Criminal activity has certainly been having an adverse impact on the growth of economic opportunities, and lack of economic opportunity has no doubt tempted more people to resort to crime. However, that does not necessarily make the problem intractable. One possible solution is for police to give highest priority to deterring the violence and theft that is having a major adverse impact on the economic opportunities of poor people.

The survival of democratic institutions in PNG does not seem to be seriously threatened by current levels of crime and corruption. There is a risk, however, that crime and corruption will reach a stage where criminal gangs directly threaten the survival of democratic institutions.  

Conclusions

Democratic institutions survive in Papua New Guinea because local leaders have generally responded to major crises by seeking to uphold the constitution. That was particularly evident in the Sandline crisis of 1997.

The PNG defence force has been aptly described as a developing country’s military with no ambition to rule. The defence force regards itself as a professional organisation that has “has got beyond tribal and regional differences”.

The professionalism of the PNG police force is more questionable. A more professional police force could help ameliorate PNG’s endemic law and order problems by giving highest priority to deterring the violence and theft that is having a major adverse impact on the economic opportunities of poor people.

The main risk to democratic institutions in PNG seems to me to lie in the potential for crime and corruption to expand to a point where criminal gangs take over the government.


Postscript

1. Noric Dilanchian has provided the following comment:

You've written a good article Winton.
As my only closely relevant background, in my last year in law school (1982) I helped a friend write her Law in Developing Societies course thesis about protests by indigenous people on Bougainville Island before the first major conflict.
Our conclusion then was that massive mining pollution and industry behaviour, among other factors I cannot remember, were conducive for societal collapse. It then happened.
I was also reflecting on your thinking in light of three books I read late in 2023 on the 20th century history of Iran. There a central problem was that the royal rulers always sought exclusive rule-supporting control over the armed forces. That had very bad consequences. As for the police in cities, they performed the connected with elites thug role comparable to and evident in Sydney during and before Premier Robert Askin's administration (1965-1975).

2. Pat Green wrote:

If I could draw comics, I would draw a helicopter way up in the sky, and attached to it is a silhouette of PNG. Hanging up high on the rope is a bunch of politicians cutting the rope above their heads with a big tramontina that has "idependence" etched on it.

There is no future in the current system. 


Monday, January 8, 2024

Was British colonial government as bad as modern critics would have us believe?

 


Nigel Biggar acknowledges that British colonialism contained evils and injustices, but he judges it to have been much better than its modern critics would have us believe.


Biggar directs the McDonald Centre for Theology, Ethics, and Public Life at Oxford University. His aim in writing his recently published book, Colonialism: A MoralReckoning, was to provide a moral evaluation of British colonialism, rather than a history of it.

 As indicated in the passage quoted above, Biggar argues that many of the modern critics of British colonialism have an unscrupulous indifference to historical truth. He suggests that the controversy over empire is really about the present, rather than about the past. The real target of today’s anti-colonialists is “the Anglo-American liberal world order that has prevailed since 1945”. They denigrate the historical record of “the West” in order to corrode faith in it. He writes:

“What is at stake is not merely the pedantic truth about yesterday, but the self-perception and self-confidence of the British today, and the way they conduct themselves in the world tomorrow.”

Everyone who has regard for human rights, rule of law, and democracy should encourage British people to continue to be forthright in their advocacy of these ideals.

The focus of criticism

Biggar documents why modern critics of British colonialism are unfair in claiming that it was characterised by racism. He highlights three main examples:

The critics emphasize British links to the slave trade in the 17th and 18th centuries, but overlook the leading role that the British government played in ending slavery in the 19th century.

The critics emphasize instances of appalling racial prejudice but ignore policies that were driven by the conviction of the basic human equality of the members of all races.

Some critics slanderously equate the actions of British colonial authorities with those of the Nazis by claiming that they were engaged in genocide. They don’t acknowledge the efforts of colonial authorities to protect native peoples from harmful encounters with settlers.

Benefits of British colonialism

Biggar also documents many benefits of British colonialism. One of the points he makes is that it “brought up three of the most prosperous and liberal states now on earth – Canada, Australia, and New Zealand”. My friends in the United States can take comfort from the fact that the American revolution served to educate the British about the desirability of allowing those former colonies to govern themselves.

More generally, British colonialism promoted free trade, created peace in the colonies, developed public infrastructure, made foreign investment attractive, disseminated modern agricultural methods, disseminated medical knowledge, and “provided a civil service and judiciary that was generally and extraordinarily incorrupt”.

I will focus here on the quality of the civil service and judiciary.

Quality of governance

As a classical liberal, I am inclined to the view that less governance is better than more, and that governance imposed by foreigners is particularly obnoxious. Could it have been possible for the quality of governance offered by the British to have been better than the alternatives on offer during the colonial periods?

That seems likely to have been the case in many instances. Biggar notes that many local rulers in India wanted the British to secure power to obtain advantage over their rivals - they preferred British rule to indigenous alternatives including ongoing local wars. It is not obvious that any real-world alternatives to British colonialism in Australia and New Zealand (e.g. colonization by another European power) would have provided greater protection to indigenous peoples. In the absence of British colonialism in Africa, it is likely that the slave trade would have persisted to a greater extent, aided by the expansion of militant Islam, and internecine wars that were an ongoing source of slaves.

It is not difficult to understand why people working for British colonial administrations in the 19th and 20th centuries developed a reputation for being largely incorruptible. It is even possible for me – a person who subscribes to the private interest theory of regulation - to understand that when organisations develop a culture that is strongly opposed to corrupt behaviour, individual members tend to obtain a great deal of satisfaction – a sense of mission - from upholding that culture.

Biggar notes:

“Back in the closing decade of the eighteenth century, Lord Cornwallis’ insistence that officials in the East India Company should live on their salaries, give up private trading and resist bribes ‘helped to create a civil service that became widely regarded as incorruptible and just, one that even Indian nationalist newspapers would later regard as ‘absolutely above suspicion’ and ‘the high water mark of morality in the public service of the country’, and as beyond being ‘bribed to do anything.”

Biggar devotes quite a few pages of his book to quoting subjects of colonial rule who were full of praise for British colonial rulers. He also notes that in the 1950s several million Chinese voted with their feet to leave the communist Chinese mainland and live under British colonial rule in Hong Kong.

Conclusion

The modern critics of British colonialism have no reason to be concerned that it is about to make a comeback. Their reason for seeking to denigrate it is to undermine the ongoing efforts of people in Britain, and some of its former colonies, to promote the ideals of a liberal world order. Nigel Biggar’s book makes an excellent contribution to public discussion of the issues by pointing out that many of the critics have an unscrupulous indifference to historical truth.