27 March 2014

The end of spontaneous order?

In a column at least partly inspired by the Ukraine/Crimea crisis, David Brooks writes: "The primary problem of politics is not creating growth. It’s creating order." This is a lesson only newly learned by many people, and it goes against the libertarian logic of recent times. The sentence I just quoted looks to me like a direct refutation of the libertarian theory of spontaneous order, at least as applied to the economic and political realms. For many, the presumption has been that order follows growth -- that commerce generates the institutions of civil society upon which a rule of law is built. According to this logic, the fall of Communism in Russia should not have ended up with someone like Vladimir Putin in power. The error of that thinking, Brooks argues now, is that people presumed that economic liberalization was enough. In his words:

We tend to assume that the primary problems of politics are economic and that the injustices of the world can be addressed with economic levers. When empires like the Soviet Union collapse, we send in economists with privatization plans instead of cops to help create rule of law. 

Brooks is impressed by a recent book, The Locust Effect, that illustrates how lawless much of the world remains. In many places there are far fewer police, far fewer prosecutors, far fewer lawyers per capita than in the U.S. While those stats may make some American envious, Brooks notes that these shortages make it extremely difficult for poor people in particular to seek, much less get justice. His implication is that the sort of civil society idealized by liberals and libertarians alike can't get off the ground unless a strong rule of law, with the emphasis on law enforcement, already exists. In too many countries, he suggests, the rule of law is only a pretense and the legal system "is there to protect the regime from the people." The "regime" can be statist or plutocratic; the main point is that in such places "the well-connected want a legal system that can be bought and sold."

As usual, we can find the weak point in Brooks's argument in his assumption that the west is significantly superior to the more benighted places from the standpoint of justice. Our quantitative superiority in the categories he mentions is indisputable, but it doesn't guarantee a qualitative superiority so long as any number of police or prosecutors can be bought and sold. When Brooks writes, to close his column, that "unless cruelty is tamed, poverty will persist," some may think he hits closer to home than Russia or the Third World. Brooks is mainly concerned with what The Locust Effect calls "the relentless threat of violence" that prevails in much of the developing world, and his assumption is that New York Times readers "may fear job loss or emotional loss" but "are probably not buffeted by daily waves of physical terror." On some level he's right, but he also quite typically underrates the level of "terror" in a declining capitalist society where no rule of law can guarantee that you won't be laid off tomorrow at the will of powers no less arbitrary, despite pretenses to the contrary, than the archetypal despot. Brooks isn't wrong about the need for a rule of law in more countries, and for a Republican he seems ahead of the curve for recognizing the dependence of rule of law on what can only be described as strong government with strong bureaucracy. I just wonder how much farther he'd be willing to go if someone suggested that the U.S. itself needed more rule of law, or a kind of order more capable of keeping the law from being captured by the well-connected. Whether he'd agree or not, I think he'd concede that it won't just happen by itself. We have to will the order we want into being, against the will of others if necessary.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The problem with "spontaneous order" is that it is likely to disappear as spontaneously as it appeared. Libertarians are just plain stupid.