Tuesday, March 04, 2008

CHINA AND THE US: PURPOSE AND FREEDOM

Increasing peace, prosperity, and democracy and the tension inherent in capitalist competition will ultimately lead to a relative increase in the preference for certainty in economic life. Such an environment will lead to a psychology in which economic cooperation is preferred first, competition second. This does not mean that corruption will cease, that people will necessarily be happier, or that the economy will necessarily be more efficient. Indeed, it may be less so. Or, the ‘new’ system may be more efficient only insofar as the expectation of reduced conflict overcompensates for diminished competitive forces by decreasing the expected risk of investment.

Karl Marx walked a thin line between being a social philosopher/scientist and a political activist. His activism is often given greatest play both by his adherents and detractors alike. If his theory of collective ownership is seen less as a prescription and more as a prediction of a shift in psychological attitudes towards the economy, his ideas become less ‘other-worldly’ as well as less prone to promoting violent confrontation. I am not advocating a gradual shift to socialism. The dynamism of capitalism is essential for promoting economic wealth and political freedom in today’s world.

Still, I do believe that a peaceful reconcilliation between China and the US would be the harbinger of a significant change in geopolitics. This does not mean that the US should surrender economic or political freedom in the hopes of pacifying China. It does mean that we ought to be conscious of what we have to learn from China and how, if China chooses to learn from us, the world might change as a result.

We need not view China’s rise only in terms of a “balance of powers” between nation-states. If we see China move towards democracy and capitalism, we will have witnessed the near triumph of those two particular political/economic systems. Again, a more peaceful, prosperous world would tend to diminish the appeal of violence and conquest. At the point at which a critical mass of people believes that the world has ‘turned a corner’ in that respect, nationalist competition will become less appealing.

This change in perspective would amount to the US internalizing one of the finest features of China’s current national politics: a sense of common responsibility and purpose. While China’s current expression of this value is less than laudable, it is clear that such a perspective can be psychologically reassuring to people, as well as, at times, materially beneficial. Will we come to live in world that is characterized by economic and political freedom as well as by a sense of common purpose?

Some trends that should be observed as we consider how China and the US will affect each other in the years ahead:

1) China’s deepening influence on the US economic system
2) Chinese-US cooperation on global development issues
3) Chinese-US cooperation to promote international global stability
4) Will environmental and environmental health challenges in China force it to relax its controls on civil society and on economic freedom, thereby harnessing increased citizen participation in a series of stark problems that can not be solved only by central planners?
5) Most abstractly: Will the US polity mature to the extent that it can focus more wholeheartedly on long-term economic challenges? This, in my view, would be one of the fruits of the US learning from the ‘common purpose’ that the Chinese leaders (albeit authoritarian and, at times, draconian) seek to instill their society.

I don’t blame the reader if point #5 seems vaporous. I am still working to articulate the philosophical concepts related to this point, as well as their respective applications.

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