There Are No Solutions, Only Trade-Offs – The Ideology Blight

2015-11-09 13:07

Ideology - the source of Jurassic Economics and Enduring Poverty

US economist, social theorist, political philosopher and author, Thomas Sowell has a compelling saying that explains many of the political, social and economic difficulties of our times – and particularly those characterizing South Africa. He states very eloquently and via many examples – “There are no Solutions: Only Trade-Offs”. What is more, the “solutions” inflicted by politicians on society explain most of our socio-political problems.

Sowell argues, in a number of literary works, that cure all or ideological solutions simply do not work.

They are often typified by personality cults and media hype and generally born out of opportunistic and transitory circumstances. “White knights”, radicals, socialist hardliners and charlatans as diverse as Karl Marx, William Godwin, every day trade union leaders and consumer activists such as Ralph Nader - even South Africa’s very own “# whatever must fall” varsity brigade – belong in this group and are driven by their egos. They have a compelling need to think highly of themselves and personal vanity drives their motivation.

Their self-appointment to social callings stems from a narcissism putting them front and centre of a contrived cutting edge of social, political and economic change; they need the limelight.

He refers to them as the anointed – or more accurately, as the self anointed.

Over the past almost two centuries, the views of the self anointed have been widely promoted and made fashionable – flooding public space and evolving rapidly with the onset of the nanny state, socialism and such esoteric, vague and mischievous notions as social justice, the pursuit of equality and others beside.

Sowell’s arguments shoot down the ideological infrastructure that has legitimized - essentially fraudulently - the dogmas that found favour in a number of the political economies of the early to mid 20th and now (in limited degree) 21st centuries. Mercifully they have, after due experimentation generally been rejected throughout most of the world.

His primary argument is that the confiscation of the individuals’ sovereignty or diminution of his (or her) freedom of action costs society in insidious ways. Apart from compromising the individual’s own independence and liberty, it cultivates coercion by the self appointed (or "anointed") and places them in charge of overseeing and setting the values of ordinary people based on their own perceptions and values. In the process they – through manipulating and contriving public opinion - stifle creativity, personal motivation and the advancement that comes from the individuals’ independence of action and parties interacting with each other free of regulation in pursuit of their mutual self interest.

These material penalties are seldom obvious to ordinary people who often find themselves incapable of understanding the ultimate cause of complex socio economic problems and unable to resist the social dynamics of their adoption by the herd.

One example might be to place an ethnic or religious group - or similarly identifiable group of persons - at an advantage over other’s in order to curry political favour. Past injustices – both perceived and real – are extravagantly proffered as justification for the imposition of such distortions and patronage and preferentialism are the tools by which such favour is expressed and political loyalty earned. Such agendas are palpably manipulative and generally harmful to long term economic outcomes and benefits to most people.

His words carry particular relevance in the South African context, where decision makers live in the shadow of Soviet thinking and subscribe to debunked precepts, often as qualification for office and political favour.

The South African nation is thus fast becoming a sealed off unit isolated from a competitive and advancing world - a socio-political Jurassic Park. Its values are short on cognition, big on ideology, bluster and posture. Indeed we need to ask the question – why?

The answer is partly historic; partly cultural.

First the history part.

With the cozying up of the ANC and SA Communist Parties when the Freedom Charter was written, the former took on board many of the values of the latter. Since the Soviet Union was a rising world power at the time it looked like a winning ally, but it was a bad marriage because communism – as we all know – heralded a false dawn.

So the ANC has been hoist by its own petard.

And now for the culture part.

Good democracy is a compact between citizens and government in which institutions ensure that the individual is king. But prior to colonization, Africans had never experienced that, and were subject to government by chiefs and supporting tribal authorities in a mainly rural and pastoral environment. Thus, communist ideology came to its rescue in an opportunistic sense, and contaminated post colonial Africanism by default.

Because a tribal system of government could never work in a unitary, multi ethnic state and the colonial system was perceived as exploitative, a socialist ethos was taken on board.

(Interestingly, although Capitalism has been blamed for the exploitative nature of colonialism, nothing is further from the truth; mercantilism was the driving force behind colonialism, and it - like communism - collapsed because it made no sustainable economic sense.

As further proof, capitalism was a thorn in the side of the apartheid government, which – being run by a statist party similar to the ANC – resented business, the profit motive and free markets - because they did not follow ideological scripts).

Thus the ideology of communism /  socialism was favoured: it was accessible, centralized power and diminished the freedom of the individual - so the enterprise of state was just do-able (or so it was naively assumed!) by a cognitively limited elite. After all any fool can drive a donkey cart, not so a space shuttle.

Thus in modern South Africa we find ourselves short on trade-offs between people who could enjoy more symbiotic and worthwhile relationships and benefit others. Instead we have a coercive expression of power – on the one hand blinded by its own dogmas and ideology (as shared between members of the tripartite alliance), whilst on the other it is constrained by its own incompetence and lack of cognitive ability.

To this add the responsibility of running a complex state enterprise (think SAA, Eskom, Telkom, the Post Office, dysfunctional government departments, crumbling infrastructure, rampant corruption etc etc etc etc), and the consequences of ideological leadership come into ever sharper focus.

Had the nation’s leadership thought of crowning individuals with the personal sovereignty that would enable trade-off's between them and encourage both personal and material growth, our political economy  could well have taken off and everyone would be doing a lot better.

Except of course for the ruling elite.

Instead it is this very elite who have all the jokers in their hand, but don’t know how the trade-off game is played. And they know that if they adopted the new game's rules, they would very soon be extinct.

Surely it is time for the meteor to strike?

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