Sunday, February 7, 2010

Who can tell the history of the future?

Jacques Attali thinks he can. Attali, author of ‘A Brief History of the Future’, is an eminent French economist who was an advisor to President Mitterrand during the 1980s and has since become a big wheel in microfinance. On the cover of the book, Alvin Toffler is quoted as describing Attali as ‘one of the most brilliant, original minds in Europe’. That is one of the reasons why I bought the book.

As the title suggests, Attali has written the book as though he is writing the history of what is going to happen over the next century or so. And the book is written as though ‘history’ drives what happens in the future. For example, near the end the author suggests: ‘History will thus drive the integration of collective intelligences into a universal intelligence; it will also be endowed with a collective memory that will preserve and accumulate its knowledge. ... Universal intelligence will even be able to conceive of machines in its own service, defending the common good on its behalf. ... Universal intelligence may next bring about an intelligence peculiar to the species, a hyperintelligence that will act in its own interests ...’ (2009 edition, p. 273).

I strongly support attempts to consider the possible future implications of economic and other factors that are impacting our lives and the environment in which we live. At its best, this is what Attali’s book does. At its worst the book seems to me to read like a work of science fiction with inadequate plot development.

The first part of Attali’s book contains a history of capitalism as a story in which the economic core moved progressively from one city to another – beginning in Bruges around 1200 and moving in turn to Venice, Antwerp, Genoa, Amsterdam, London, Boston, New York and Los Angeles. I found this part of the book to be interesting and illuminating. I think the author makes the point fairly convincingly that new core cities often benefit as much from adversity affecting existing cores and potential rivals as from their own intrinsic advantages. Nevertheless, Attali has not convinced me that it makes sense to think of the current world economy as having a single city core in Los Angeles, despite all the technological advances that have occurred in California in recent decades.

The main phases of Attali’s history of the future are: the end of the American empire; the emergence of a stateless planetary empire (an oxymoron ?) characterized by global markets, individualist values and narcissistic ideals; then a series of wars and possibly hyperconflict; and finally, the emergence of planetary hyperdemocracy.

Why can America’s influence be expected to wane? Attali writes, unconvincingly in my view, of ‘irretrievable scarcities’ and ‘stagnating technology’, but he also suggests that like other major economic powers in the past America will ultimately be brought down by a financial crisis. According to Attali’s timetable, this is likely to occur around 2025 or 2030. That seems to be well within the realms of possibility if fiscal deficits and associated foreign borrowing are not brought under control. Unlike many other countries, however, the U.S. has a reasonable track record over more than a century of returning to responsible fiscal management when a major fiscal crisis threatens. While America seems likely to become more like Europe during the next few years, I think the odds are that fiscal responsibility will be restored in the U.S. before it reaches the stage where Greece, for example, now finds itself.

What happens after the end of the American empire? It begins promisingly enough with fulfillment of what might be called an anarcho-capitalist’s dream - big governments collapse, like piles of wet manure, as provision of services such as health care, education and security are handed over to the private firms.

Attali suggest that insurance companies would play a major role in this globally privatised society. They would gradually come to dictate planetary norms by penalizing smokers, drinkers, the obese etc. who represent high insurance risks. They would require clients to refrain from behavior that might increase insurance risks and introduce surveillance systems to ensure that contract conditions were met. That sounds like a healthy dose of reality to me. Why should people whose behavior makes them high insurance risks be subsidized by others? Those wanting to avoid surveillance would presumably have the options of paying higher premiums or carrying their own risks.

However, Attali’s vision of the globally privatised society is alarming. He suggests that while Africa vainly struggles to construct itself , the rest of the world will begin to deconstruct itself under the ‘hammer blows of globalization’. He writes: ‘Tomorrow’s Africa will therefore not resemble today’s West. Rather, it is tomorrow’s West that will resemble today’s Africa’ (p. 184). I don’t think readers are ever told why this will happen. Attali suggests that weakened states will no longer be able to afford to provide income support to the poor, but supporting the poor will not be a burden if globalization provides widespread economic opportunities. At one point (p. 255) he suggests that ‘market democracies have travelled a large part of the road predicted by the author of Das Kapital’. Perhaps he is implying that we should look for an explanation of his fantasy about the effects of globalization in the predictions of Karl Marx about the consequences of technological change and capital accumulation.

The next part of the story is about wars. To cut a boring story short, Attali tells us that there will be disaffection everywhere and it might all end in hyperconflict. After that, however, everyone will live happily ever after in a world characterized by microfinance and voluntary organizations run by nice people a lot like Mother Teresa and Melinda Gates. Attali’s version of utopia (thankfully he refrains from calling it hyperutopia) sounds OK to me. I do have concerns, though, that the hyperintelligence, ‘that will act in its own interests’, might actually be the ultimate Leviathan of big government. As in ‘Star Wars’, the empire strikes back!

Perhaps the most appropriate way for me to end this review is with a message for readers living in the next Century: May the Force be with you - and protect you from the hyperintelligence.

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?

Saturday, January 30, 2010

How much was J S Mill's view of progress influenced by personal experience?

In my last post I suggested that while J S Mill assisted in the triumph of the idea of progress, he was concerned that public opinion was becoming more powerful without becoming much more wise. One of the remedies he suggested in the article ‘Civilisation’, published when he was about 30 years of age (1836) was for universities to become dedicated to inspiring an intense love of truth.

The mental crisis that Mill suffered when 20 years old seems to have played an important role in the subsequent development of his views, including his views about progress. Mill recounts in his autobiography that the crisis involved, among other things, the sudden realization that he would not feel happy if all the ‘changes in institutions and opinions’ that he had been looking forward to were to be effected instantly.

The explanations that have been put forward for this crisis include depression and boredom. I think Richard Reeves is probably on the right track, however, in suggesting that Mill ‘suddenly saw the hollowness of the philosophical religion to which he had subscribed’ (‘John Stuart Mill, Victorian Firebrand: 63). This philosophical religion was Benthamite utilitarianism. It seems likely that Mill would not have been filled with joy about the prospect of instantaneous implementation of the reforms he had been advocating because he perceived that they would have done little to improve ‘national character’. In his essay, ‘Bentham’ (1838) Mill argued that 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’. Mill suggested that Bentham’s philosophy ‘can teach the means of regulating the merely business part of the social arrangements’, but Bentham ‘committed the mistake of supposing that the business part of human affairs was the whole of them’.

Elijah Millgram has drawn attention to another aspect of Mill’s mental crisis that seems to have influenced the subsequent development of his views (here). Mill ascribed his recovery to, among other things, thinking his way through what we now call the problem of determinism. Millgram makes a strong case that Mill was suffering from a sense of moral unfreedom.

In ‘A System of Logic’ (1843) Mill wrote: ‘Now, a necessitarian, believing that our actions follow from our characters, and that our characters follow from our organization, our education, and our circumstances, is apt to be, with more or less of consciousness on his part, a fatalist as to his own actions, and to believe that his nature is such, or that his education and circumstances have so moulded his character, that nothing can now prevent him from feeling and acting in a particular way, or at least that no effort of his own can hinder it. ... But this is a grand error. He has, to a certain extent, a power to alter his character. ... His character is formed by his circumstances (including among these his particular organization); but his own desire to mould it in a particular way, is one of those circumstances, and by no means one of the least influential. We cannot, indeed, directly will to be different from what we are. But neither did those who are supposed to have formed our characters, directly will that we should be what we are. Their will had no direct power except over their own actions. If they could place us under the influence of certain circumstances, we, in like manner, can place ourselves under the influence of other circumstances. We are exactly as capable of making our own character, if we will, as others are of making it for us’ (Book VI, Ch. II).

Mill’s recovery may have been helped by realization that his upbringing had not condemned him to be an apostle of Benthamite utilitarianism, irrespective of whether or not that was what he wanted to be.

In my last post I note that Mill castigated the English universities for acting as though the object of education was to inculcate the teacher’s own opinions in order to produce disciples rather than thinkers or inquirers. I wonder whether thoughts about his father’s inculcation of Benthamite utilitarianism in Mill’s own education would have passed through his mind when he wrote that.

One way or another Mill managed to form a strong view about the purpose of education. This passage from ‘Civilization’ is worth quoting more than once: ‘The very corner-stone of an education intended to form great minds, must be the recognition of the principle, that the object is to call forth the greatest possible quantity of intellectual power, and to inspire the intensest love of truth: and this without a particle of regard to the results to which the exercise of that power may lead, even though it should conduct the pupil to opinions diametrically opposite to those of his teachers’.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Are J S Mill's views about progress still relevant today?

John Stuart Mill assisted in the triumph of the idea of progress in the 19th Century but he also had concerns about the future that still seem relevant today. Richard Reeves comments: ‘Mill was not a knee-jerk critic of what Ruskin dismissed as the “steam whistle society”, but nor was he a blind advocate of industrialization for its own sake. As an avid botanist and walker, he was acutely sensitive to what would today be called environmental concerns’ (‘John Stuart Mill, Victorian Firebrand’: 233).

I will focus here on the views on progress and, in particular, concerns about public opinion that Mill put forward in ‘Civilisation’, published in 1836, when he was about 30 years old.

Mill identified three characteristics of civilisation:
• the development of commerce, manufactures and agriculture;
• people acting together for common purposes in large organisations; and
• peace being maintained within society through arrangements for protecting the person and property of members.
He suggests: ‘Wherever there has arisen sufficient knowledge of the arts of life, and sufficient security of property and person, to render the progressive increase of wealth and population possible, the community becomes and continues progressive in all the elements which we have just enumerated’.

Mill goes on to argue that the most remarkable consequence of advancing civilization is ‘that power passes more and more from individuals, and small knots of individuals, to masses: that the importance of the masses becomes constantly greater, that of individuals less’. He gives several reasons: economic growth results in the growth of a middle class and the dispersion of knowledge; the development of habits of cooperation and discipline in large organizations enable development of associations of different kinds, including benefit societies and trades unions; and improved communications through newspapers that enable people to learn that others feel as they feel.

Mill argued that political reform would follow inevitably: ‘The triumph of democracy, or, in other words, of the government of public opinion, does not depend upon the opinion of any individual or set of individuals that it ought to triumph, but upon the natural laws of the progress of wealth, upon the diffusion of reading, and the increase of the facilities of human intercourse’.

Mill’s concern about the growth in power of public opinion was that the individual would become lost in the crowd; although the individual depends more and more on opinion (reputation) he is apt to depend less and less upon the well-grounded opinions of those who know him. Mill suggested that with the growth in power of public opinion ‘arts for attracting public attention formed a necessary part of the qualifications even of the deserving’. His main concern was that ‘growing insignificance of the individual in the mass’ ... ‘corrupts the very foundation on the improvement of public opinion itself; it corrupts public teaching; it weakens the influence of the more cultivated few over the many’.

One for the remedies that Mill proposed was ‘national institutions of education, and forms of polity, calculated to invigorate the individual character. Mill then proceeded to castigate the English universities for acting as though the object of education was to inculcate the teacher’s own opinions in order to produce disciples rather than thinkers or inquirers. Mill wrote: ‘The very corner-stone of an education intended to form great minds, must be the recognition of the principle, that the object is to call forth the greatest possible quantity of intellectual power, and to inspire the intensest love of truth: and this without a particle of regard to the results to which the exercise of that power may lead, even though it should conduct the pupil to opinions diametrically opposite to those of his teachers’.

Massive changes have occurred in university education over the last 174 years, some of which correspond to Mill’s suggestions. Does this mean that Mill’s views on university education are now of only historical relevance? Do our universities now inspire the intensest love of truth? Are these standards of truth-seeking now reflected in the mass media and politics?

Unfortunately, there seem to be many people in universities these days who would regard Mill’s aim of inspiring the intensest love of truth as a philosophically suspect idea that is inconsistent with the modern purpose of universities in training technicians and inculcating them with politically correct views.