February 23, 2011

Promoting freedom and influence around the world

Abolishing dictatorships
That several peoples in several North African and Middle Eastern countries are revolting against their dictators seems a good thing to me. I think all people desire for freedom and influence and all countries deserve and are potentially capable of democratic self-rule. I am convinced that the liberation of these countries will not only free the peoples of those countries but also make peace in the region and in the world at large more likely. Why? Because I think that the tendency towards war usually (perhaps always) begins with tyranny; the threat of war seems like the fuel on which tyranny runs. Whenever non-democratic leaders face opposition from the people they attempt to neutralize this by creating fear and control. The reliable way to do this is to create the threat of war with self-created external enemies. This way they legitimatize the enforcement of loyalty. This may explain why dictators often routinely use a language of hate and violence up to the point of threatening to wipe out complete nations. So yes, not only am I glad for those peoples who now seem to be beginning to liberate themselves I am also glad for the rest of us because the world may eventually become a bit more peaceful.

Freedom and capitalism
Freedom should never be taken for granted anywhere, even in the Free West. Tim Kasser, professor of psychology at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, USA, has written a chapter in Human Autonomy in Cross-Cultural Context named Capitalism and Autonomy. By many, capitalism is thought to be the best thinkable system for promoting individual freedom. But is that so? Capitalism focuses on facilitating the pursuit of self-interest in a free market and the accumulation of capital and other forms of private property. Within Anglo-capitalism, the following things are seen as beneficial and necessary: competition between people, maximizing profit in the service of shareholder interest, national economic growth, globalization to create new markets, and advertising to inform consumers.

Kasser explains that certain values underlying the Anglo-capitalism as it has evolved into its neo-liberal form conflict with the value of individual freedom. He says that self-interest has come to mean wealth and status and praise for one’s reputation and the free market has come to mean a system that prizes competition and economic growth and profit and consumption. Because of this, extrinsic values and goals seem to have become rather central in Anglo-capitalism which conflicts with autonomy. Kasser cites research which shows that beliefs in materialism, competition and self-interest are associated with feelings of pressure and coercion and are hard to internalize and generally do not feel like free choices.

The chapter mentions examples of how Anglo-capitalism encourages certain behaviors which do not promote autonomy such as working long hours (and thus have little free time), watching television and shopping. Also, he cites research which shows that embracing Anglo-capitalist values makes autonomy undermining behaviors more likely such as being less empathic, nurturant and unconditionally accepting, acting more competitively and less cooperatively, having more Machiavellian, manipulative, and socially dominant attitudes and more authoritarian and even racist attitudes and antisocial activities. Finally, the institutional practices of capitalism can interfere with autonomy. An example is how at a micro level there are lots of options (different types of cars to choose from) while at a macro level there are no options (not having a choice of owning a car or using safe public transportation).

Finetuning capitalism
That the rhetoric of capitalism is about freedom does not guarantee that it will indeed result in the amount of freedom it promises. It seems wise to rethink certain assumptions underlying neo-liberal capitalism. We  certainly don’t have to get rid of capitalism as such but we might fine-tune it and make it less focused on competition, profit, economic growth, materialism, status, advertising and hierarchy.


  1. Capitalism is just a beautiful idea, like Communism. It's implementation ranges from OK to very bad.

    I live in a country where the implementation of capitalism lead to a form of plutocracy. The people are given the illusion of control at each election. They are given the illusion of a free market. Some business manage to succeed, others fall under the pressure of corruption.

    Auto-efficacy in the general public is very low and we are seeing now an exodus of the higher level professionals. To give you an idea, a friend working as an assistant professor at a local university received a payment for her January services of about 93 EUROs. That's what she got after taxes, pension, healthcare, etc.
    93 EUROs for the ENTIRE month. :)

  2. That's really a shame, I agree. We should continue to look critically at our economic and political systems.

  3. My view is that there is insufficient awareness, at least at local level. This allows a lot of HUGE monsters to fly under the radar.

    There are these 3 levels of cooperation that I learned about from an author I found in one of your interviews (Fletcher Peacock): Visitor, Complainant, Customer.
    Right now I think my country is at Complainant level and a better monitoring and assessment of the situation would benefit us. Seeking exceptions, finding competencies, etc.

  4. I think well functioning systems take time to evolve. The process often seems like a matter of keeping on stumbling in the right direction. For it to succeed I think there has to be bottom up (from within the country) and top down (from the international community) guidance, help and -if needed- pressure

  5. I know it takes time. We've been waiting some 20 years since the fall of communism for things to get better. They did get better, somehow.
    I mean, I still vividly remember the "I'm doing you a favor" smile of the seller from the bread department that gave me 3 loaves of bread instead of 2.5 (5 family members at .5 loaf of bread per day) or waking up at 4 to go stand in line to buy milk because waking up later would mean that you wouldn't find any. I've got an uncle who got reasonably rich by doing contraband with meat (he worked in a meat packing factory). :) This is all past now, long forgotten past.

    The problem here is corruption and a failure in the higher levels of Justice. This creates a huge freedom for abuse of power.

    Anyway... there is hope. The middle class is waking up, more and more people are falling in love with entrepreneurship, especially in the social entrepreneurship arena.

  6. I think there are many countries which have the same problem, corruption is is widely spread throughout their system that it is hard to make progress.

    I am curious about examples of countries which have freed themselves from this trap. How did they do it?

  7. Yeah, a taxonomy of solutions would be amazing.

    The first two countries that come to mind are Estonia and Singapore.

    In both, leadership seamed to be the key. Both are quite small.


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