Sunday, June 14, 2009

Apologetics for Despotism

Before we start the book, I want to lay down the basics: who is Amy Chua, what is the point of this book, and how does any of this have anything to do with a threat to our democracy?

Chua is a professor at Yale Law School, ethnically Chinese, but with a family widely scattered through out Asia and the Americas (with several relatives in rather well-to-do positions in the Philippines and Indonesia among other nations). Above all she comes across as highly conflicted, in the way modern upper-classes only can - she enjoys the wealth of her family, but she seems to fear the negative repercussions it may create, and, she argues, has already created.

Feeling divided and ambivalent is perfectly fine. Some might even call it the human condition. Chua's thesis, however, seems less ambiguous and more about having her cake and eating it too. In the wake of the Iraq War, however, a new edition of her book was released, with a new epilogue, wherein Chua finally gave us a succinct explanation of her message, her reasoning, and what she wished to convey as she wrote the book:

A final clarification. This book is not about blame, but about unintended consequences. My own view, for example, is that the results of democratization in Indonesia have been disastrous. But if forced to place the blame somewhere, I would point to thirty years of plundering autocracy and crony capitalism by Suharto. Similarly, in Iraq, overnight elections might well bring undesirable results. But that is not democracy's fault. On the contrary, if anything, the blame rests with the cruelly repressive regime of Saddam Hussein. Nevertheless, this doesn't take away from the reality that given the conditions that actually exist now in many postcolonial countries - conditions created by history, colonialism, divide-and-conquer policies, corruption, autocracy - the combination of laissez-faire capitalism and unrestrained majority rule may well have catastrophic consequences. (293-294)
There's the mechanics for being an apologetic of Chua's stripes; denigrate democratic government so that despotism is potentially an acceptable alternative. But towards the end of this explanation, Chua touches on the truth - she's using democracy as a short hand for unrestrained majority rule, and as any fourth grader should be able to tell you if our education system wasn't in complete and total disintegration, minority rights need to be not only protected in democracies, but are a vital aspect of every functional democracy. Chua nearly admits to having used, perhaps even unconsciously, a bit of slight of hand. The lack of minority rights should be a signal of undemocratic practices and a frail and failing democracy, not an inherent aspect of democracy.

Her sudden use of the longer term "laissez-faire capitalism" indicates a similar switching between multiple imprecisely identical terms. Throughout most of her book, Chua uses the terms "democracy" and the "free market" as the deadly components of the process she sees, only to exchange those for "unrestrained majority rule" and "laissez-faire capitalism" haltingly in this section of the epilogue. None of these terms is ever truly defined, but a passing examination seems to suggest that she uses both "free market" and "laissez-faire" in their colloquial, not their technical, senses. The economic situation she wants to talk about is an absence of the government from the economic sphere, with the major exception of maintenance of "order", whatever that can mean.

At its core, that is the most dangerous political issue of our time - how a new meaning of "free market" has evolved, having shed its concerns that a wide variety of consumers and producers must be in the given market, that entrance into the market must be easy for both consumers and producers, that exiting the market be easy for both consumers and producers, that consumers be completely informed about the products being sold to them, and so on. The new "free market" has some how managed to carry the connotation of all the benefits those bring, while only meaning the absence of overt government interference in the market - the aspect of Adam Smith's theory most directly tied to the era he formulated that brilliant idea in, and an obvious swipe at chartered corporations, the ancestors of modern non-chartered conglomerates, who now advocate for total lack of government oversight.

Alternatively, "laissez-faire" has been similarly shifted, now including government oversight within specific circumstances, usually designed to maintain the status quo - in other words removing the ability of "true" laissez-faire systems to theoretically allow the system to heal itself, while maintaining its ability to harm the system.

In short, from its inception, a loose use of terms damages Amy Chua's World on Fire. Before we even address the validity of her thesis, we're trapped with two constantly shifting definitions. Before we can even explore her various examples, we need to take an elaborate detour, explaining how the "free market" "democracies" that worry her are neither "free markets" nor "democracies" if they behave the way she claims they behave.

We're in for a long review here, folks.

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