Review of “Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty” by Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson
This book is legit, despite the lack of footnotes and in-line references. There is a detailed bibliography at the end, disguised as “Acknowledgments,” which also explains a lot of behind-the-scenes research that was omitted in the text. I was skeptical of the support for their hypothesis until I read this section in full. The book makes sense, as the summary of ten years of research by the authors, culminating in enough work to justify a book. This work is not fluff, nor is it entirely original, instead being what most scientific publications are: The authors worked for ten years on the subject of comparative economics and finally felt confident to publish their work outside scientific venues.
It was published in 2012 so it doesn’t reference the work of Francis Fukuyama, author of The Origins of Political Order and Political Order and Political Decay, which are not meant for the casual reader. This book, however, is written for a non-political scientist and is very readable and interesting.
The authors have simplified all the factors contributing to the economic success of nations into a simple idea: political and economic inclusiveness or extraction, the latter being typified by colonialism and kleptocracy as in modern Russia under Putin. They do a good job or explaining the importance of chance on the economic development of nations, repeating the mantra that things could have gone in a different direction in Britain in the seventeenth century but for a few lucky breaks.
The hypothesis is somewhat dark in that it doesn’t suggest a recipe for success; chance or, as they put it, contingency is a major factor in the development of political/economic systems (i.e. nations) and so they offer no quick fixes for developing nations. In fact, given the importance of previous conditions and chance, they don’t paint a very happy image of the future. But I’m reading between the lines there.
The bottom line is that, despite the uncertainty and continuous change inherent in democratic institutions, they are the best hope to break the cycles of history; resistance to change by the elites is the primary factor holding nations back, getting rich quick for a few (i.e. wealth inequality) being the curse of death to prosperity. Maybe they’re wrong, but their arguments are persuasive even to a skeptic like me.
I recommend this book to anyone who wants to learn some not-so-well-known history and see the world through a different pair of glasses.
The author admits time and again that he tends to be long-winded. It’s true. This is the story of his life up through the killing of Osama bin Laden, although the childhood isn’t so much discussed chronologically as dropped in memories scattered throughout. I like that style, but the political career is in order, reading like a technical report rather than a personal story. He livens it up with regular sidebars about family life. To be honest, he admits that he and his wife worked to keep their family life normal and, as far as I can tell, they succeeded, so well that I got tired of hearing about putting the girls to bed. No family drama or horror stories about unwelcome advances on the family. Boring after the fifth or so time hearing it.
Obama writes well but uses a wordy style; however, to be a lawyer, he seems to have resisted the attempt by the legal establishment to brainwash lawyers into talking in circles. This book is clearly written and enjoyable overall. I guess he felt obliged to mention all the people who worked with him over the years, which added a lot of pages to the text. Between that and history lessons I didn’t need to hear (being older than him and interested in history), the book was at least 30% longer than it needed to be. He wanted to be thorough–no reader left behind.
I don’t read memoirs much (I think I read Bob Gates’ a few years ago), so I wasn’t excited about this but it was okay most of the time. He does a good job communicating his feelings about events and how surprised he was about the course his life took. I believed his sincerity on that point because his rise to stardom was unforeseen to say the least. Of course, any memoir by a politician or other celebrity can’t help but be self-promotional and a justification of their actions. With all the other self-deprecation scattered throughout the book, I was surprised that he didn’t address this natural concern, not even in the preface. There’s a lot of self-justification in these 700 pages, but also more than enough self-doubt and admission of making mistakes (just not on big issues).
Overall, I would recommend this book if you are either a reader of political memoirs or interested in this very interesting and successful politician who was truly an example of the common man, rather than the product of generations of wealth and elitism.
I’ll end this review with a list of the parts he divided the story into:
YES WE CAN
THE GOOD FIGHT
THE WORLD AS IT IS
IN THE BARREL
ON THE HIGH WIRE
Fitting subtitles every one…
Historians and sociologists avoid a taboo subject they can’t mention, or else their careers would evaporate. There’s a good reason for this tradition. It prevents every stupid idea from becoming widely accepted but guess what, that information dissemination model has failed. With so much disinformation accepted by so many people, it’s time to speak openly.
With so much history to examine, historians have plenty of examples of the rise and fall of nations and empires. The data show that people do stupid things, where stupid can be interpreted to mean self-destructive acts that were not the result of careful contemplation. Just take the…why bother giving examples. You can find plenty of examples. That is the interesting aspect of this problem, the reason for this post.
The least common denominator is “The least common denominator (LCD) is the smallest number that can be a common denominator for a set of fractions.”
When applied to groups of people, this concept has names like “The squeaky wheel” or the “Vocal minority.”
No matter what name is used, this group of people always wins, creating every form of government imaginable, from the monarchies of antiquity to liberal democracies. Scream loud and you will get your way, especially if you know guys with guns. There’s something about having weapons, the ability to kill other people at will, that causes the LCD (Least Common Denominator) crowd to get excited.
All societies are LCD based. Variations between global areas are nothing more than reflections of what the vocal and connected minority wants, whether its authoritarianism as in China and Russia, liberal democracy as seen in Western Europe and Australia, or anarchy as expressed in the United States. These choices and how they are instantiated are the legacy of millennia of cultural development.
In other words, there’s nothing we can do about it.
Bottom line:racism is the LCD; war is the LCD; paranoia is the LCD; fear and superstition are both LCDs; so get used to it and stop dreaming about a better world. It may come but only when the global LCD has been found and…
I don’t know what that will be…
Who knows what the New Colussus is? I certainly didn’t remember, although I’m certain that I heard about it at some point in my life, maybe high school civics class. Here it is in its entirety:
The New Colossus
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
November 2, 1883
Now I bet you recognize it, especially the last quote from the Colossus: “Give me…the wretched refuse from your teeming shore…the homeless…” This is a very nice sentiment, encapsulating the origins of so many people arriving in North America, beginning with religious zealots persecuted for their beliefs; and uneducated men and women (not needed by the pre-industrial societies of the time) signing contracts to work as indentured servants for years, arriving in the swamps of Virginia.
Naturally, they carried the memory of their previous lives into the new nation they eventually formed. I recommend a recent book called Fantasyland, by Kurt Anderson to better understand these people, the people who formed the character of America.
There’s a reason the Colossus voices her invitation. The colonists and most subsequent immigrants to America were misfits with nothing to lose. Even the wealthiest, who became the Founding Fathers, were antiauthoritarian rabble rousers who resented any power greater than their own, especially the southern slaveholders.
These personality traits became cemented in the character of every colony, later state, and then the United States. I’m not saying that a different group of colonists and immigrants wouldn’t have done the things these people did: murdering Native Americans and stealing their land; enslaving Africans kidnapped from their homes; decimating the environment, leaving scorched earth in their wake; and turning against their own government (the British Crown) over what were actually pretty minor offenses, as government’s behaved back then.
What did we think was going to happen when a national character born from fear, desperation, persecution, and superstition–reinforced by 200 years of “wretched refuse” arriving in droves–faced a challenge? Every crisis, usually of our own doing, is an opportunity to blame someone else, preferably a newer arrival.
In the words of Britney Spears, “Oops!…[we] did it again.”
Isaac Asimov had a good idea when he created the fictional science of Psychohistory. He didn’t discuss the equations used to predict the course of future events because…well…it was science fiction, but Kalev Leetaru of Google has started trying to do that. His vision is described in an excellent article available online. This is a great idea and will certainly lead to a better understanding of the behavior of societies. However, there is no theoretical basis for processing global data, looking for patterns in actions, emotions, texts, images, etc. It’s simply an empirical algorithm.
Asimov’s imagined science of Psychohistory has become a reality, but researchers in the field don’t take the approach of Leetaru and Google. It is a spin-off of social sciences, focusing on the history of childhood, psychobiography (studies of individual historical figures), and the motivation of large groups (through studies of available material that reflect unconscious thinking and behavior). Although not recognized as legitimate by most sociologists and psychologists, Psychohistory is stubbornly hanging in there. Nevertheless, this isn’t a useful way to understand societies’ cycles. For that, I will go far out on a limb, possibly into thin air.
In this essay, I plan to propose a fundamental conjecture for what happens to societies and why. My theory is based on the axioms of Psychohistory originally proposed by Asimov, with a couple added by later writers: (1) applicable to large populations; (2) the population remains ignorant of the prediction; (3) no fundamental change in society; and (4) human reactions to stimuli remain constant.
What the approaches of Google and academic Psychohistorians lack is a basic tenet for their analyses. Google analyzes big data looking for “Key words” whereas the academics are applying complex theories from psychology and psychiatry.
The basis of my approach to Psychohistory is straightforward, but it’s based on an idea that may not be fully understood by the reader.
Systems One and Two
From a functional perspective, the human brain is divided into subconscious and conscious processing operations. It isn’t easy to separate them cleanly, however, so it’s a slightly fuzzy idea. One alternative approach doesn’t treat all conscious processes the same. Some are actually functioning in support of subconscious operations. Mental processes that are dominated by, or in direct support of, subconscious processing are called System One.
System One processing is often called intuition or general knowledge. These are skills or information that you don’t have to think about to use, like how to drive a car or operate a machine. All goes well using System One, until something unexpected occurs. Accidents result. Where the conscious mind is dragged into the System One thinking is by making excuses afterward, e.g., “It’s not my fault.” This is clearly a judgement decision, but it isn’t based on analysis.
System Two doesn’t make excuses. It analyzes the options supplied by System One, balancing them against the situation that has to be dealt with, taking into account new information not yet stored in memory and thus readily available to System One. Instead of coming up with fast solutions using a heuristic process of sifting through (often incomplete) memories, it analyzes every option, weighs it, and is (typically) able to overrule System One, which has no say in the final action. At least that’s the plan. The problem is that thinking (using System Two) is slow and tedious. Sifting through all those data can be time consuming, so we skip it most of the time, settling for whatever is offered by System One.
We sometimes get carried away and make bad decisions using System One. Why does this occur? And is it predictable? These are two questions that this post is going to address.
The Evolution of Cultural Cognition Patterns
Sociology is the application of psychology to groups of people, which makes the study more statistical than studies of individuals. Thus, extrapolation of cognition style (i.e. Systems One and Two) is also going to become more averaged out in general; extreme thinking will of course exist in societies, but won’t dominate their development.
We can ask the question: Does cultural cognitive style change with the passage of time, i.e., with the generations? We need to answer this corollary question to answer the fundamental ones posed above.
There is no way of directly addressing such an abstract question, so we have to rely on inductive reasoning. For example, consider the conditions in prehistory when System One thinking would have been more advantageous than System Two. When there are no rapid changes in external factors (e.g., dramatic climate changes), there is no reason to spend much time analyzing problems. Many generations face the same environment, the same animals and plants, the same neighbors threatening them. Environmental factors are in dynamic equilibrium and analytical thinking is a waste of time.
The situation is different if something dramatic occurs, a series of events lasting several generations, which gives the group long enough to adapt new cognitive thinking patterns. Cultural evolution would have occurred, from the System One society of static times, to the System Two cognitive response during a dynamic period. All with no change to the mental capacity of the society living through these intervals.
Application to Cultural Evolution
This process is not new nor has it ended.
It is easy to imagine millennia passing with hunter-gatherer kin-based groups slowly evolving cognitively, even with no change in brain size; of course, soft-tissue changes would leave no record to be examined by anthropologists. When the rate of environmental change increased, as during documented episodic retreat and expansion of the ice sheets and associated changes in global weather, people had to think more to survive. These were stressful times, not just for one generation but for many cohorts. Consequent to changes in climate, the animal groups early humans would have interacted with were changing due to migrations in response to climate change.
The result of this stimulus-response cycle would be cognitive and cultural languishing for millennia, until something reached a tipping point, forcing System Two to become prevalent for anyone who wanted to survive. One outcome would have been episodic cultural accomplishments; e.g., new tools, horticultural, agricultural, pastoral techniques.
If the hypothesis of System Two thinking dominating societies during periods of stress and leading to cultural advancement is accepted, it is natural to ask what happens when societies fail to adapt System Two cognitive patterns in response to environmental threats. Many authors have discussed examples, but Jared Diamond’s books document societies that adapted and others that failed to do so, and subsequently disappeared. These potential cognitive and cultural states suggests the growth and decay of societies by their own decisions, supported by the archaeological and historical record.
It is not an excessive leap of imagination to identify climate change as a major driver of cultural cognitive evolution. For example, it is quite reasonable to interpret the growth of civilization during the last ten-thousand years as a single, cultural response to the most-recent warming trend of earth’s climate. Once agriculture had been invented, allowing larger population densities, there was a new environmental factor–population density. But progress hasn’t been steady because human societies are splintered and each develops more-or-less independently for most of its history. The Greek and Roman civilizations burned out after flourishing for centuries.
I use this phrase differently from neuroscientists and psychologists, who posit the concept for an individual brain. I’m borrowing it and applying it at larger scales. Just as sociology borrows from and is dependent on psychology, so Psychohistory is dependent on work by many brain researchers.
Thomas Jefferson said that a nation needs a revolution every generation. I think this was his way of expressing the need for new ideas to influence society, not a call for civil unrest. But he naively assumed that new ideas could develop without an existential threat. He didn’t understand about stress and cognition. I also think that he was stating his fear of equilibrium dominating the evolution of American society, stifling it.
Germany is an example of stress and how it can lead to good and bad outcomes. The Germans came close to Jefferson’s ideal, suffering through several radical changes in government within a century: an absolute monarchy, a constitutional monarchy, a democracy, a fascist dictator, a liberal democracy. They survived but it wasn’t fun. They innovated in response to external pressure from their European neighbors.
Alternatively we can see an example of what I call cognitive entropy in the history of China, which has not had an existential threat to its society in more than 2000 years, when a period of civil war ended. Because of this social equilibrium, the case can be made that the early technological and social advances made by China were extinguished by cultural stability. I call this an entropic process because the natural state is a cognitively homogeneous society, with local hot spots of innovation rapidly assimilated through shared cultural processes.
There is an inevitable sequence of events resulting from societal cognitive entropy:
- When a human mind is not stressed, it stops thinking using System Two. Analysis ceases. System One is sufficient to handle known environmental conditions with minimal stress.
- When System Two thinking stops, conservatism dominates: there is no need to change anything. It’s all okay. We don’t need different tools, social structures, ideas. New ideas are actually discouraged or forbidden.
- When conservatism reaches the roots of a society, progress stops because there is no perceived need for innovation. Eventually, the society will accept any bad situation, no matter how dire, because it has lost its collective ability to think with System Two. Individual warnings go unheeded.Trusted institutions are responsible for responding to increased stress.
- System One and System Two societies often alternate, especially where geographical factors are important. For example, Europe was fractured and definitely in a System Two cognitive phase during the Muslim invasions of 355-1291 CE, culminating in the independent repulsion of the Arabs by the French in the west and the Viennese in the east. The resulting stability led to the Middle Ages, a period of extreme System One thinking.
There is ample intellectual support for the concept I’m proposing. No historian has failed to glimpse, if not propose, coherent cycles of history, from nations to the world. These authors simply didn’t acknowledge the fundamental relationship between psychology, sociology, and societal development I’m advancing here. Implicit in the concept of Psychohistory.
We have answered our original questions. Cognitive decline occurs when a society is not facing an existential threat, especially from an external source. Internal sources are more difficult to identify and are less likely to be successfully challenged. This is an important difference between Germany in the late 19th and 20th century and the U.S. in the late 20th and 21st.
And is cognitive decline predictable? I think so, but not with the precision of Asimov’s Psychohistory. We’re not living in a science fiction story; but the idealogical polarization of America in the face of no existential threats, is predictable from psychohistorical axioms. In such stable times as exist today, people rely on authorities to make decisions (compare to the Middle Ages of Europe); following is easier than System Two thinking, so opinions become polarized. Ambiguity is dissolved in the clarity of partisan politics. A similar process occurs with religious and other kinds of institutions because people rely on these organizations to solve complex problems and present simple choices. Democracy at work.
Recent political events in the United States suggest that we as a nation are approaching a state of cognitive entropy. This clearly affects large fractions of society (both liberal and conservative, recalling that a political conservative is not necessarily the same as a social conservative). This process occurs despite many experts speaking in the media about the problem.
They are ignored by people who don’t want to think.
With all the arguing, political infighting, misinformation, texting, posting, name calling, screaming, protesting, not counting the side effects of Covid-19, we are revealing the strengths of our democracy. Those other people are stupid, blind, unable to see the facts, living in fantasyland, corrupt, superstitious, crazy, lazy, useless plagues on society. I agree.
This is how people with different biases, superstitious beliefs, post-apocalyptic fears, social demands, xenophobias, delusions of grandeur, and idyllic dreams get along. We don’t get along. That’s the history of our species, and every other species on earth.
We live in a nation founded on slavery, where only white men who owned land could vote. The wealthy men who wrote the Constitution didn’t even think of personal rights. They were an afterthought, and they wrote the Bill of Rights vague enough to assure their continued supremacy. But they weren’t the only selfish, egoistic, biased people in America. The lowest farmer, supported by local militia and governments, swindled the native Americans, murdered them, stole their land, ran them off at gun point. America is founded on greed. Nothing new there in the annals of history.
Fighting is easy. Thinking is hard. That was true when the disgruntled colonists started the Revolutionary War, rather than patiently waiting for their opportunity to separate from England. That was true when the North and South fought the Civil War rather than patiently working out a long-term solution. It was still true when America declared war on Spain, envious of European empires, impatient for some action. It remains true to this day, with U.S. forces still on the ground in Afghanistan and Iraq, having gained very little. It will always be true.
America is a polyglot society, so of course we are split. We’ve had a civil war, the Jim Crow era in the south, rampant capitalism, rampant economic and social inequality, rampant environmentalism, rampant political correctness, rampant racism and antiracism, you name it. It’s always been out of control in a society like America.
The United States is a carbon copy of Europe, but with a shorter record of war and rampage. Maybe we learned, maybe it was an accident that we’ve only fought one civil war. America is coming of age. With a population equal to that of Europe, we are facing crises of every sort, just as the nations of Europe did over the centuries. Instead of taking up arms to settle our disputes, starting two global conflagrations, we are fighting on social media and in the courts.
No matter what the outcome of the election, no matter how ambiguous the result, no matter how long it takes to determine America’s next President (not King), there is no revolution brewing. Of course there is the anarchist fringe that likes to play with guns. Those people never started a revolution in the history of the world. Lenin wasn’t an anarchist, but an intellectual elitist with a devoted cadre of followers.
We act like we live in a banana republic at times, but that is only the result of minds with too little to do, and too much entertainment. We have too many pundits, too many religions, too many investigative journalists, too many think tanks, too many whistle blowers, too many guns, too many leaks, too much security, too much food, too much freedom for government to hide its mistakes in the guise of national security. Too much bullshit.
While drowning in verbal and digital sewage, we can hold our heads up and declare that no one has found a better way to form so many people, from so many cultural and ethnic origins, into a working democracy.
America isn’t heaven, but more like purgatory, not because of our Constitution, not because of conservatives, not because of liberals, not because of people of color, not because of immigrants, not because of lazy people, not even because of assholes. It seems like hell sometimes because of our diversity, too many idiots and lunatics, people who don’t think the same we do.
We should all remember that it could be bad. We could be living in China, North Korea, Russia, Venezuela; all countries with relatively homogeneous populations. Look how they turned out.
The author, Joel Garreau, proposed that America is splintering in his 1981 book, The Nine Nations of North America. It was an interesting analysis, but he was wrong. There are fifty nations in America, each state jealously guarding its sovereignty agains the other states and the Federal Government. We have a revolution every two years, as declared in the Constitution, when we vote.
So rant away if it makes you feel better, but don’t forget to vote.
This book is still considered one of the classics in political science, despite being written 190 years ago by a man who spent only six months in the newly formed republic. He put his time to good use, however, traveling the entire country and speaking to everyone, from congressmen and presidential advisors (he comments that it was very easy to speak to powerful people), to families living in log cabins on the frontier. Tocqueville was a very-well educated man from an aristocratic family that survived the French Revolution with their estate intact because his grandfather had supported the purpose of the revolution if not its methods (he survived the counter-revolution as well).
This book is filled with quotable thoughts which Tocqueville develops carefully using long sentences, but short paragraphs. It was translated from French (even though Tocqueville was fluent in English) using his original notes to assure an accurate translation. There are copious footnotes, both by the author and the translator, and it is as complete a treatise on the American psyche as you will find, even to this day. I haven’t read anything in the recent books I’ve read that adds substantially to his basic conclusion, which is encapsulated in the last sentence of the book:
“Nations of our day cannot have it that conditions within them are not equal; but it depends on them whether equality leads them to servitude or freedom, to enlightenment or barbarism, to prosperity or misery.”
This quote is representative of his writing style, which I enjoy for the way it flows. The entire book presents very complex ideas about the relationship between freedom and equality in what he considered to be the most unique nation in the world. He frankly discusses the strengths and weaknesses of what he found in America and the picture is not necessarily pleasant for an American to read, but it is brutally honest and most of his conclusions are still true today. Of course, as with any book written almost two-hundred years ago, it cannot predict many of the changes that have occurred, but he doesn’t really try to make predictions. In fact, I’d say that more than 75% of his analysis is still applicable.
Well worth reading, but don’t expect a quick read because it’s 676 pages in length. One last word: the table of contents is very detailed and the chapter titles explanatory, so topics of interest can be readily located. It’s almost as if he wanted it to be browsed randomly rather than read cover to cover.
I read this book because it was written by a liberal legal philosopher I was trying to understand (see the previous review) and it promised to discuss the author’s theory of equality with specific examples from recent political developments. I was disappointed after all because, although it does discuss several topics that are still controversial, it doesn’t present very many insights I hadn’t already heard about.
The first thing I would say about this book is that Dworkin has a point about the inability of Americans to discuss controversial issues without acting like children and getting mad. He is correct in being skeptical that this situation can be addressed without something really dire occurring.
The second point is that he is fair and balanced, presenting the conservative view so well that, in most cases, it could almost convince one to change their opinion on many topics. Unfortunately, this is the case because he invokes what he considers statements of fact which are not facts at all, but only his beliefs stated as facts. Not very convincing.
Overall, it is a good, fairly short, discussion of several important topics: Terrorism and human rights; religion and dignity; and taxes and legitimacy. These are timeless and will always be disputed. But if the reader is looking for an original and thorough discussion of whether democracy can survive in America, this is not the book for you.
This is a book I read in my study of legal theory as part of my interest in law and philosophy. It was first published in 2000 and some of the examples from American jurisprudence are a bit dated. This is a difficult book to read because, like other legal scholars, the author is long winded. Many of the paragraphs consist of one sentence and I had to read a third of the book twice to recall the topic. Dworkin lists a lot of “principles” and “arguments”, etc., which can get confusing. There must be hundreds used in the book. Punctuation is also not great; sometimes he throws commas at the text in unexpected places and then neglects them for short stretches. I’m kind of a nitpicker about commas because I expect them to introduce prepositional phrases and the like and, when they are missing, I have to reread the entire sentence (a task made more difficult by the long sentences).
The author takes 473 pages to make his point: Every human should be the best they can be in order to have self-respect and thus respect others; and they are responsible for their decisions and must live with the consequences. The book title doesn’t refer to the virtue of kings and other governments, but rather to the sovereignty of every individual over their own life. One method by which this lofty goal can be achieved, he suggests, is by an equal distribution of resources. He attempts to explain how this can be accomplished by use of an insurance analog for programs like unemployment and health insurance. He presents this idea in terms almost as abstract as John Rawls (See my review of “A Theory of Justice”) but he spends about a third of the book applying his conception to such programs in contemporary America. I didn’t find his arguments as convincing as he does, however, and I doubt that people with a different point of view would be won over. There are a lot of bold statements of what he considers obvious facts about human behavior, of which I’ve seen little evidence outside of academic institutions.
Ronald Dworkin wrote this book in his ivory tower at Harvard University and, although his theory does make sense from a rational perspective, it strikes me as being inapplicable to a nation like the United States, not because of his liberal (he defines this differently than most modern liberals) tendencies but because it assumes that a rational discourse is possible between people who actually accept his premise of the natural right of every individual to be given a fair chance to succeed, and those who do not. I can’t recommend it unless you want to hammer basic ideas about political philosophy into your thick head as I’m attempting to do. As an aside, I finished the course book for the first-year course on Civil Procedure; if the writing skill of those authors could be applied to theoretical and thought-provoking ideas like those Dworkin presents, people might actually read these books from cover to cover.
Let’s get the banal part of the review over first. This book is twice as long as it needed to be. The author is long winded, repetitive, and doesn’t appear to know why we use commas in prose. I had to read at least a third of it twice to understand his meaning. As a sidebar, I bought a used copy which had been read (partly) by at least one other person. Their marks ceased at less than half-way through the text. This is not a book for the casual reader.
Having said that, this is an important book, not because of its eloquence (which is negligible) but because the author has successfully presented the first theory of a “well ordered society” since Plato’s Republic. My impression is that John Rawls was tired of Utilitarianism as an approach to how to run a society. Briefly, Utilitarianism is an approach to organizing a society so that the overall good of the total population is maximized without regard to individual rights. This is the paradigm applied throughout the world today. If any particular person or group’s needs are in the way of maximizing GDP or some other arcane socioeconomic index, that’s your tough luck. You get run over by the bus. Believe it or not, that is the world we live in. John Rawls shows this model to be a myth that was accepted because it didn’t require too much thought. I guess he was so frustrated with the state of affairs in the sixties (the first edition was published in 1971) that he dedicated himself to creating an alternative…almost from scratch.
If you read this expecting to see a critique of American democracy, you will be disappointed. Although it is obvious that this is a “thought exercise” about what might have been going through the minds of the framers of the U.S. Constitution, and argued about throughout the colonies, it is not a discussion of American democracy.
This is a purely theoretical work. Rawls starts from the idea of a society constructed from nothing, what he terms the Original Position, in which the framers know nothing about their position in the society they are creating. Using the dialectic of moral philosophy, he proposes what he terms the principles of justice. It is worth mentioning these: the first and paramount principle is that every person has a right to liberty, which cannot be abrogated or in any way reduced; the second principle is that everyone has an opportunity to advance their status, no matter what their original status is. Using this simple ideas, he constructs a model of a “well ordered society,” which is the basis for his development of the theory of “Justice as Fairness.”
The book has three parts, and I must confess that I didn’t understand any of them until I had read the last section. It lays out the basic design of a “well ordered society,” based on the two principles I listed above. Despite his circular reasoning (unavoidable in philosophy I suppose), he makes a convincing argument that his theory is sound; he then puts meat on the bones (so to speak) of his basic theory and discusses the kinds of institutions necessary for a “well ordered society.” All of this is theoretical. He finally discusses the problems with such an imagined society because of the weakness of the human mind and spirit. The last chapters kind of negate the entire theory because he acknowledges and then dismisses this simple fact: people are not rational and too many of us are cheaters.
Nevertheless, the theory of “Justice as Fairness” does suggest how human frailty can be overcome in a “well ordered society” through the proper training of people from birth (no, he does not advocate state-run orphanages, although he does briefly mention it). He offers solid psychological alternatives to taking children away from their parents although they don’t sound too promising to me. I hadn’t imagined how poor our understanding of society was until I read this book; like everyone else, I thought that we were operating on something more than Utilitarian principles like “Don’t get in the way,” until I read this. Rawls’ vision may be utopian but so was the vision of a constitution and liberal democracy in the eighteenth century.
To finish, I will repeat what I’ve learned over the years: if you want to understand something, you have to repeat it again and again, and then maybe you will remember at least the basics. This book is good for that: I cannot avoid thinking of the “well ordered society” and how my country stands up. It doesn’t look too good from where I’m sitting.